Thanks for inviting me to come, and I want to begin by applauding the government for bringing this issue forward and by applauding the parties that are supporting it.
This is a little bit about me.
I've worked on this topic for almost three decades. I've written two books and many research papers on the topic. My research is focused on real-world experience and results with different voting systems, and the historical and contemporary processes of reforming political institutions such as voting systems. I've also researched related topics on voter registration, voter turnout, youth participation, and the representation of social diversity and Canadian democratization more broadly.
I also have some practical experience in organizing elections as a former deputy district electoral officer in British Columbia. I was second in charge of organizing a riding for the purposes of a provincial election, hiring 300 people and training them to do the election day stuff, so I have a bit of practical insight as well as academic insight into voting systems.
We've heard from many people that there is no perfect voting system, but that doesn't mean there aren't imperfect ones, like first past the post, particularly from a democratic point of view. We call our system a representative democracy, but first past the post fails to represent effectively. It misrepresents the popular support for parties. It leaves over half of the voters contributing to the election of no one. It typically results in a minority of voters dominating majorities. It limits political competition. I mean, with such lousy representation, how democratic can the system be?
The reason is that the system was not designed to be democratic. Its origins are in the pre-democratic era, and it has been kept in place for electoral self-interest. Canadians have struggled to make their system democratic despite these institutional barriers. Proportional representation systems, by contrast, were designed to represent voters effectively, even if the motives of reformers were not always democratic.
My brief, which I've submitted to the committee, argues that the way we talk about reform tends to structure the debate that follows, and we've seen three views emerge since this process started. One of them frames the question as an issue of the Constitution and the need for a referendum. Another one argues that voting systems are just a matter of taste: it depends what you like, what you prefer. The last one argues that voting systems are quintessentially a matter of democratic reform, and I argue that only the last view is really credible.
Now, I'm not going to go into all the details of the brief. I want to sketch out the broad themes, and I can certainly expand on any of these issues in the question-and-answer period.
With regard to the constitutional arguments, there is no merit to them. We have seen a range of views, from the uninformed to the ridiculous, and the rapidity with which they are appearing in the media signals a kind of desperation from the right-wing think tanks that are sponsoring them. The referendum arguments are often clothed in a veneer of democratic rhetoric, but they are also weak and contradictory. Normatively, referendums should be restricted to situations in which voters can become reasonably informed to be able to participate in the discussions. Canadian provincial referendums on voting systems have shown this not to be possible.
Referendum advocates would have us believe that referendums will lead to reasoned debates and decisions on this question, but evidence suggests otherwise. The research on referendums, both Canadian and comparative, shows that the way that voters deal with issue complexity is to reject the process entirely. When people have rejected different options, it's often because they have no clue as to what they're being asked. In many cases, they didn't even know a referendum was going on.
The referendum arguments are themselves internally inconsistent. We are led to believe we must have at least a majority to change our voting system, but a government that represents 39% of the population is okay to make all of the decisions in the interim. Why is there a majority for one question but not the other? It seems to me that if a majority is the ultimate test of decision-making, then it should be applied in all democratic situations.
Finally, as I will spell out in a moment, I think this issue is one of voter equality, and you don't put equality rights to a vote.
Now let us go on to the idea that voting systems are a matter of competing values and outcome preferences—a matter of taste.
There are two key problems with this argument. First of all, voters are not well informed about any of our political institutions and thus do not really have tastes about them. For instance, in two different surveys done 10 years apart, voters were asked if a majority government reflected a majority of the Canadian population, and they argued that it did. A majority of them said it does, when in fact I think everybody here knows that they almost never do.
Voters cope with political complexity through proxies, the parties that they support. When a party complains about something, then the public usually wants answers. If a party is fine with things, then the voters are usually fine. I think it's foolish to pretend otherwise. Voters have fairly informed views about the broad themes of politics that they prefer, but the details and the institutions are unavoidably an elite process.
The other problem with voting systems as a matter of taste is that it flattens out the values and makes them all equal, when in fact I think we should privilege democratic choices and disallow undemocratic ones. The problem with making a choice for majority governments as a value is that it suggests that's okay. It's okay for a minority of people to impose their views on the majority. I just don't see how you can make that a democratic argument. There are lots of arguments in favour of our system; they're just not democratic ones.
Therefore, instead of looking at voting systems as a matter of choice where all choices are equal, we need to judge our voting systems against what Canadians are trying to do with their voting system. In this case, I think the evidence suggests that they are trying to get their political views represented, so we need a system that will do that most effectively.
Voting systems as democratic reform start from a realistic sense of what voters are trying to do when they vote, and here we know from a mountain of evidence that voters vote party, as opposed to, say, voting for a local representative. Even when voters say they're voting for a local representative, we discover they're actually voting for the party, yet in trying to get those party results, our current voting system privileges geography, though geography is not the basis informing that vote. Thus proximate voters—voters who live close to each other—are privileged by our system, while dispersed voters are discriminated against.
This violates the voters' rights to have their votes count equally. This issue actually affects all parties. Voters of all parties find themselves marooned in different parts of the country, unable to make common cause with voters who agree with the kinds of things they would like to see represented. This leads to wasted votes, distorted representation of parties, and typically a legislative majority government that a majority of Canadians do not actually support.
This is wrong, because it's undemocratic, it's unrepresentative, and it violates some basic democratic notions of majority rule. Again, we do it this way not because of preferences or the Constitution, but because historically self-interested parties have kept it that way. Attempts to defend it involve contorted and convoluted arguments that frankly are unsupported by facts.
Let me conclude. I would argue that this committee's job is to move forward and just recommend that the government change our voting system to a proportional system. The only real barrier is political will. The government has a majority, and we have parties that represent a majority of Canadians whose parties supported this issue. I think there are plenty of reasons for the government to move forward, and here I would argue that the government shouldn't really worry about critics, because I think the critics' arguments are mostly politically self-interested. We've had a number of commentators suggest that there will be public outrage if there's not a referendum, but frankly, the only people who are outraged are the ones who are writing such editorials.
In moving forward, I think the government's voting system choice should be informed by facts, not speculation. This is key, because most discussion today is focused on myth, distortion, and outright speculative made-up nonsense. There is plenty of real-world experience with proportional representation to draw from for us to understand how this would affect Canadian politics, but comparisons should be with countries that are comparable to Canada—in other words, western Europe and New Zealand, not Italy and Israel, which are countries that have very distinct political histories and political situations that are very different from Canada's.
If we do that, if we take seriously an evidence-based approach, then just about every complaint about proportional representation can be shown to be without support. Whether we're talking about complexity, instability, too much stability, lack of local influence, etc., all these things can be shown to be without foundation.
Also, we could spend some time talking about the many good things that change would bring in moving to a proportional system. We could highlight how a change to any proportional system would immediately increase political competition. It would lead to changes in voter turnout. It would lead to improvements in the representation of our diversity, and it would end the policy lurch that we see presently with our alternation in government.
I'm happy to expand on all these things in the question-and-answer period.