Thank you very much.
Should we change the way we vote in Canada? This is the principal question that's occupying this committee. It appears to me that the committee has decided that reform is inevitable. This is apparent in the unwillingness of most parties to consider a referendum on any proposed systems, as such referendums are hard to win. It's perhaps apparent too in the testimony before the committee, for while there's been refreshingly broad, evidence-based, informative testimony, there's been little in defence of the status quo.
Today I hope to make four observations, and my overall objective in making these observations is to induce some pause among members of this committee and your colleagues. I hope you will reflect on and give equal weight to the known benefits and drawbacks of our current system, as you do the known and unknown benefits and drawbacks of other systems.
My four observations are the following: first, there is a potential upside to electoral reform, but it seems limited; second, the downsides to electoral reform are unknown and potentially substantial; third, Canadian democracy already functions—well, perhaps; and fourth, for most of the problems ailing our democracy, there are potential fixes at hand that do not require fundamental institutional change.
Taken together, these observations suggest that the committee should not engage in wholesale reform of our electoral system. Instead, I argue, it should consider and recommend smaller, targeted reforms that might address the problems that currently beset our political system.
My first observation is that there is a potential upside to electoral reform, but it is limited. The best evidence we have for this are the many well-constructed cross-national studies that seek to isolate and identify the empirical effects of electoral systems on various outcomes of interest. The basic conclusion, following testimony already given by André Blais, is that in PR systems turnout is higher, though by not much more than three percentage points on average. Citizens also feel elections have been more fairly conducted in PR systems. Those are the benefits.
On the other hand, PR systems do not eliminate the need for or the rate of strategic voting; they merely induce a different kind. They've asked voters to make other compromises, in other words. Most importantly, while PR systems may broaden representation, they do not improve the match of policy outcomes and citizens' preferences. What Blais did not note, Leslie Seidle and others have in their presentations, which is that electoral reform would likely increase gender balance in our Parliament, and in my estimation this is an unalloyed, unqualified good.
My own reading of the literature is that claims about greater economic performance, better fiscal management, and better policy are probably attributable to factors other than the electoral system. Of course, advocates of PR systems might argue that such studies somehow underestimate the benefits or the good effects of PR. I think it's a reasonable objection that cross-national, econometric estimates don't tell the whole story. A reasonable alternative approach would be to look to a country very similar to our own that has experienced a change in electoral systems, and observe the pre-reform and post-reform averages on several outcomes of interest. By doing so, we could perhaps say something about how electoral reform might change the politics of a country.
New Zealand, of course, provides such a case, for obvious reasons: it shares a colonial heritage with Canada and it has a long history of uninterrupted democratic rule, with power alternating between a small number of single parties that regularly commanded majority governments. In 1996, after a series of referendums, New Zealand moved to a mixed member proportional system and has held seven elections under this system since then.
I'll point interested readers to my written submission, in which I go through the data in more detail, but I'll list the top-line results. Electoral reform increased the effective number of parties in New Zealand, both the effective number of parties contesting elections and the number of parties winning seats. That's an unquestioned result. It also marginally increased the average number of parties in government, though it now seems that single-party governments are the norm. It certainly didn't induce large, broad coalitions after elections. It did not increase voter turnout or even arrest the decline in voter turnout in New Zealand, and it did not increase citizens' expressions of democratic satisfaction. Rather, these appear to have declined under the new system. The number of women elected in the last election is just five percentage points greater than in the last election in Canada.
For the things that matter, there is more difference between countries that share an electoral system than there is in the average across electoral systems. In short, PR systems make some things better, but they're hardly a cure-all.
My second observation is that there is some downside to reform, or at a minimum, there are some likely effects that could be normatively undesirable. It's for the committee to decide whether these things are normatively undesirable, but there are some likely effects.
First, reform will create a potentially permanent role for small regional parties. I'm happy to expand on that.
Second, small parties will potentially have outsized influence in government. If it is objectionable that a single party can hold 100% of government power with 40% of the vote, why is it okay that a party with 10% of the vote might hold 20% of the government power? It's a normative question, but it's one that should be answered.
Third, there will be increased incentives for political entrepreneurs to exploit social divisions. Some comparative data is helpful on this matter. If we compare the 15 western countries with the greatest foreign-born populations, we'll find in the last election in each country that the average vote share for parties in favour of reducing legal immigration is 3.5% in majoritarian countries; in PR countries, it's 8.7%. The average seat share of such parties that want to reduce legal immigration is 0.1% in majoritarian countries; it is 10% in PR countries.
Finally, a proportional system will invite greater government instability, in which governments survive for shorter periods of time and in which governments are more regularly introduced without an election. Whether this is normatively desirable is an open question; the empirical regularity is not.
My third observation is that Canadian democracy functions well. My own reading of testimony to the special committee and questioning by the special committee has suggested that the functioning of Canadian democracy has not been sufficiently appreciated.
Certainly there's much with which we can take some issue. Our country has experienced one-party dominance rivalled only by Sweden and Japan. We have, as in most other countries in the world, experienced significant decline in our rates of voter participation, though this saw a large correction in the last election. Perhaps most importantly, we do frequently experience parties winning outsized majorities on much less than the majority of the ballots cast. None of these are particularly good things, and they're all certainly well rehearsed as critiques.
What's noted much less frequently are at least four measures on which our democracy has performed well.
First, our democracy has experienced more than 40 federal elections in dozens of peaceful transitions of power, both between leaders from different parties and between leaders within federal parties. This is a basic standard of democracy, and it's one that sets Canada apart from most other democracies. Indeed, Canada's run of uninterrupted democratic rule is among the longest in the world, surpassed by fewer than a handful of other countries.
Second, by the standards of their times, our elections have been fairly and freely conducted and our franchise has been liberally composed. Save the Canadian Pacific scandal and relatively pedestrian turnout buying in early elections, Canada's democracy has been a model of well-run elections.
Third, our democracy performs well in the political representation of minorities and indigenous peoples, especially compared to Anglo-American counterparts, and I refer you to Leslie Seidle's testimony in his written submission on that point. More historically, our political parties have a long track record of representing the broad diversity of our country, whether linguistic, confessional, or ethnic, without the emergence of explicitly ethnic or confessional parties. I wish to note especially that this has happened against the backdrop of founding groups and later waves of immigrants, who at various times viewed each other as unfit for common purpose and interaction. Put starkly, our country has long held the potential to be a tinderbox of identity. For the most part, we've avoided all but the smallest of fires.
On this, much has been made of the point that we are not Italy or Israel. This cannot mean that we are not a country that is characterized by competing economies, often deep religious and ethnic differences, and different ways of life. I assume that those who make this argument must mean that despite having the makings of a deeply divided and dysfunctional polity, we are not one. Our electoral system just might have something to do with that.
Fourth, our country has a long record of protecting the rights of minority groups. In more recent years, this has largely been the work of the charter, but before its advent it is still the case that protections were extended often because of an electoral logic. At other times they were extended because of the goal of broad coalition-building that is the norm within our political parties.
My fourth observation, and I'll close on this, is that for most of the problems ailing our democracy, there are potential fixes at hand that do not require fundamental institutional change. I wish the committee would take at once a broad and modest approach to reforming our democratic institutions.
There are, to be sure, shortcomings in our system. There are turnouts that are lower than we like. We don't yet have an even balance between female and male members of Parliament. Party leaders seem perhaps too strong vis-à-vis their members. Local party members don't enjoy real control over the selection of candidates. Parliamentary committees are sometimes weak and sometimes have neither the time nor the capacity to properly study and deliberate over policy.
This list is not exhaustive, yet there are potential solutions at hand for all of these problems, and they do not require a fundamental change to a central institution. Instead, the committee and the members' parties can explore a number of changes to parliamentary procedure, administrative law, and party rules that could address some or all of these problems. It seems more judicious to engage in a systematic and iterative process of improving our democratic institutions than it does to engage in wholesale reform.
Our electoral system is a central democratic institution. It exists in concert with a myriad of other institutions. It informs our politics not only through its rules, but also through the norms and practices which have evolved alongside and within it. We should carefully consider not only the upsides and drawbacks of reform but also the merits of our current system. On balance it is a system worth keeping.
Thank you very much.