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UK Coalition government: some possible lessons on electoral reform for Canada

If you’ve been out all day, the UK Conservative Party is now in power, with their leader David Cameron as the new British Prime Minister. They achieved that only by forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Their leader Nick Clegg has become Deputy Prime Minister, with a few other Liberals getting cabinet posts (to be announced), and some give and take from each party on the platform of the coalition government, which we will find out in detail soon.

It’s tempting to apply this to the Canadian situation from a number of angles (such as the fact that coalition governments can be used in a Westminster parliamentary system – by a Conservative Party no less – and can be done so without the charge that it is undemocratic), but I’m going to focus on the interesting one for me; the fact that the 2 parties met each other half way on the electoral reform question. The Conservatives were dead-set against any change to the First Past The Post System, while the Liberal Democrats were demanding a change to a voting system that involved some form of Proportional representation – specifically a referendum to be asked on the question to the British public.

In the end, the 2 parties compromised; there will be a referendum at some point on changing the FPTP system to an Alternative Voting (AV) System – also called the IRV voting system, or Instant Runoff Voting. It is not a directly proportional system, but it’s still better in my view then sticking with the FPTP system, and I applaud the 2 parties for seeing the need to compromise on this issue and at least offering a referendum on a voting model that still is better then FPTP in my view.

It would be a lesson some of my friends at Fair Vote Canada would do well to heed. Here in Canada, we have had 3 different provinces decisively reject PR proposed voting models, and while IRV is not what the folks at FVC want (it would seem some of them oppose this system more vehemently then FPTP) and is the most incremental change of the voting reform proposals, it is obvious that a large chunk of the Canadian electorate is not ready to accept any form of Proportional Representation based voting systems.

Recognizing that reality and showing some flexibility and compromise would be a good first step for the FVC folks in getting their dreams for electoral reform recognized (and let’s be frank; there’s no real guarantee that even this incremental change will be accepted by the Canadian public, or the British public for that matter – but I think baby steps have to be encouraged, rather then asking the public to take a giant leap of faith).

[email protected]:32pm: Here are some details that have leaked out on the terms of agreement between the 2 parties on the new coalition government’s platform – to be officially confirmed yet, of course.

UPDATE [email protected] 11:14 pm: Another list of the coalition platform from here – and here’s a key one:

an entirely or mainly elected second chamber

That means of course reforming the unelected appointed House of Lords. The exact method of voting in the “Lords” yet to be determined, though rumors beforehand indicated the Conservatives weren’t objecting to something like STV being used to elect “Lords” in the Upper Chamber.

(h/t Matt via his Twitter account)

UPDATE 3 @ May 12, 10:41 am: One of the BBC’s political news correspondents has said today that a form of PR will be used to elect the House of Lords.


17 comments to UK Coalition government: some possible lessons on electoral reform for Canada

  • The practical case against the Instant Run-off Vote (the Alternative Vote)

    Fair Vote Canada has produced a carefully documented explanation of why the Alternative Vote, used in Australian lower house elections, is no solution for Canada’s democratic deficit.

    I won’t attempt to summarize it, since its four pages are concise already.

    But I’ll sound a practical note on why IRV, or AV, doesn’t suit our situation. (See blog post above.)

  • james smith

    The Senate in Canada can’t just be elected otherwise nothing will ever get done in Ottawa (maybe a good thing?) Senate reform needs a full blown Constitutional arrangement with the provinces not to mention public participation; so good luck with that.
    I don’t like PR or IRV. The reason many countries have runoff elections is they provide voters with a method of picking a candidate by majority rules.
    Why not have runoffs in Canada one week after an election? The machinery is bought & paid for, the additional cost would be minimal. With an advertising & poll blackout for the next week voters would have seen what the potential resulting government’s make-up might be. With a week to mull over the results folks would have a chance to decide who they would best like as MP & by default PM by having runoff elections.
    I can see why Greens & Dippers might not like this as these parties may no longer be the great parking lot of uninformed unmotivated wish-washy voters.


    • @james smith, Pierre Trudeau took almost 20 years to repatriate the Constitution.. so I dont care if it takes that long to electorally reform the Senate.. but the process (constitutionally) should be started by someone brave and patient enough to see the long picture.

      • james smith

        @Scott Tribe,
        I used to agree with that POV, but not anymore. An elected Senate would be as powerful as the House, the result would be no government could get an agenda moved along. The federal gov. would become an after thought, & provinces would rule a more fractured nation. Just kill the thing.

        • @james smith, There is no reason not to keep the Senate’s powers as is in an elected format; ie. it can only delay money bills, etc.

          I have proposed a further modification for other bills that the Senate and House of Commons cannot agree on or on proposed amendments – it is a modification of the Australian bicameral setup. After a set number of times of passing the bill back and forth without being able to agree on it, have the Governor-General declare a joint session of Parliament, where the combined #’s of the House and Senate will vote up or down the bill and any proposed amendments to it. The joint vote’s results will be the final say on the bill’s fate (and any amendments that have been proposed in either chamber)

  • Red Forever

    Isn’t this UK, coalition illegal, immoral, illegitimate, and evil?

    Is it not a circumventing of democracy?

    Did Cameron campaign on forming an illegal coalition?

    Why could Harper not bring himself to use the word coalition when congratulating Cameron?

    This coalition is an outrage.

    We must immediately start plans to invade the UK, and liberate them from a coalition nightmare.

  • TofKW

    No one would like to see an elected upper chamber more than I, however there is one small problem with meaningful senate reform – it requires re-opening the constitution. And as soon as it is re-opened you can bet the Bloc will try to use anything to invent a crisis.

    Not saying this is impossible, but it requires a leader with a majority mandate and the intestinal fortitude to think big and see it through. Harper is not that person. I don’t think Iggy is either. The Brits will probably have an elected upper chamber well before we do.

    • @TofKW, I think a simple change could be made that doesn’t require constitutional modifications where elections are held and the Prime Minister promises to adhere to the advice of those elections when nominating Senators.

      And about a majority mandate, I agree, but it need not be a single party majority mandate, if a coalition has a majority and a legal agreement to work together then that is solid enough to enact real changes.

  • Agree with you Scott. Would like Canada to follow the UK example. But will it? Doubtful. Not until Canadians get their act together and start demanding it.

  • Well Lucas, I don’t think the voting public is completely wise to the real tradeoffs between electoral reform options, they are responding to fear and misinformation about what will happen under different systems. Partial PR systems like STV and MMP can be adjusted so that very small parties do not have an inordinately large sway.

    That being said, I agree completely with Scott, any improvement is an improvement and I hope all democratic reformers get vehemently behind the Lib-Dems and force them to force the Tories to carry through with their promises. Importantly, I hope they got a promise that the referendum will be decided by a 50%+1 of the electorate rather than 60% as has often been the case here in Canada. 60% is an enormously high hurdle in pluralistic societies such as ours where a ‘majority’ government rarely has more than 45% support from the population.

    Scott, I’ve linked this article up on the Democratic Reform in Canada bloggers aggregator. If you have some tag or category you always add to articles about electoral/senate/other democratic reform articles I’d love to add the feed to our site. I set up the site to try to broaden the conversation and address the very point you make about FVC which is a little too narrowly focussed in my opinion. I think there is a lot that needs to be discussed about our democracy, fixing how we vote is the start of this but it is by no means the end. There are changes to be made around the Senate, campaign financing, the position of the GG, prorogation, education about our democracy and much more. You contribute a lot to this conversation already.


    • @Mark Crowley, I’ve added the “electoral reform” tag to my tags on here of this article, if that helps.

      • @Scott Tribe, thanks, but that only has the one article. So I’ll just link to your articles as I see them as I’m a regular reader. But I’m encouraging people to add a more general tag, like demreform to all posts related to improving the machinery of our democracy, not just electoral reform. Its a lot of work to go back and retag, but if you do or if you decide to start adding it to all related articles let me know.

        twitter @democracyreform

  • Lucas

    IRV is not only an incrementally better solution it is the best solution under our current Parliamentary system. PR is fundamentally flawed in that it gives smaller parties far too much power. Of course most proponents of PR are supporters of those parties so you’ll hear much argument on that point from them, launching into tirades about fairness and democracy and other BS. The voting public that has rejected PR is wise to their game.

    IRV is the best solution barring a substantial change to the way our government works.

  • Northern PoV

    IVR is the most sale-able scenario.

    The lousy and complicated proposals in Ontario & BC were way too ambitious.

    Ironically the UK-Cons may have picked the winning scenario with IRV!

    now, if we can get IVR and ban political polling we just might get a democracy.

  • RamaraMan

    The Canadian Senate should become the petri dish for electoral reform. We could still elect MPs via FPTP and Senators could be apportioned Proportionally to the Popular vote (ie Proportional Representation). To bad Mr.Ignatieff is opposed to electoral reform of any kind! It’s keeping me and many other Greens and Dippers from lending our vote to the LPC, in order to oust the Harper regime!

    • ck

      It’s keeping me and many other greens and dippers from lending our vote to the LPC, in order to oust the Harper regime

      Ousting the Harper regime should be enough. Didn’t catch the exerpt of Marci McDonald’s new book? What will it take to frighten you folks enough to get the Harpercon regime out? Here’s another thought, Harpercons aren’t going to offer that parliamentary reform, unless adding more seats to Harpercon ridings or swing ridings that can easily go Harpercon.

      I’m afraid stopping Canada from turning into a theocratic totalitarian regime must supercede all.

      Things like maintaining legalized abortion and salvaging what’s left of the Canada health act and naturally, maintaining social programs like old age pension (a huge concern as many of us fear we will never ever be able to retire; no matter how sick we may get in old age). Those things fall higher up than ‘proportional’ representation for me. It should for others as well. You really want to risk a Harpercon majority and regress over something like proportional represtentation? It won’t get more Canadians out to the polls neither for that matter.

      Harper’s acts as of late he would take away all of the above programs.

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