Episode 9: Oh Canada!

Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is watchword of the wise.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Podcast Version


It’s May 22, 1979. It’s Election Day in Canada. Pierre Trudeau of the Liberals vs Joe Clark of the Conservatives. Pierre Trudeau has been in power since 1968, but has seen his popularity slip due to mismanagement of the budget, and high unemployment. Joe Clark, 39, was inexperienced but was running a positive campaign based on change.  Ironically, Trudeau’s Liberals back then tried to make Clark's inexperience an issue with the ad, "This is no time for on-the-job training."

With voting over, the numbers started coming in. It was obvious who had won. Pierre Trudeau had secured 4.6 million of the vote compared to Joe Clark's 4.1 million...

And we will begin tomorrow, the planning and the preparation to give this country a government which will stimulate the economy, to generate growth and jobs for Canadians. A government that will strengthen the institutions of democracy in this country so that the people who live in Canada will have a firmer, stronger, voice in the direction of the affairs of this country
— Joe Clark, upon winning the 1979 Election

Congratulations Joe Clark, the 16th Prime Minister of Canada! How? I was baffled when I saw this. How does someone get to become Prime Minister even though he’d lost the popular vote? Another bizarre stat is that only 5 Prime Ministers have been elected with over 50% of the vote: Mulrooney in ‘84, Diefenbaker in ‘58, King in ‘40, Borden in 1917, and Laurier in 1904 and 1900.

Why is this? How does our voting system actually  work? Here is a quick 101:

Canada is split into 338 ridings. Each riding is competed by 2 or more people for a seat in the House of Commons, the place where laws are generated and debated. These people represent a party they are part of: NDP, Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc, Green, etc. The candidate with the most vote wins the seat in their riding. The party with the most seats won gets to form government, with the party’s leader becoming the Prime Minister. Yes, it may come as a shock to you, but the only reason Harper is our Prime Minister is because his Party choose him as their leader, so if one day he steps down, they’ll just choose another person to be their leader.

Canada 2011 Election: Voter proportion vs Seats won distribution

Canada 2011 Election: Voter proportion vs Seats won distribution

What are the problems with this winner-takes-all system, or First Past the Post system? Let’s look at an extreme example. Imagine Canada was split into 2 ridings, and there are 2 parties contesting in this race: the Rhinoceros Party of Canada and the Pirate Party of Canada (they exist, I swear!). For both of these seats the Pirates win 51% of the vote compared to the Rhinos 49%, leading them to win 2 out of 2 seats. Is this a fair representation of what Canadians want? On average 51% people wanted Pirates, and 49% voted Rhinos; however, that was not represented in the seats won! In the 2011 election, Stephen Harper’s party received less than 40% of the popular vote, yet won more than 50% of the seats!

Do all countries employ the same system as ours? Let's look at Germany; home of football superstars, non-halal beer, Volkswagens, and the Mixed-Member Proportional Representation voting system. How does it work? On election day, each person gets 2 votes: one vote to the candidate you want to represent your riding in the House of Commons. The person with the most votes wins the seat. Usually half the seats in the House of Commons are filled this way. So in our 2 riding example, one seat is contested similar to the winner takes all method, with the Pirate Party winning it.

Your second vote would go to the party you like, irrespective of the candidate you voted for. The votes are then counted nationally, and the other half of seats are distributed to fix the imbalance that was present in the First Past the Post system. In our example, the Rhinos would get the remaining seat to make the distribution 50/50, which is proportional to what the people wanted.

Germany 2013 Election: Voter proportion vs Seats won distribution

Germany 2013 Election: Voter proportion vs Seats won distribution

An advantage of the German system is it negates larger parties gaining a disproportionately large share of seats, while giving smaller parties their fair representation. This will give Canadians a better blend of politicians representing us in Ottawa; it won’t be just old white men, but more minorities. For example, in the 2011 election, Elizabeth May’s Green Party had 4% of votes, but only 1 seat. With proportional representation, it would have been 12!

Some people will say this system will lead to more minority governments, that is where the winning party doesn't have more than 50% of the seats, and Prime Ministers exiting left-right-and-centre like Maple Leaf coaches, but in Germany, it’s been one leader for the past 10 years! Angela Merkel has had to…what’s the word I'm looking for… cooperate with other parties on policy. I mean, I'm sure Trudeau, Harper, and Mulcair where one grouped with that annoying kid in class they had to work with on a project.

With the possibility of working with other parties greater in proportional representation, maybe attack ads and petty politics will be reduced. Countries that have implemented it have seen higher voter turnouts, and yes that includes youth, because people can see their effect on politics. It puts the focus on long term gains for country rather than short-term ones like what a woman can wear for a citizenship ceremony.

Voting is a right in Canada, but fair representation is not. It’s about time that changes!