For as long as there’s been a Canada, Canadians have voted according to what’s known as first-past-the-post. Each voter gets one vote, and each electoral district gets one member of Parliament. In each of Canada’s 338 federal districts, the candidate who has the greatest number of “X”s beside their name wins, and becomes the MP. In last fall’s election, the Liberal Party promised to scrap this system: “We are committed,” says the platform, “to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” The Liberals didn’t say what they would put in its place, only that the system that has been around since Confederation is so unacceptable it has to be quickly be replaced with something – anything.
It was one of scores of planks in the Liberal platform, and it received almost no discussion during the campaign. But if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government carries through on this pledge, it could be the most significant thing his government does, likely bringing about the biggest ever change in Canadian democracy. It will change how members of Parliament are elected, how governments are formed and who forms them, how Canadians vote and how parties seek the votes of Canadians. Yet the PM is proposing to rewrite the basic rules of Canadian democracy with nothing more than a simple up-down vote in a Parliament his party controls.
The Liberal plan raises three big questions: Should Canada ditch first-past-the-post? Is so, what should replace it? And who should have the power to decide?
Let’s start with the last question. It’s the easiest to answer. When it comes to a change this big and this fundamental to our democracy, the only people qualified to decide are the people themselves. This has to go to a referendum.