How to Get a Majority Government out of 60% of the Popular Vote

by Lynn McDonald (revised 29/03/2012)

We are at an impasse in federal politics: a majority Conservative government, rejected by 60.4% of Canadian voters, is pushing through its far-right agenda, measures it could not impose during its two previous minority governments.

On climate change, the Conservatives are both a menace in their encouragement of increased greenhouse gas emissions, and an embarrassment at United Nations meetings organized to deal with the crisis.

Just above 60% of voters choose a party other than the Conservative, but their votes are split among four parties. The obvious answer is proportional representation, which can be achieved by a simple Act of Parliament--it does not require a Constitutional amendment. The first step then is the election of a non-Conservative majority committed to bringing in proportional representation promptly on election in 2015.

An electoral alliance among the non-Conservative parties is the best and safest means of proceeding. An analysis of previous elections and recent polling data shows that an alliance has a better chance than strategic voting or a merger (see Stuart Parker, “The Logistics of Cooperation,” online at

That paper judges the proposal by NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen to have “the capacity to deliver a victory for progressive forces in 2015.” It also gives examples of successful electoral alliances in the past, in British Columbia by the centre-right in the 1940s, and in France by the centre-left in the 1997 election.

Opinions are divided as to whether an electoral alliance should include the Bloc Québécois, an issue not to be pursued here. Practically, there are only five Conservative seats in Québec, of which four have weak margins.

A Common Manifesto for 2015

The top two components of a common manifesto for 2015 would be proportional representation and action on climate change. For both there is more than adequate background material to be ready to move.

The Law Commission of Canada in its 2004 report recommended a mixed member proportional system (see Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, online at Voting Counts provides detailed examples of how proportional representation works in other countries, and gives specifics for how to adapt it to Canada. It recommends the formula currently used for the Scottish Parliament. With it, one third of the MPs would be elected on a list system, leaving two thirds to be elected as usual. The “constituency ridings” would be roughly 20-25% larger, not an inordinate change. (They might have been one third larger, except that 30 seats are being added for the 2015 election.)

On climate change, the federal government, United Nations, universities and non-governmental organizations together have produced a wealth of proposals for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No less than a transformation of the economy from dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels to reliance on renewables and conservation is needed. An early and easy step would be the ending of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, an estimated $1.4 billion annually.

There are many social justice issues with strong public support that could be brought into a common manifesto, on agreement by the parties:

  • fairer taxes, to reduce social inequalities (to benefit “the 99%” majority)
  • stop the prison building program (and divert the money to crime prevention)
  • repeal the Criminal Code amendments to increase sentences (longer sentences don’t reduce crime, which is declining anyway)
  • establish a national child care program (promised before, but never enacted)
  • implement measures to end child poverty (again, promised and even voted on, but not done)
  • phase in a doubling of Canada Pension Plan/Québec Pension Plan benefits (needed now more than ever with the loss of jobs with good private pensions, also the best pension plan for women, who work disproportionately in jobs without pension benefits)
  • act on key recommendations of the Kelowna Accord with First Nations, effectively shelved by the current government (see Aboriginal Peoples: People to People, Nation to Nation)

The list could go on, the criterion for making it being acceptance by that core 60% of centre-left Canadians. The new government could:

  • establish a national transit strategy
  • revive energy efficiency and conservation projects cancelled by the Conservatives
  • address many other environmental issues, such as oceans, forests and biodiversity
  • divert spending on fighter jets into other projects or deficit reduction
  • institute better tax and copyright measures to raise the economic status of artists (whose average incomes are low)

Canadians generally would welcome less adversarial relations in the House of Commons. More opportunities for private member’s bills to be adopted would be highly desirable. A new stream of multi-partisan private members’ bills could be opened up, meaning bills supported by members of at least two parties.

Committees in the House of Commons have sometimes been models of co-operation. The Parlimentary committee on the environment in the 1990s produced a series of unanimous reports warning of the dangers of climate change and urging, with excellent specific recommendations to deal with it, three of which were No Time to Lose: The Challenge of Global Warming, 1990; Out of Balance: The Risks of Irreversible Climate Change, 1991; and Kyoto and Beyond: Meeting the Climate Change Challenge, 1997.

The recent creation of a multi-party Climate Change Caucus on the Hill is a sign of MPs willingness to work across party lines. The new Parliament should actively invite proposals for ways to promote greater co-operation.

While the electoral alliance would focus on matters with broad acceptance, more visionary goals could also be explored, such as amendment to the Charter of Rights to include responsibility for the environment. First Nations should be significantly involved, especially to bring in their principles of looking to seven generations in the future.

The Electoral Alliance and the Political Parties

In the NDP leadership race the candidate who promoted electoral alliance, Nathan Cullen, placed third. He drew an excellent following of young people and got good coverage in the media. Some candidates insisted on the right of all party members to vote for their own party, anywhere in the country.

The tax subsidy per voter was for some years an inducement for parties to run candidates in every riding. However, the Harper government recently eliminated this measure. Ridings could use their scarce resources more effectively by pooling them where they have a good prospect of unseating a Conservative.

In running a common candidate the parties can all be shown on the ballot, a decided plus. To be identified on the ballot the party must be registered. However, a party can consist of as few as two candidates. Thus candidates could be identified as NDP-Green or Liberal-NDP or 3 or 4 parties.

A complication, riding boundaries are currently being redrawn in light of population data obtained in the 2011 Census and the addition of 30 new seats (15 for Ontario, 6 each in B.C. and Alberta, and 3 for Québec). This will make the computation of “most vulnerable” ridings more difficult. However, Elections Canada keeps voting records by poll, so that the old numbers can be related to the new ridings.

The Many Benefits of Proportional Representation

Proportional representation means that every vote counts roughly equally, although voters in the less-populated far north and PEI would continue to be over-represented. The great disparities between seats in the House of Commons and voter preferences would end. Harper’s 39.6% share of the votes would get him about 39.6% of the seats.

In countries with proportional representation voter turn-out is higher, more women and minorities are elected, and more people are satisfied with their democratic institutions. Countries with proportional representation on average enjoy better environmental protection and greater energy efficiency.

Proportional representation is practised in some 66 democracies worldwide, including many European countries similar to Canada. In Britain it is used for the Scottish, Welsh and European parliaments. As well as the Law Commission report, noted above, the website of FairVote Canada has excellent material; see

Proportional representation is official party policy for the New Democratic Party and the Green Party. The Liberal Party so far is not onside, having opted for “alternative voting,” which is still the old first-past-the-post. Advocates of proportional representation within the Liberal Party are active on the issue and would welcome allies among fellow party members.

Strategic voting, promoted in the past by such groups as Catch22, Avaaz and Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, has not worked. Some groups are themselves rethinking strategy, for example, LeadNow’s campaign for voters to “Cooperate for Canada” by joining the NDP, Liberals or Greens “to support co-operation for electoral reform.”

Electoral Alliance Strategy: Can We Co-operate?

The proposal set out here for an electoral alliance is supported by a diverse group of people (NDP, Liberal, Green and unaffiliated) who began meeting in September 2011, and who liaise with others by email.

Several other groups are meeting face-to-face in other parts of the country. All these groups are small, but websites that have advocated strategic voting in the past have large lists and could contribute a great deal to moving this agenda forward. WE NEED TO POOL OUR RESOURCES AND WORK TOGETHER!

A lot is at stake. If we don’t re-form the political system, we face the dismal prospect of ongoing Harper majorities, declining voter turnouts and growing cynicism. Canada will continue to be a climate change criminal, tar sands exports to the United States will increase, while a pipeline and tankers for China will result in yet another inducement for their expansion, all thanks to 40% “majorities” that leave the rest of us wondering how they get away with it.

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