Canadian Democracy: Activate

Canadian Democracy:  Activate

Gillian Smith, News, Science and the Environment

In case you didn’t notice, Canada had an election two months ago. Despite the signs on every street corner from St John to Victoria, thinking someone didn’t notice an election isn’t actually that farfetched. This election’s voter turnout of 68.5% may be a rise compared to the past record lows of 61.1% (2011) and 58.8% (2008) (Elections Canada), but it’s still far lower than what we should see in a functioning democracy. To the general public, politics in Ottawa is far away, seems impossible to do anything about, and no matter what we do nothing seems to change. These shouldn’t be the traits of a functioning democratic nation, and it’s starting to show the serious flaws in the Canadian democratic system.

The Basics
Canada right now is technically a democratic constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is the Queen of England (the lady not the band), though our parent nation across the pond lets us have our own constitution and the ability to govern ourselves without British interference. Thus, we have the right to elect our own house of commons, with each of our 338 ridings electing just one person to vote on their behalf. The party with the most ridings won wins the election, runs the country for a few years, until we go through the whole process all over again.

First Past the Post
Under our current system, the person with the most votes at the end of the day wins, majority of the vote or not. The name for this idea is First Past the Post voting, and it’s one of the chief reasons our democracy is so flawed. Under first past the post the majority of a riding can disagree with their representative and still have them elected to parliament. The parties that when put together make up 60% or even more of the popular vote are less popular individually than the one that got just over thirty percent of the vote, and thus those who vote for them end this election with no voice in parliament. As well, these riding boundaries are susceptible to gerrymandering which further skews the results in favour of the government with the most power over those who draw the boundaries. When we see election results across the nation, a government can have near 100% control of the government with just a third of the country believing they are the ones to run the country. My example as to how this works is the most recent UK federal election, which elected the most unrepresentative House of Commons in the nation’s history. 63% of the electorate voted for a losing candidate, and thus will spend the next few years without a voice in parliament and discouraged from participating in democracy. The conservative party won a majority -giving them effectively total control of the house of commons- with 50.9% of the house, yet received just 36.8% of the popular vote. Labour gained an extra 5% control, bumping up their 30.4% of the vote to 35.5% of the seats. But by far the most staggering statistic out of this election came from the ever controversial UKIP, who gained just one seat out of 650 from the votes of 12.6% of the population (source). Though the problem for us may not have been quite as drastic this time around, it certainly still exists, and has potential to worsen.

Vote Splitting
Another cause for concern this election is a far more partisan issue. Vote splitting is one of the central causes of the recent apparent serge in conservative support from what used to be widely known as a progressive nation. One of the main differences between our system and that of our southern neighbours is that ours allows for more than two parties (a right wing party and a left wing party). Both sides of the political spectrum used to be divided; the right between the Progressive Conservatives and the more radical Reform Party (which became the Canadian Alliance in 2000) and the left between the central Liberals, the social democrat New Democratic Party, and the smaller sized Green Party of Canada. However, in ’03 the two main right wing parties merged to form the modern Conservative Party of Canada. This gives the right wing just one party to back, while leftist vote is still split between the Liberals, NDP, and Greens. Thus even though the vast majority of the population may want a new, more progressive government, the conservatives can still manage to win based almost entirely on the guaranteed 30% of the vote they will receive from head-strong right wing baby boomers. Though conservative support decreased substantially this year, this could still present a problem in the future, giving the majority of Canadians the minority of the power.

A C Grade Nation
This lack of democracy isn’t just being noticed by me. The Samara Institute has recently done a report on the status of Canada’s democracy and their findings are far less than impressive. Overall our democracy was graded as a C. However, in terms of participation we were given a C- and our leadership was given a D. Just 40% of the population trusts their MP, largely because first past the post leaves them with an MP that doesn’t share their values. 69% of the country doesn’t see how politics effects them, a byproduct of how ineffective the current government is at reaching out to engage the citizens they serve. Perhaps most troubling is our voter turnout rates, as listed earlier. These numbers put us in the bottom fifth of democratic nations, and it only gets worse when looked at more closely. Just 39% of eligible young people aged 18-24 voted in 2011 (I was unable to find the rate for this year), showing how this problem is destined to get worse over time, when we become the majority of the voter block. We have to act now to save Canadian democracy.

What We Can Do
One of the principal ways to improve the democratic status of our nation is through legislation change. The current government has promised more accountability and transparency overall, and to end FPtP before the next election, though so far haven’t specified which system they plan to replace it with. A smaller step we can take is to remove Bill C-23, the “Fair Elections Act”, which (among other things) blocks Elections Canada from advertising Canadian democracy. The Bill also puts tougher restrictions on Voter ID, which makes voting difficult particularly to working class voters and students. The left has called the bill an attempt from Harper to keep youth voter turnouts low, since younger voters tend to side with left wing parties. As a nation we should be facilitating voting, we should be advertising political matters, and most of all we should take steps to engage youth in particular with the democratic process, so they feel included and will be more likely to vote now and into the future.
A true democratic government should be elected by all the people, not simply by a portion of them. It should accurately represent all those who vote, and not skewed by an outdated system. Most importantly it should continuously work to engage the electorate, so that we have an end result of a population who feels their government works for them, represents their beliefs, and is honest and accountable for its actions. ​​