With the opening of the 42nd Parliament, Atlantic Canadians can be sure that they are well represented in the federal governing party. If the Liberal government delivers on their promise to transform our current electoral arrangement known as the first-past-the-post system, there is reason to believe that the region may never be as well represented in the governing party as it is now.
There are four prominent Atlantic Canadians, one per province, occupying key posts in the new Liberal Cabinet. Lawrence MacAulay (PEI) is Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Scott Brison (NS) is President of the Treasury Board, Judy Foote (NL) is Minister of Public Works and Procurement, and Dominic Leblanc (NB) is Government Leader in the House of Commons. The share of Cabinet positions Atlantic Canada holds is roughly double its share of Canada’s total population. Having elected an unprecedented 32 Liberal MPs, the region’s share of the Liberal caucus is also roughly three times its share of the national population.
In many ways, these election results are a perfect illustration of some of the critiques of Canada’s current electoral system, known as first-past-the-post (FPTP). FPTP tends to exacerbate regional differences in voting patterns by rewarding geographic concentrations of party support. In this election, the Liberals benefited from their popularity in Atlantic Canada and the Greater Toronto Area in the same way that the Conservatives benefited from their strong support in the Prairie Provinces.
Conversely, FPTP can also disregard votes for parties that lack a concentration of support in the regions in which they are cast. In Atlantic Canada, 41.3 per cent of the votes cast fell into this category.
For its drawbacks, FPTP also has benefits. It is often lauded for its relative simplicity. It frequently produces majority governments with strong mandates to take decisive action. Perhaps most importantly, it allows for a clear geographic link between constituencies and their Members of Parliament. In a country as vast and diverse as Canada, this last point is of fundamental importance.
All three of the leading parties during the last election addressed the notion of electoral reform. The Liberals promised to establish an all-party committee to study reforms and to introduce legislation enacting electoral reform within eighteen months.
Electoral reform has been studied on numerous occasions. The Law Commission of Canada conducted a comprehensive review of reforms and engaged the Canadian public in broad consultations. In 2004, it released its final report entitled Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada. The Commission recommended the adoption of a mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system modelled after Scotland’s. MMP incorporates some of the strengths of both FPTP and proportional representation.
Had this system been in place for the recent election, the results would have likely been much different across the country and most certainly in Atlantic Canada. Using the approach recommended by the Commission, two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons would continue to be elected through FPTP and the remaining one-third would be “list” seats, awarded to parties based on their share of the popular vote.
While MMP holds promise for making election results more proportional to the popular vote, it also presents somewhat of a paradox to Atlantic Canada in that it may eliminate its capacity to produce such strong representation in a government caucus in future elections.
Under MMP, assuming the same voting patterns as were actually observed on October 19, Atlantic Canada would have sent to the House of Commons 23 Liberal MPs, 5 Conservative MPs and 4 NDP MPs (The provincial breakdown would be as follows: NL. 6 Liberal and 1 NDP; NB. 7 Liberal, 2 Conservative and 1 NDP; NS. 7 Liberal, 2 Conservative and 2 NDP; and PE. 3 Liberal and 1 Conservative).
The number of seats would not be perfectly proportional to the way in which Atlantic Canadians voted. The Liberals would win 71.9 per cent of the seats with 58.7 per cent of the popular vote, for example, whereas the Conservatives would win 19 per cent of the seats with 15.5 per cent of the vote. However, it is not difficult to detect that the strong Atlantic Canadian presence in the governing party would decrease, improving the representational fortunes of voices outside the governing party and adding more variety into the region’s parliamentary mix.
While it is unlikely that Canadians would in future exhibit the exact same voting patterns under a new voting system, this analysis serves to illustrate the differences between FPTP and one of its possible alternatives.
It is unclear what the next eighteen months will bring, whether the process the new government promised to start will result in substantive changes, or whether the public will even embrace them. What is clear, however, is that Atlantic Canada has a great stake in any reforms to come.
Morgan Beatty is a MPPA student at Dalhousie University and Campus Coordinator at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. Marco Navarro-Genie is President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS.ca)