We need a new system, not a new prime minister
// Leah Scheitel

“The question you want to ask yourself is: is Canada a democracy? Is the democracy in Canada working?” says Dr. Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre. “I think right now the robocall challenges the first aspect of a democracy; the free and fair right for citizens to vote without interference.”

Canada oversees the democratic elections of over 40 different countries to ensure that they are fair, yet the recent robocall scandal has pulled into question the validity of our election results. There have been reports of voters of the May 2011 federal election being purposely misled with false information, resulting in them being unable to vote. If the claims of the scandal are true, it could mean that Harper’s majority government is a hoax, and built upon a fraudulent voting system. Even more alarming is that our democratic system isn’t working properly, and the people in power may be taking advantage of its malfunction.


While it is still uncertain who is ultimately responsible for the robocall scandal, it is apparent that Canadians aren’t taking this matter lightly. There has been uproar across the country since the story broke, with political activist groups like FairVote.ca and Lead Now demanding a public inquiry into the scandal.

“I think first we have to find out what happened. All of the indicators point to the Conservatives as being the architect or mastermind behind all of this,” says Libby Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver East. “It throws into the integrity of the election process. That is why it is so serious. It could have very serious consequences. It could mean that the election results in a number of ridings are null and void. This is to be determined, but that is what we are potentially looking at.”

As of Mar. 2, Election Canada’s spokesperson John Enright confirmed that they have received over 30,000 messages by way of phone, emails, and letters from the Canadian public after political parties suggested there had been a theme of potential electoral fraud in their ridings. There are nine ridings under question in B.C. alone.

Davies, too, suspected electoral fraud in her riding of Vancouver East after last year’s federal election.

“We certainty got lots of complaints,” she says, “and this is why we forwarded it onto Elections Canada. We don’t have the resources to do our own investigation. I do know that on Election Day and a few days after, people were phoning us, saying that they were very upset because they received calls sending them to the wrong poll and giving misleading information. I had no idea that it was also happening in so many other places.”

Because this is unprecedented in Canada, it’s unclear what will happen if the perpetrators are caught.

“Presumably there will be fines, there might be criminal charges resulting in imprisonment, but it’s not clear,” says Tim Schouls, a political science professor at Capilano University. “It is not clear of the nature of what was done. If there was electoral fraud and a deliberate attempt to mislead and compromise the ability of people to vote, that constitutes a criminal act, but what the sentence would be would be determined by judges when these individual go to court.”

“The question here is, are the people who conducted the calls instructed by those higher up in the chain of command,” he continues. “The higher you go, the more serious the charge, and potentially the more devastating the sentence will be.”

Fry thinks that the public needs more education on the foundations of a democracy.

“What we have to do is educate the public. Most people don’t know anything about a democracy; they just think it is a place where you get to vote. It is important [that we], and especially the media, be on guard, against the infringement on democracy.”

So far, the no political party has taken responsibility. Stephen Harper has denied that the Conservative Party has anything to do with the calls, blaming the charges on a smear campaign against his party by the other political parties.

The robocalls, however, are related to a bigger issue. Canada’s electoral system potentially has a lot of problems; maybe it’s time Canadians took a look at their other options.


Since confederation, Canada has used the first-past-the-post voting system, which was adopted from British parliament. This electoral system has a winner-takes-all effect, and there is no requirement for the winner to gain the majority of votes to control the majority of the power. Wayne Smith, executive director of FairVote.ca, says that this is a huge detriment to out country’s politics.

“We have a voting system where there is only one winner, and lots of losers,” says Smith. “Winning is everything and it encourages the kind of vicious, cut-throat politics that we’ve seen in election campaigns. There is a lot of day-to-day ordinary nastiness – that is borderline illegal – that people take for granted as part of our politics.”

“If they can keep voters from voting for somebody else, it is just as good as getting a vote for themselves,” he adds. “This is built right into our system. For each party, there are the seats that they take for granted, [saying] ‘Yeah we’re going to win that, so we don’t have to pay any attention to it.’ And then there are the ones where they’re going to lose, so they don’t have to pay any attention to those ridings. All of the elections are decided by a small number of voters, usually less than 20 per cent, so our elections are decided by a few swing voters in a few swing ridings, and all of the parties’ efforts are devoted to identifying and moving those voters.”

This strategy often results in political parties using negative advertising to shine a spotlight on the weaknesses of their opposition, and slandering party leaders.

“Under a winner-takes-all system, it’s just as productive to discourage other people’s supporters from voting as it is to encourage people to vote for you,” Smith explains. “That is becoming more and more of a feature of our politics.”

Although Britain has its own political problems, their first-past-the-post system isn’t under as much scrutiny as the Canadian one, which seems to be affected by the dirty-style of politics in the United States.

“This particular issue is about an American style of dirty politics that’s now come to Canada. Deliberately misrepresenting information is not permissible, it’s not legal, and it’s a matter of getting to the bottom of it,” says Davies.

Schouls agrees: “The kind of smear campaigns that you see emerging in Canada and character assassination is something that we have taken, as some degree, from the Americans. It has been proven through scientific studies that this type of smear politics works, but I think that any informed voter quickly sees through what is going on and finds it edifying. “


Canada is one of the only larger countries to still use the first-past-the-post system, along with India and Britain. Most developed countries use a form of proportional representation, in which a party gains seats based on the proportion of the overall votes they received.

“Most industrial democracies changed the way they vote between 50 and 100 years ago, and we’re left behind. Canada is actually, contrary to the way we think of ourselves, one of the world’s oldest democracies, and some of our democratic institutions are a little creaky with age,” says Smith. FairVote.ca endorses a proportional voting system, and wants to educate Canadians on the voting options available.

“One of the reasons that we want to promote proportional voting systems is because they promote diversity and promote cooperation within the system. Every party gets the number of seats in proportion to the amount of votes they got, and it isn’t common for any one party to get the majority of the seats. This means that they have to cooperate, they have to share power, and they have to get along. They don’t have an incentive to go right back to the polls in an attempt to gain a majority.”

Davies also backs the idea of adopting a proportional representation system into Canada.

“Proportional representation, overall, will make our way of voting stronger and much more representative,” she says. “It’s a very healthy thing. I think it would encourage people to be involved more and feel like their vote really counts.”

Although proportional representation systems work in other democracies, Canadians don’t seem interested. B.C., P.E.I. and Ontario have all held referendums on electoral reform, letting citizens decide if they wanted to replace the first-past-the-post system with proportional representation, or combine the two systems, as has been done in other democracies, like New Zealand. The referendum was rejected in every case.

“There are a lot of citizens who are concerned that a proportional representation system wouldn’t necessarily serve Canada well,” explains Schouls. “For example, what a proportional representation system would do is almost always deliver minority governments, and some say that makes it very difficult for governments to advance their agenda. If they’re constantly hostage to the positions of, or to the desires of, minority parties that they have to appease, they can’t act decisively in moving their agenda forward.”

“Sometimes, people are hesitant,” Schouls continues, “saying ‘I don’t know, our single-plurality system isn’t great but the alternative isn’t great either,’ and that is why some have suggested that we look at a mixed member system, like Germany or New Zealand. But even that, in the cases of Prince Edward Island and Ontario, where it was offered to the citizens in a referendum, they refused it.”

There has been speculation that the referendums were rejected because Canadians weren’t sufficiently educated about the different electoral systems.

“It has been argued that if we used a proportional representational system of voting, we’d have a more democratic outcome,” says Schouls. “The temptation to interfere in the voting process might be just as great in either model. The motivation might be just as tempting because a small shift in the popular vote for one party or another could result in a significant increase or decrease in seats captured.”


Although electoral reform is one option, Canada’s system suffers from more than just a fault electoral process. There is also concern with the Senate, a very powerful body within the Canadian Government.

In our current political system, it is relatively easy for a party to gain the majority of seats in the House of Commons, making it easier to proceed with their political agenda. Since Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister, he has made effective changes ensuring that his political agenda will meet as little opposition as possible. For a law to be passed in Canada, the bill has to be approved by two bodies: the House of Commons and the Senate. What Harper has done is slowly gain the majority of the power in the Senate.

The House of Commons is made up of 308 seats, all occupied by the elected members of each riding, and are fixed upon the federal elections. Currently, the Conservative party holds 166 of the seats. The Senate is the other half of Canadian parliament, and the Governor General appoints Senators upon recommendation of the Prime Minister.

Senators can hold seats until the age of 75, at which time they are forced to retire. When there is a vacancy in a Senate seat, the Prime Minister will make recommendations to the Governor General as to who should fill the vacancy.

“He will endorse and appoint members of the Conservative party, and those individuals then understand that they are supposed to vote in ways that is in endorsement of the Conservative legislation,” Schouls explains. “So Harper has gradually, over the course of the time he’s been Prime Minister, has been changing the composition of the Senate.”

Of the 105 seats available in the Senate, 59 are currently held by Conservative Senators. “They have a double majority now, in both houses, so when legislation goes through the House of Commons, Harper can be relatively assured that it will pass without incident in the Senate as well,” says Schouls.


With these raised concerns, it is natural to wonder if Canada has a democracy.

“There are six fundamental pillars of any democracy, and if the government fails on one, it is not a true democracy,” says Fry.

The six pillars are: the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press within the media, a free and civil society, and a parliament that is free of government interference.

“You have to ask yourself if our democracy, at this moment, is abiding by the rule of law,” says Fry.

While currently the Canadian system may enable a benign dictatorship, Schouls believes that Canada has the resources to not fall victim to it.

“When we use the term benign, it means that the individual in question is not a source of oppression and such,” he explains. “What we have in the Canadian case is a hierarchal structured system of power in which the government allows those at the top to utilize that power with very few constraints. They can utilize that power to good effect or to ill effect or perhaps to no effect … When we have a majority government, as we do now, it more or less renders the House of Commons powerless, in that the Prime Minister, in use of party discipline, can command that support of the majority of the members … and can essentially do what he sees fit.”

In situations like these, Canadians can benefit from opposition parties and media outlets, holding the government responsible.

“What I do think we have in Canada is a fairly rigorous opposition in form of the NDP and the Liberals,” says Schouls. “We have a vigorous media, and we have the opportunity as a civil society to express our discontent in all kinds of ways.”


As a result of the robocalls, people are demanding inquiries into the scandal across the nation. On Mar. 3, Lead Now, an independent advocacy group, held a rally in downtown Vancouver calling for a public inquiry. On Mar. 5, there was a similar one in Ottawa, with over 200 people marching to Parliament Hill, demanding action.

What the action will be from the government is uncertain. Although there is substantial evidence to say that the first-past-the-post system is outdated and not suitable for Canada, there is no evidence to believe that switching to a proportional representation government will eliminate electoral fraud.

Before any action is taken in regards to reforming the voting system is considered seriously, both Davies and Fry agree that there are some questions that need to be answered, and some research that needs to be done into possible other systems.

Fry believes that we should not be hasty in adopting another nation’s system because what works for another country might not work in Canada.

“Canada is a different nation. We should look at other countries and their practices, and we should investigate them,” she says. “We should openly, as a civil society, speak about them and decide what is best for us.”

“I don’t believe that there is any one system that we can say is pure,” she adds. “Look at Italy with a proportional representation system, and how corrupt it was there.”

Conservative MPs failed to respond to the Courier’s interview requests as of press time.

//Leah Schitel, writer
//Graphics by Britta Bachus
//Cover by JJ Brewis

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com