During the 2015 campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau vowed it would be the last election under the first-past-the-post system in which the candidate with the most votes wins the riding and the party that wins the most ridings (usually) forms the government. Saying that many people consider the system unfair, he said he would ask a commission to look at electoral reform and report back to Parliament within 18 months with a recommendation to change the way Canadians select their members of Parliament before the next election. He did not indicate favouring one form of electoral reform over any other.

There are any number of ways to elect MPs, including proportional representation in which the number of MPs reflects the percentage of votes; a mixed-member proportional representation in which some MPs are elected in the first-past-the-post system with parties topping up their caucus through some sort of proportional allotment; ranked balloting through which a candidate wins only if he or she has 50 per cent support which is often won by eliminating the least popular candidate and counting second, third and other preferences until someone has a majority. Explaining the intricacies of electoral reform can be complicated which might be why British Columbia, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island voters have all rejected changing their electoral systems whenever the question was put to them in a referendum in recent years.

But the problems of electoral reform goes beyond understanding how various systems work. There is also the question of motivation. Typically, the political Left favours electoral reform because they believe tinkering with the system will help their electoral fortunes. (Smaller parties also support electoral reform so they can elect MPs or influence other parties despite their low levels of popular support.)

To their credit, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government seems genuinely interested in keeping its promise. Most parties lose interest in electoral reform after forming government. Despite winning a majority, Trudeau appears committed to altering the electoral rules under which he and his party have just formed a majority government with 40 per cent of the popular vote. However, a closer examination of likely results of electoral reform suggest any alterations are not completely based in principle. Most political scientists believe that ranked ballots disproportionately benefit centrist parties, which is where the Liberals are positioned on the Canadian political spectrum. Likewise, most political scientists have determined that the Conservative Party is unlikely to form government, and never a majority government, if some sort of proportional representation is enacted. The thinking is that recent elections suggest a 40 per cent ceiling for the Tories, with no natural coalition allies on the horizon. Meanwhile, the Liberals, NDP, and Green parties typically combine for about 60 per cent of the vote. There is enough agreement among them to ensure their political hegemony for the foreseeable future. Especially concerning for pro-lifers is that none of these parties tolerate pro-lifers among their ranks, ensuring a pro-life majority cannot be elected.

Also disconcerting is that proportional representation (PR) breaks the link between voter and representative as MPs are picked from a list chosen by the party or leader, not candidates named on a ballot in a local riding. In a pure PR system, there is no link whatsoever, making the power of party and leader absolute; in a mixed PR system, it creates two-tiers of MP, one that is beholden to voters and another that is beholden to party and leader.

The National Post’s Andrew Coyne warns that predicting what will happen in any new electoral system is a fool’s game because changing the system will change everything: the sort of candidates we elect, the way campaigns are conducted, and even the decisions voters will make at the ballot box. Coyne supports electoral reform, but his warning that everything changes speaks to the need for slow, organic, moderate changes to the system.

More importantly, changes should be subject to a broad and comprehensive political debate, during an election campaign or referendum, so Canadians have the final say — or the final say on who gets the final say — knowing precisely what sort of changes are in the cards. Trudeau says that Canadians spoke overwhelmingly and clearly for the need for change when they elected the Liberals and their platform last October. But considering that Trudeau was never clear about the sort of change he was seeking and that electoral reform was hardly discussed on the campaign trail, whether voters desire electoral reform is questionable. There is a need for clarity on this question and a real debate, and Canadian citizens must get their say before radical change to the way we choose our elected representatives is foisted upon the country.