On governmental and electoral systems

Before I left Canada I came to the realization / made the decision that I couldn’t keep on the same approach when it came to blogging and tweeting, or even my approach to things like politics, while in Australia.  I’d grown accustomed to seeing problems or room for improvement, and campaigning to have them fixed.  But Australia’s not my country – where it’s completely my right (if not obligation) to want to improve things in Canada, I’m a guest in Australia, and respect that as a non-citizen my options are like it, put up with it, or leave.  Of course, I’ve ventured into a few Aussie political fields, especially pet ones like carbon taxes and queer issues, but on the whole I’ve tried to keep a bit of distance.

After many conversations with friends, including some concise but excellent advice from Ian Capstick (“just keep tweeting”), I decided to focus on the positive.  Because, really, I’m tired of being negative anyway.  Though I’ll admit it’s hard not to be!  I would keep my eyes and ears open to see what’s going on in Australia, and how we can apply some examples of these things back in Canada.  This has sort of evolved into a broader outlook on some of the areas that the places I’ve travelled this year have done things well, or not well, and some observations on what I think works best.  It’s become clear to me already that variances often have less to do with national differences than they do with local or regional needs, cultures, or governments – so Toronto might very well do better than Melbourne in one area, where Sydney might beat Vancouver in another, none of which has anything to do with what country you’re in.

I’m writing much of this in early 2011 with an eye to posting it most of it later in the year. By the time it’s all published, I will have spent time in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Sydney, Canberra, Darwin, Alice Springs, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, parts of Tasmania, and Melbourne.  Some of this will be observations on politics and government, but much of it may end up becoming “a Canadian’s guide to living in Australia,” or bits and pieces of both.  Basically, it’s a random collection of my thoughts and observations.

I decided to start this series a little earlier than originally planned because Canada has ventured into another federal election.  I might not get around to finishing it until I’m back in Canada at the end of the year, but electoral reform is so important to me and it’s never been more relevant than now.  I would also consider some earlier posts (namely ones on Internet Services, Development, and Standards) part of this series, though they weren’t explicitly so at the time.

So, here’s part 1: political and electoral systems.  Apologies, this first one is long.

Canada and Australia have very similar foundations to their political systems.  Both are founded on the British Westminster system, though Australia’s also has influences of the US system.  While both countries were technical formed by confederating multiple independently-run colonies, Australia’s system has more of a federation feel than Canada’s does – any history you encounter as a tourist here proudly showcases the days of when New South Wales, for example, was its own colony, and the mere labelling of the divisions as states rather than provinces makes it clear they are, at least in part, independent of the federal government.  (There are also two significant, theoretically self-governing, territories – the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.  The latter was formerly a territory of South Australia, the former having been carved out  of New South Wales to form the capital region).  Being here has made me respect and appreciate Canada’s federation a lot more – most Canadians don’t think of Canada as a collection of provinces, but instead as a country subdivided – despite the fact that our history actually contradicts that.

I won’t dwell on the division of powers, as it can get boring even to the political nerd like me.  One thing of note, though, is that (at least in New South Wales) the states tend to exercise authority over a lot of things that are currently in the hands of municipalities in Canada.  This is not always a good thing (as you’ll see later in my post on public transit), but it means the municipalities have relatively little to do compared to Canada’s.  Generally, they’re responsible for libraries, parks, local roads (though quite a few roads are state-owned), planning and development, and waste disposal.  And in Sydney, they put on fireworks shows. Regularly.

One thing that I think is amazing here is that where I live, as of early March (this changed after the NSW election in late March), there are women representatives at every level of government.  Sydney town council elects an at-large council which includes four women out of nine councillors.  Sydney’s mayor, Clover Moore, is a woman.  She’s also, unusually, the State MP.  The Premier of NSW was Kristina Keneally, an American-Australian woman (who I love to hear speak – she tries so hard to sound Australian).  The Federal MP, Tanya Plibersek, and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, are also women.

This is no coincidence.  Most levels of government have advanced voting systems that better represent the popular vote and, in turn, prevent men (or any other dominant group) from having a stranglehold on power.  In fact, until the NSW election last month, 50% of the state premiers were immigrants to Australia.

Canada and Australia are also still in similar circumstances geographically and politically.  We’re both former British colonies, and both use Westminster systems.  We both have (relatively) large land masses and significantly cultural and socio-political differences across the country.  Both countries have large concentrations of people in a small number of large cities, and vast areas of loosely-populated rural areas that make up a substantial part of the land mass and a not-trivial part of the population.  We’re both subdivided into smaller political divisions.  Both countries have territories – there is perhaps a slight difference here in that Australia has some overseas territories, and its capital region is a territory unto itself, but Australia’s Northern Territory, like Canada’s three northern territories, is a large land mass with very few people and a markedly different climate than the rest of the country.  One other noticeable difference is that, for the most part, Australia’s confederation happened all at once, with all of the current states and the mainland territories all forming one country at the same time – Canada’s federation took over 80 years to reach its current position, and took place in numerous, heavily negotiated, stages.

So, with all those similarities, I think it’s perfectly fair to compare the systems.  I think the geographical issues (both urban vs. rural, and distance / size issues) are extremely important to both countries.  That’s certainly been reflected in the geographical make-up of both countries’ houses, as well as the United States’.  Having lived in both small and large cities, I understand the needs of both are important, and recognize that decisions made in the best interest of very large cities (which, in theory, make up most of the population) can be devastating to small cities – similarly, decisions that are best for the East might be bad for the West, and vice-versa.  I’m a huge advocate for things like proportional representation, and the concept of one-person one-vote, but in reality this risks ignoring regional differences and either breaking up the country or leading to very upset people in one part of the country or another.  I say all this as background, as it has fed into the systems the two countries have in place, and I support that.

So, on with the comparison.

Senior levels of government

Canada and Australia are quite similar here.  The Queen is the head of state, represented by the governor general.  The lieutenant governors in Canada theoretically report to the governor general, whereas the state governors in Australia directly represent the Queen (another good example of how Australia’s states are a little more autonomous than Canada’s provinces).  The Prime Minister is generally the leader of the party with the majority of seats in the House of Commons / Representatives, or failing that, the person the majority of MPs in the House agree should be PM.

Upper House (Senate)

Both countries have the Senate as the upper house (and it’s decorated in red in both cases – the speaker’s chair in the original Australian senate chamber was actually given as a gift by the people of Canada!).  It’s supposed to represent the “sober second thought” – a way of forcing two different sets of people to look at legislation before it passes, and to prevent legislation from being hastily passed without real consideration.  Traditionally, the Senate is based on the UK’s House of Lords, effectively a governing council appointed by the crown to acknowledge that the crown is still in charge, but they’ve been nice enough to let the people have a say by having our own house in the House of Commons / Representatives.

In Canada, our Senate is essentially still that.  It’s appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister.  Senators have a lifetime term – they remain senators until they retire, or die.  I will say quite clearly, there is no democracy in the Senate.  It doesn’t reflect the popular vote of Canadians of the day; it reflects the most popular vote of Canadians over the last century.  A legislative body not elected by the people (even if appointed by someone elected by the people), is not a democratic one.

One strong point, however, of Canada’s Senate, is that it attempts to reflect geographic distributions.  It does so very poorly, but it does seem to have that intent.  Each of Ontario and Quebec (formerly upper and lower Canada, respectively) have 24 seats.  PEI, being the smallest of the Atlantic provinces, gets 4.  Nova Scotia and New Brunswick each get 10.  And every other province gets 6, while the territories each get 1.  In theory, then, this means it would be difficult to have any bill passed that went strongly against any one particular region of the country – though the distributions are rather uneven and likely a result of negotiations to convince particular provinces to join the federation.  In practice of course, since most votes are whipped, senators just vote along the lines of whatever party they belong to, and virtually always pass legislation sent to them from the House, as written.  At worst, Canada’s Senate is anti-democratic; at best, it’s completely redundant.

Australia, however, has (Canadians and Brits, prepare to gasp) an elected Senate.  Elected! Imagine that.  The constitution requires a minimum of 6 senators per original state, and an equal number of senators per original state – currently there are 12 senators per state.  Each of the two major territories (the NT and the ACT, the former politically encompassing Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands, the latter including the Jervis Bay Territory) get two seats.  Since 1948 (yes, 1948), they have had a modified proportional representation (“PR”) system, so that senators from each state proportionally represent the constituents in their state.  They also use ranked ballots, also known as instant runoff voting.

I’ll admit – it’s complicated.  Basically, if any candidate (there are often 50 or 60 candidates per state) gets more than (1/(number of seats to elect + 1)) of the votes, they are elected.  That’s fairly obvious – basically, if you get one seventh of the votes, you get one sixth of the seats (not perfect, by any means, but still better than first-past-the-post).  If you got more votes than were needed, the “excess” votes are then reallocated to the second choice, assuming voters chose a second person (you can vote “1” on just one party, or rank all candidates in order), or to the party of choice if they didn’t.  This happens in succession until there are as many people elected as there are seats.  If, after reallocating the ‘excess’ votes of people already elected, there are still seats to be filled, candidates from the bottom are eliminated and second-choice votes allocated to the remaining candidates.  Wikipedia does a fairly good job of explaining it.  Essentially, if your first choice doesn’t win (or didn’t “need” your vote to win), your second choice will get counted.

Some suggest this system isn’t good enough – that it’s not ‘truly’ democratic.  The main argument is that seats aren’t allocated based on population.  As I’ve suggested above – it’s important to recognize geographical differences in government of countries as large as Canada or Australia (particularly in light of the fact that each state/province is theoretically agreeing to stay as part of the federation), so I think this is appropriate.  The balloting process can be a little confusing, but ultimately it’s a matter of not playing games – you either choose the party you like best, or rank all the candidates in the order in which you like them.  It’s a foreign concept for Canadians, who have grown used to strategic voting (and an unelected Senate), so I have trouble debating the issue because it seems impossible that the system could actually be designed not to require strategic voting.  But it works.

Could this be applied in Canada? Of course it could.  We’d need to change the constitution to redistribute seats provincially, but I expect any changes to voting systems would go to referendum anyway, so it could all be done at once.  I’m not sure if having each province equally represented makes sense, given the diversity in the land masses (and populations) of Canada’s provinces… but we could certainly come to a balance (perhaps giving Atlantic provinces a combined quota?)

Lower House (House of Commons (Canada) / House of Representatives (Australia))

Our houses (decorated in green) are far more similar to one another than our Senates.  They’re both elected, for one.  They’re both based on the British House of Commons, literally the House of the common people.  They both, in theory, contain representatives from smaller geographical areas called ridings in Canada or seats or electorates in Australia.

Canada’s system is straightforward, if not overly simplistic.  You vote once, for one candidate.  The candidate with the most votes, even if this is not more than 50% of the votes, wins the seat.  In theory, with four to five major parties, this could mean the entire house is filled with one party that receives only about 30% of the popular vote.  This isn’t quite the way it happens in practice, but there are always parties over- or under- represented b y this system.  Historically, the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois have gotten higher portions of seats than votes, with the NDP and Green party getting fewer seats than their proportion of votes (the Greens being an extreme example, as they received about 7% of the popular vote in the last election, and zero seats).

The other major problem is seat distribution.  The Constitution requires as many seats in the House as are given in the Senate, as a minimum.  This means provinces with very small populations like New Brunswick (population less than 750K) get 10 seats (out of just over 300) where other larger provinces are, in turn, underrepresented.  The riding of Oak Ridges-Markham has 6.4 times as many people as the riding of Labrador.  6.4 times!!  While I said I thought some imbalance was okay in the case of the Senate, I’m operating on the belief that one of the houses should reflect geographical differences.  I still think that at least one house should represent the population equally – that’s in theory how democracy should work.  So this doesn’t really make sense.  Historically, Ontario is significantly underrepresented, as are some of the other larger provinces.

Australia’s system is not much more complicated (certainly not as complicated as its Senate), and at a minimum demands that each elected MP get at least 50% of the votes in their seat.  Ballots are ranked, but there’s only one candidate per party on the ballot.  If any one candidate is ranked 1 by more than 50% of voters in that seat, they win the seat.  If not, the lowest-ranked candidate is dropped from the ballot, and the second choice of that candidate’s voters is given their votes.  This continues, until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes.

There are geographical distribution issues in Australia too – the House is to be approximately double the size of the Senate, with minimum numbers of seats loosely based on the number of senators in the Senate for the state – causing similar, but less extreme, problems to Canada.  The house is also in no way PR.  As an example, the Greens got almost 12% of the vote in the last election, and 1 seat out of 150.  There are variations on this system that have been proposed in other places in the world (including Canada), where there are a number of at-large seats used to balance out the proportions – if Greens were underelected based on their proportion of the vote, they would have a list and be allocated some of the at-large seats to bring them closer to PR.

The Australian system for its House isn’t a huge improvement over Canada’s – but it’s a start.  It would require at least half of the people in the electorate to want the winning candidate over their opposition.  It would eliminate strategic voting – it is so common for people to vote Liberal or Conservative today because they don’t want the other to win, even though they would rather vote NDP, Green, Communist, or Christian Heritage.  Under this system, you can vote for the candidate you actually want to win, and rank the one you really don’t want to win last.  For example, if only NDP, Liberal, and Conservative are in a riding and you want to vote NDP but don’t want the Conservative to win, today you might very well vote Liberal to block the Conservative (assuming the Liberal was more likely to win than the NDP candidate, which is often not the case).  Under IRV, you would vote NDP 1, Liberal 2, Conservative 3.  When the NDP candidate is eliminated, your vote would be reallocated to the Liberal, ensuring your vote is not ‘wasted’ by taking it away from someone more likely to win against someone you really don’t want to win.

(Apologies to whomever I stole this picture from – I saved it from my Twitter feed during the NSW election.  This won’t be exactly the same as a federal election ballot (NSW allows preferencing on the upper house ballot as optional – you can number anywhere from 1 to all of the candidates), but quite similar. The one on top is for the lower house, with the one underneath for the upper house (NSW has two houses just like the federal government does))


Many people come up with really bizarre excuses to oppose these more progressive / representative voting systems.  I’ll challenge a few of those here:

These systems would elect more NDP or Green party members – this is true.  But if 7% of Canadians are voting for the Green Party, why shouldn’t they have 7% of the votes in parliament?  While this might not be your preference, it certainly has obvious implications for democracy.

These systems would elect more obscure or extreme candidates – possibly true, depending on exactly how they’re structured.  The Christian Heritage Party of Canada got 0.2% of the vote in the last federal election, which would roughly entitle them to 1 seat in the house (not quite, but on a ranked ballot they might get more votes as people might rank them ahead of the Conservatives).  I don’t like the Christian Heritage Party.  But if one out of every 308 Canadians voted for them, I believe they should have one seat in the house.  It’s called democracy.

This would lead to more minority governments, and maybe even a coalition – again, possibly true, depending on how people vote. It’s not like we don’t already have minority governments now.  And it’s not like other countries (the UK and Australia being obvious examples) don’t also have hung parliaments now.  Both Australia and the UK have formal and informal coalitions in their houses.   Why is this a problem, exactly?  The argument is that nothing gets done.  Last I checked, all three of our countries are still functioning just fine.  It requires some consensus building, and an opposition willing to challenge the governing party (which Canada sadly lacks).  But ultimately, to pass legislation, a majority of parliamentarians must agree on the bill.  It means compromise, and it means coming up with something that can be acceptable to a majority.  Once again, this is democracy.

In Australia, this has led to a lot of people saying it gives too much power to the independent MPs (they collectively hold the balance of power in the House, while the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, also contentious here).  I go back to the same argument as above – what this system demands is that more than 50% of MPs or Senators vote in favour of the bill.  If you’re the governing party, you need to convince enough other MPs to vote on your side.  These could be MPs that are independents, or Greens, or Marxist-Leninists, or simply the major opposition party.  If they support it, the bill passes.  If they don’t, it fails.  Yet again, this is democracy.

I think what drives people to oppose these systems is their distaste for what might actually result – people they disagree with will have more of a say than they currently do.  I for one invite it, and I’m disappointed that others would deny people their say.

Mandatory voting & pairing

One final feature of the system here (Australia), and one I support strongly, is mandatory voting.  If you don’t vote, you have to pay a fine.  They’re actually quite efficient about this, too.  Within a week of moving into my new apartment, I received a card from the election authority telling me to register (or else!), and that if I wasn’t eligible I still had to return the card saying as much.  Voter turnout here tends to be around 90%, with spoiled ballots in the area of 5% in the last federal election, but generally trending around 1%.  Canada’s turnout in the last federal election was under 60%, and declining.  I was once asked if those that are turning out are actually informed voters.  Firstly – it doesn’t matter; it’s democracy so everyone should participate.  But secondly, I actually think they are.  I haven’t met an Australian who was unable to carry on an intelligent discussion of politics at all levels.  I’ve actually been rather impressed at how well-versed the average Australian is in politics – that’s not to say everyone knows all there is to know, or that everyone is as well-informed as they should be, but I would say on average most people know enough to make an informed decision.  Additionally, I find Australians to be more engaged in politics than Canadians – where it might almost be taboo in Canada to bring up politics in certain social settings; I’m frequently pleasantly surprised to have a conversation partner turn the topic to politics in almost any environment.

Another interesting feature is that MPs and Senators who are elected are required to attend all votes in Australia (not so in Canada – which has led to a lot of game-playing to avoid voting against certain bills).  If you don’t attend, you are required to gain permission from the speaker, and to pair your vote with someone who would vote on the other side.  This is done voluntarily by many MPs in Canada, but is not required.  If you want to just not show up, you can.  The idea of my political representative just not bothering to vote on my (and my fellow constituents’) behalf is rather disgusting.  I wish we had such strict rules in Canada.

Conclusion?  Canada needs reform.  Our system is set up in such a way that a minority of people elect governments with quite a bit of power, and much power is just given out with no election at all (i.e., the Senate).  Australia’s systems are not perfect, but they work, and are a great example of a Westminster system incorporating modern voting techniques that result in more equitable balances.  Any serious re-evaluation of Canada’s system needs to look to places like Australia (or even the US, in some cases) to find systems that will work in our country.  I only hope change will come in my lifetime, but I’m not holding my breath.

If I had to arbitrarily decide on an approach for Canada, I would do this:  impose mandatory voting (both by citizens in elections, and MPs/senators in parliament), with ranked ballots in all elections.  Have a Senate that is elected (not abolished) and in some way reflects the federation by providing a balance for each of the provinces, and uses proportional representation to the extent possible within each province.  The House could continue as a geographic-riding system, but with ridings balanced so that each is the same population size, or as reasonably close to this as possible.  But no matter what – almost anything is better than our current system.  Let’s fix it. Please.

Post Script:

One other brief comparison is how to vote abroad.  I wrote the other day about how complicated it is to vote in Canada from abroad.  Strangely, some politicians picked this up and tweeted links to this as if it were an actual guide – apparently not noticing the snarky comments about the inefficiencies.  If I were to be away during the Ontario provincial election, I’d actually have to nominate someone to vote for me by proxy.  I’m considering stopping in Ontario for a day on my way back into Canada (while en route to a few weeks of work in Montreal), just so I can vote.

Australians can vote at an actual polling station at most embassies, high commissions, and consulates – which, combined with mandatory voting, means that many people choose this option.  So many that the major parties actually have volunteers standing outside the polling stations in other countries with flyers encouraging people to vote for their candidates (which is allowed in Australia – whereas most Canadian jurisdictions prohibit campaigning within a certain distance of a polling station – this is one area where I prefer Canada’s system, although in Australia this can help people who want guidance on how to preference).  In the latest New South Wales election, people were given the option to vote electronically – with various security measures in place, NSW residents were able to vote online, and I don’t think I heard of one single problem.

At a bare minimum, unconnected to all the systems above, a simplified system for voting while out of the country would be much appreciated!


8 responses to this post.

  1. […] second thought, but I want it to be elected.  I think having two houses can also be helpful to strike a balance between geography and proportional representation.  I really think complete abolition is […]


  2. […] been thinking more about preferential voting and how it would avoid this problem. I’ve already discussed (probably in too much length) how this works in Australia but let’s consider how it works in […]


  3. […] In particular, I highly recommend reading Dave Meslin’s comparison of voting systems, and Neal Jennings’ discussions of electoral systems in Australia and Canada. But little has been said lately about our upper house, the Senate. […]


  4. […] the election, I posted a probably far-too-lengthy post on electoral reform.  In it, I suggested a few things that Canada’s could adapt from […]


  5. […] I wrote a blog entry (which, admittedly, was so long that nobody read it) considering the idea of Australianising Canada’s electoral and legislative systems.  I then took it a step further after the election and calculated the allocation of seats if we […]


  6. […] On governmental and electoral systems […]


  7. […] the Greater Toronto Area alone.  And because we’re spread out, the various failures in our voting system that allow people to get elected with far less than 50% of the vote in a constituency mean our […]


  8. Posted by Louis B on 2017/07/18 at 11:53 pm

    Great read!
    Although I shuddered when I read Kristina Keneally as Premier and Julia Gillard as PM, what a horrid time that was.
    Interesting to read your thoughts of FPTP vs Pref Voting. I tend to favour FPTP, even though Australia hasn’t used it in quite a long time, as essentially Politicians have to work harder for the vote.

    I find many of Australia’s politicians lack charisma and an ability to communicate especially if they are members of safe seats, and couple with a fail safe preferential compulsory voting system they don’t have to work for their vote. For example, most Labor MPs in Western Sydney.

    Canada’s Parliament is also a lot more diverse, I see more Asians, Sub-Continentals, Indigenous Canadians, Women, Disabled Canadians comparative to the Australian Parliament. This goes back to the previous point, because countries like Canada, US, NZ and UK have to get out the vote this means that community/ethnic groups are more important and are rewarded for assisting parties.
    In Australia, particularly among the left-wing parties, Ethnic communities are used for photo opportunities and free labour on election day, as well as cash reserves for donation. Some may get rewarded with a winnable Senate spot or as a candidate in a marginal seat they have 50/50 chance of winning but overall their involvement is abused.

    I look at the Senate the same way as the Judiciary. The judiciary is unelected but they are no less legitimate. Further to this in our Westminster systems (Australia, Canada, UK and NZ) we also don’t elect our Executive (PM and Cabinet) whereas the US does (at least the President and in some states all of Cabinet) yet we also don’t mind this fact. I think at the very least Senate’s should be 50% appointed that way you get people in there who are not trying to win elections but rather focus on policy and bring expertise to problems that for a long time have been ignored.


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