Opinion: Ditching first past the post

Proportional representation could soon be coming to a province near you.

Earlier this month, three of the four parties in the National Assembly including the currently leading Coalition Avenir Québec signed an electoral-reform pact.

Should one of them win the Oct. 1 vote, its government would be honour-bound to introduce legislation within its first year in office to move Quebec to a mixed-proportional voting system. The pact is not legally binding but it does bear the signature of the party leaders.

Under the scenario of an opposition victory, Quebec could presumably vault over British Columbia — where a plebiscite on electoral reform will be held next fall — and become the first province to cross the finish line to a proportional voting system.

But did we not just see this movie at the federal level and did it not end on an unhappy note for electoral reform proponents?

There are two major differences between the Quebec bid to make the fall election the last to be held under the first-past-the-poll system and Justin Trudeau’s similar undertaking in the last federal campaign in 2015.

1. Trudeau never sought a mandate to implement a specific voting formula. He was also never particularly clear on whether he would submit his proposal to a plebiscite before implementing it.

In Quebec next fall, a vote for the CAQ, the Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire or the Green party will be a vote for a mixed proportional system, to be put in place in time for the following election. The implementation of the Quebec pact is not conditional on a referendum.

That matters because so far provincial attempts to change the voting system have failed the test of a plebiscite. When B.C. votes on electoral reform next fall it will be that province’s third kick at the can in 13 years. In between the first vote and the upcoming one, the threshold for victory has been lowered from 60 per cent in 2005 and 2009 to a simple majority in 2018.

2. Prior to becoming prime minister, Trudeau had voiced support for a preferential ballot. But none of the other parties would support that formula. Once it became clear the Liberals could not get the reform they wanted, the prime minister ditched his promise.

In any event, in Quebec’s case, a CAQ or PQ government would not have a handy excuse to wiggle out of the pact as its signatories have agreed on a mixed-proportional system.

That is not to say that the CAQ’s François Legault or PQ’s Jean-François Lisée — should one of the two become premier later this year —would not have cause to pause on the way to changing the system.

The ruling Liberals are offside on the multi-party consensus but as opposed to the federal Conservatives who had cause to fear that a more proportional voting system would see them consigned to the opposition benches, Philippe Couillard’s party could well benefit from a reform.

Quebec’s last majority PQ government had less popular support than the runner-up Liberals.

In the election before that in 1994, Jacques Parizeau secured the governing majority he needed to go ahead with a referendum by beating the Liberals 45 per cent to 44 per cent.

More so than any other Quebec party, the Liberals pay a price for the high concentration of part of their vote. They enjoy massive support among non-Francophone voters but that only translates into a small fraction of the province’s seats.

Take the current Quebec polls: province-wide, the numbers suggest the Liberals are highly competitive. But in reality Couillard is in trouble because his party is trailing badly in the Francophone ridings that will determine the outcome of the fall election.

It would be hard to craft a proportional voting system that would not be a gift that keeps on giving for the Quebec Liberals.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.

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