With yesterday’s swearing in of an NDP government after 43 years of Progressive Conservative rule, change is coming to Alberta.
Changes to royalties paid by oil companies, corporate income taxes, public sector union contracts and the minimum wage will be front page news as the NDP governs Alberta for the first time in history.
Yet while these are all important policy issues, no change would have a more lasting and systemic impact on politics in Alberta than changing the electoral system.
Like all other jurisdictions in Canada, Alberta uses the first-past-the-post electoral system. This system is effective at producing broad-based, centrist, majority governments, and it has done so again in Alberta.
Yet despite its effectiveness in producing majorities, the lack of voter choice inherent in the first-part-the-post system is having a profoundly negative impact on the state of democracy throughout Canada.
The first-past-the-post system is simple in design, and tends to produce centrist, majority governments. While the merits of this outcome are worthy of debate, the main failing of the system is the very limited choices involved. Under this system voters are not given the ability to indicate preferences or choose among candidates from a particular party. Looking solely at the end result, elections under this system usually involve a choice between two parties, where the names of the candidates on the ballot have little significance and the supporters of other parties have little relevance.
Faced with this lack of choice and influence, many electors are simply not participating. Despite the polls predicting an historic change of government, only 58% of registered voters cast a ballot in the Alberta election.
Clearly, there is a need for democratic reform. While economic policies may take the headlines, a new electoral system is the most important change the Alberta NDP can make. A more sophisticated electoral system such as the single-transferable vote or even the alternative vote would have a positive and lasting impact on the state of democracy in Alberta and could be the catalyst for change in other jurisdictions.
Despite all the problems with the first-past-the-post system, governments have shown little appetite to change it. It should not come as a surprise that once elected by a first-past-the-post system, governing parties believe the system is working properly and the official opposition convinces itself that they are just a few swing votes away from a majority next time.
However, an Alberta NDP government provides a rare opportunity for change. Indeed, this is perhaps the best opportunity for change since the election of the BC Liberals in 2001 (who were themselves victims of first-past-the-post in 1995 after winning the popular vote but losing the election). Parties that have been treated unfavourably by the first-past-the-post system are more likely to initiate change than parties such as the Progressive Conservatives, who benefitted from it for decades.
The Alberta NDP may be tempted to leave the electoral system as it is, now that they are in power and their right-wing opposition is divided. This temptation should be resisted. Opportunities to form majority governments are rare for the NDP, and there is no guarantee that the desire for change that swept the NDP to power has permanently altered the political landscape in Alberta.
With all the changes being predicted in Alberta, the most significant and long-lasting change that the NDP can make is a new electoral system. Democratic reform is desperately needed in order to turn the tide of decreasing voter turnout, and a new electoral system could have a positive and lasting impact on the state of democracy in Alberta and throughout Canada.