The 2018 BC Referendum on Electoral Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Consultations

Maxwell A. Cameron
Megan Dias
Chuka Ejeckam

Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions
The University of British Columbia
Vancouver BC Canada V6T 1Z1

April 2019

Published as: Cameron, Maxwell A., Megan Dias and Chuka Ejeckam. “The 2018 BC Referendum on Electoral Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Consultations,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law, Vol. XIII, Special Issue on Election 2019.

Authors’ Note. Chuka Ejeckam and Megan Dias are the authors of a report on electoral reform written for the Broadbent Institute. Dias also worked with the Tyee to create an explainer video, while Ejeckam participated in a debate held by Simon Fraser University on electoral reform. Cameron was invited by the Attorney General of BC to offer advice on the public consultation process. He also submitted an expert report on proportional representation to the Ministry of the Attorney General. The views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.



Electoral reform events are rare (Nohlen 1984; Katz 2005: 58; Shugart 2008: 8), and case studies of rare phenomena are important (Gerring 2011: 1154). This study of a public consultation to change a voting system—the 2018 BC referendum on electoral reform—offers a glimpse into why electoral reform is difficult to achieve, and it provides insight into how reform efforts might be better designed. Although the status-quo prevailed, and the voting system was not changed, the process was worth documenting and analyzing. Our study highlights the importance of well-constructed measures of citizen consultation and engagement, the absence of which, in this case, weakened the effort to reform the electoral system.

There are three paradoxes of electoral reform. In the first place, as all political reformers know, those who hold power are typically unwilling to change the system through which they gained access to public office. That is why demands for reform often come from political outsiders who have not yet achieved power. Moreover, the will to reform is often diminished by success in attaining power. This paradox applies to the reform of electoral systems. Successful political parties have few incentives to change the electoral rules under which they came to power (Shugart 2008: 46, 54). Parties may advocate for reform when they are in opposition, and abandon reform once in power. For example, the federal Liberal Party came to power on a promise to make 2015 the last election under First Past the Post (FPTP, see glossary), a promise that was abandoned when it was elected with a majority government.

There is, however, a circumstance that might seem, at least intuitively, to favor electoral reform. Minority parliaments (see glossary) may be more likely to initiate electoral reform, especially when the balance of power is held by a smaller, under-represented party that has an unequivocal interest in a more proportional electoral system. This second paradox, however, is that the time horizons of minority governments may be short, while electoral reform often takes a number of electoral cycles to complete. Moreover, politicians may underestimate the complexity of changing electoral systems. In particular, they may fail to anticipate the need to build a broad, cross-partisan mandate for reform. So, while minority parliaments may initiate reform, they may not be able to bring the reform process to a successful conclusion.

A final paradox concerns partisanship. Some of the most important goals of electoral reform—for example, making the electoral results more proportional, encouraging more cooperation in the legislature, and so forth—are not fundamentally about specific parties or partisanship; indeed, one of the goals of electoral reform may even be to reduce partisanship. However, many of the changes that electoral reform is likely to bring have partisan implications, and those who have the power to change the electoral system are inevitably going to see the issue through partisan lenses. It is entirely to be expected that politicians will decide whether and how to change the electoral rules depending on expectations about whether they will be able to win elections under a new voting system.

Electoral systems are not necessarily a formal part of the constitutional structure of a democracy, but since they involve the rules by which we select those who rule it has become a norm in Canada that they must command broad and cross-partisan support. Changing the electoral system for partisan advantage is rightly seen as inappropriate. There is, therefore, a delicate balance to be found between partisanship and reform. If voters see reform as inappropriately motivated by partisanship, or as exacerbating excessive partisanship, they are less likely to support it. As we shall see, evidence from BC suggests that the process of electoral reform should, as much as possible, be arms-length from partisan politicians. Yet, partisanship is inevitably a driver for electoral reform.

How can these paradoxes of reform be overcome? A key lesson from the 2018 BC referendum is the importance of public consultations and their design. Around the world, a wide range of mechanisms and innovations have been devised to consult citizens, including citizens’ assemblies, deliberative polls, citizens juries. The use of such deliberative and participatory innovations might have taken key decisions out of the hands of politicians, and thereby addressed concerns about partisan manipulation of the process. However, to be successful, deliberative and participatory processes require a major investment of time and resources. Ideally, parties advocating reform should commit to these strategies during election campaigns—rather than advocating a particular outcome (whether a referendum or even a promise of change like “making 2015 the last election under First Past the Post” [Barton, Do 2015])—and pursue them over multiple electoral cycles.

We review the BC referendum on electoral reform and argue that the consultative process was flawed, but not for the reasons that were often suggested by journalists and pundits. Ironically, the BC referendum was criticized both because it ostensibly stacked the deck in favor or electoral reform and because it stacked the deck against electoral reform. In contrast, we argue that the process was flawed in its inability to engage citizens, provide space for public engagement, and deflect the objection that reform was motivated merely by partisan gain. Ironically, BC’s electoral system may have contributed to the flaws in the process. Although this article does not analyze the merits or demerits of alternative electoral systems, there is evidence that proportional representation contributes to less adversarial and more consensus-oriented politics (see, for example, Lijphart 1999: 275; Powell 2000). The politics of the electoral reform process reflected the polarization and winner-take-all tendencies typical of majoritarian systems.

The paper is organized into three substantive sections. The first section analyzes how the reform agenda was set, how the consultation process was designed, and how the ballot was constructed. The second section analyzes the referendum process. The third section analyzes the outcome. The paper concludes with lessons for future electoral reform initiatives, and, indeed, any initiative that aims to consult and engage citizens around a major public policy issue. We hope the analysis may be of interest and value to the movements, parties, and governments that seek to improve parliamentary government in Canada.

I. The Consultation Process
British Columbia held two referendums on electoral reform before 2018. After a 1996 election which saw the BC NDP form government despite winning fewer votes than the Liberals, and having won a greatly exaggerated majority in 2001, taking 77 out of 79 seats despite receiving only 58 percent of the vote, the Liberal party proceeded to deliver on the promise of a Citizens’ Assembly made during the election campaign (Carty, Blais, Fournier 2008: 141). The Assembly chose the Single Transferable Vote system (see glossary), and the proposal was put to a vote in a referendum in May 2005. Although Single Transferable Vote was favored by an absolute majority (58 percent, and a majority in 77 of 79 ridings), it fell short of the 60 percent threshold set by the Liberal government. A subsequent referendum did not change the outcome: 61 percent of the electorate opted to keep FPTP in May 2009.

In 2017, the NDP, led by John Horgan, ran on the promising of changing BC’s voting system to a proportional system. So did the BC Green Party, under the leadership of Andrew Weaver. Indeed, the Greens were open to introducing proportional representation through legislation without a referendum. The result of the election not only gave a barest of majorities to parties that favored electoral reform, it also reinforced some of the reasons motivating reform. When the final ballots were counted, the result was 43 seats for Liberals, 41 for the NDP, and 3 for the Greens (Shaw 2017). The Greens won only 3 of 87 seats despite winning almost 17 percent of the popular vote. The result placed the Greens in a position of king-maker regarding forming government, and strongly motivated to change the electoral system.

Since no party commanded an absolute majority in the legislature, talks were held between the Greens and both the Liberals and NDP (see Shaw and Zussman 2018). Weaver put PR on the table, but did not see it as a deal-breaker (Hoekstra 2018). Despite pessimism about whether a stable minority or coalition government could be formed (Laanela 2017), a supply and confidence arrangement (see glossary) was ultimately reached between the NDP and the Greens (“B.C.’s NDP” 2017; “BC NDP and Greens” 2017). As part of the deal, the two parties agreed to hold a referendum on proportional representation in 2018, which created an extremely quick timeline. After Premier Christy Clark resigned in early August 2017, the NDP quickly formed government and, in its throne speech, promised to set the terms for a referendum to take place no later than November of 2018.

Newly appointed Attorney General David Eby was recused from cabinet deliberations in order to serve as neutral arbiter in the process. He set out to launch a process of consultation via a government website, (Palmer 2017). In addition to the online questionnaire, which was open to the public at large, the polling firm Ipsos was commissioned for study of public opinion that would be statistically representative. A team of civil servants in the Ministry of the Office of the Attorney General was charged with coordinating the process. The initial options presented during the survey and public consultation included systems widely used throughout Europe and around the world.

Policy experts pushed back: why not consider newer and more innovative made-in-Canada approaches? A submission to the government by an ad hoc group of electoral system experts, the “BC Symposium on Proportional Representation,” recommended, inter alia: Dual Member Proportional (DMP), Rural Urban Proportional (RUP), and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) as well as a number of other systems. DMP is an innovative system that would have created binomial ridings in which the primary candidate for each party would be chosen by plurality and the secondary by proportional representation. MMP was a well-known system, pioneered by Germany and adopted by New Zealand in the 1990s. Rural Urban Proportional (RUP) was a combination of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in the rural areas, and Single Transferable Vote (STV) in the cities (BC Symposium on Proportional Representation 2018).

The Attorney General sided with the experts. Eby ignored the recommendation of his own caucus and the BC Greens–who made a joint submission recommending a mandate-only question (that is, no specific PR system would be on the ballot). The government did not, however, consider the experts’ warnings that meaningful public engagement takes time and must be carefully designed (Thomas 2018), and that rushing into a referendum would prove hazardous for this government. Instead, the government pushed ahead, and on May 30 details of the referendum were released by the Office of the Attorney General (“B.C. government” 2018).
A controversial decision by the Attorney General was the use of a two-part ballot structure. The first question would establish public support for the principle of proportionality. The second would ask which PR system voters prefer. Voters were given the opportunity to rank their preferences of the three PR systems offered; Dual-Member Proportional, Mixed-Member Proportional, and Rural-Urban Proportional. Voters were permitted to rank these options regardless of their answer to the first question. As well, voters could rank one, two, or all three of the choices as they saw fit. The outcome of the second question was to be determined by plurality. Per the referendum’s design, the outcome of the second question would only take effect if changing to PR received majority support on the first question.

There were good reasons for this approach. First, a majority (58 percent) of those who responded to the survey said voters should be able to rank order their support for alternative systems. Second, it is pointless to rank alternatives unless there is agreement on the principle of proportionality. And there is no mandate for change unless that principle is explicitly established. There is an implicit hierarchy in the decision voters faced. At the highest level, they were asked whether they wanted PR. The second-order question was which PR system would be best. Third, polling suggests that FPTP is likely to be the plurality winner among electoral systems—it is, after all, the devil voters know. PR supporters often fail to converge on a single alternative, yet prefer any PR system to the status quo. The best way to test this claim directly was to ask the question directly. Fourth, voters who favor the current systems, but want a say over which PR alternatives is picked if there is a change, can express both preferences. Similarly, voters can choose PR without taking a position on the type of system.

A similar ballot was used in New Zealand in a referendum on electoral reform in 1992. The first part of the ballot asked voters if they wanted to retain FPTP or change the system, and the second part gave voters a choice between four different system. However, New Zealand held a second referendum in 1993 in which voters were given a choice between FPTP and MMP, which was the system that was preferred by the largest number of voters on the second part of the ballot in the 1992 referendum. MMP was introduced in 1996, and reaffirmed in a referendum in 2011.

The BC NDP pursued a high-risk strategy by presenting voters with three unfamiliar alternatives and putting them to a vote without giving citizens a chance to familiarize themselves with each of the systems. The Office of the Attorney General had the benefit of hearing expert and public opinion, but citizens were not given meaningful opportunities to engage in a discussion of what should be on the ballot. Although the public was surveyed, and had the option of submitting proposals to the BC government, most voters found themselves thrust into a referendum with a low level of knowledge of why electoral reform was on the agenda, and little understanding of the options on the ballot and why they were chosen. Nevertheless, for better or worse–and far from stacking the deck–the process was an attempt to give voters a choice that reflected the best available thinking among electoral reform experts. Rather than an excessively politicized process, it was, if anything, an expert-driven process. But since it was not transparent, credence was given to the suggestion that the reform effort was primarily motivated by partisanship. Not surprisingly, voters quickly divided down partisan lines.

II. The Referendum Process
When, on May 30, the office of BC Attorney General released its report detailing the results of the consultation process, it also stipulated a set of conditions any future electoral system would need to meet, outlined the post-referendum process through which the new system would be implemented, and laid the groundwork for legislation to regulate the referendum process itself. There were three specific requirements of any proportional representation system to be implemented (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7). These were: (1) that electoral reform could not produce an increase of more than eight Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the province, (2) that electoral reform could not reduce the number of MLAs serving any region of the province, and (3) that no party receiving less than 5 per cent of the popular vote would receive sets in the provincial legislature. The report also indicated that specific details of any new system would have to be determined after the vote by an all-party committee (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7).

The referendum’s official voting period spanned from October 22 to November 30, during which period mail-ballots were distributed to voters to be returned to Elections BC. Ballots could also be submitted in-person at any Referendum Service Office, the locations of which were identified on the Elections BC website. The referendum’s official campaigning period began on July 1 and ran until the end of the voting period. On November 23, Elections BC announced the deadline for ballot return would be extended by one week, to December 7, citing ongoing Canada Post strikes as reason for the decision.

The province’s Chief Electoral Officer was empowered to provide non-partisan information to voters regarding the referendum (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7). A website was created to inform voters of the three PR systems offered, and provide information regarding the referendum process itself. Two organizations were selected to act as the official proponents and opponents of electoral reform in the referendum. The group Vote PR BC was selected to support changing to a PR system, while the No BC Proportional Representation Society was selected as the official opponents. Both groups were granted $500,000 to conduct their campaigns between July 1 and December 7. The groups were also permitted to accept campaign contributions of up to $1,200 from Canadian citizens and permanent residents of British Columbia. Specific requirements were made of the groups’ operations, including providing their name and contact information in all advertising, spending no more than $700,000 total on the referendum campaign, and filing disclosure reports with Elections BC.

In addition to the several unofficial debates between opponents and proponents of electoral reform which occurred during the referendum campaign, at least two officially sanctioned debates took place. On October 22, representatives of the official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides of the campaign met in a debate hosted by the Vancouver Sun. On November 8, CBC Vancouver hosted a 30-minute electoral reform debate between Premier John Horgan of the BC NDP and BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson. Horgan spoke in favour of adopting proportional representation, while Wilkinson spoke against.

After the voting period closed on December 7th, Elections BC took two weeks to review the ballots and tally the results. They released the results at a press conference on December 20th.

III. The Outcome
The status-quo prevailed, and by a wider margin than expected; 61.3 percent of those who voted supported FPTP, 38.7 percent voted for PR. Voter turnout was 41.2 percent, lower than either of the two previous referendums on electoral reform in BC–turnout was 61.48 percent in the 2005 referendum, and 55.12 percent in 2009. As for what PR systems British Columbians support, MMP was most favoured, with 63.05 percent of voters ranking it first, on the second round of counting. However, there were significantly fewer responses to the second question of the referendum question than to the first. Indeed, 1,391,423 ballots were received and considered by Elections BC. Of these ballots, 99.09 percent answered the first question, while only 59.78 percent answered the second question.

From the numbers released, it is not possible to tell whether those who voted for proportional representation in the first question were more likely to answer the second question as well, but this seems logical. Proportional representation only won over 50 percent of the votes in 16 of BC’s 87 ridings. Of these 16, 14 were located in the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island — 8 in the Lower Mainland, and 6 on Vancouver Island. Of the 8 in the Lower Mainland, 7 were in Vancouver proper. Of the 6 in Vancouver Island, only 1 was north of Victoria. Interestingly, these results are very similar to those of the 2009 referendum. On that occasion, support for PR was mainly concentrated in the Lower Mainland and the southern part of Vancouver Island.

Several exit polls, released after the results were made known, offered possible insights into why voters voted the way they did. An Angus Reid exit poll suggested that the voters’ partisan leanings were a significant predictor of how they voted. 70 percent of those who supported the NDP in 2017, and 74 percent of those who voted for the Green Party, voted for proportional representation, while only 16 percent of those who supported the BC Liberals did (Angus Reid, 2018). The same poll also suggested that 41 percent of voters had made up their mind before the campaign even began, perhaps already influenced by these partisan cues. This poll also found striking differences in age cohorts. 67 percent of those between the ages of 18-34, and 54 percent of those between the ages of 35-54, stated that they voted for PR. Only 35 percent of those above 55 said the same. Of those who voted for proportional representation, 78 percent said that the fact that their “vote will matter more in a PR system” was a major reason for their vote. 76 percent said that the current system creates unfair results. 65 percent said it will force politicians to compromise more. Interestingly, 47 percent acknowledged that the fact that the BC NDP and the BC Green supported PR influenced their vote. Of those who voted for FPTP; 68 percent said it was because it was the “best system available,” 65 percent said they did not want more minority or coalition governments, 63 percent said they saw no reason to change, 62 percent thought FPTP was easier to understand than the other proposed systems, and 58 percent said that they were greatly worried about the rise of fringe political parties under PR.

A Research Co. exit poll reported results similar to the outcome of the referendum. The poll, which was conducted online between 18-20 December 2018 among 803 respondents in British Columbia, revealed why such a large percentage of British Columbians decided not to vote in the referendum. According to the President of Research Co., Mario Canseco, “not feeling informed enough” was the number one reason eligible voters gave for not voting (Canseco, 2018). The same survey found that voters were wary of the process by which reform was undertaken. 41 percent of the respondents strongly agreed, and 35 percent moderately agreed with the statement: “Politicians are in a conflict of interest when it comes to making decisions about how we vote, so any future proposals should involve an independent, non-partisan citizens’ body.” Similarly, 21 percent strongly agreed, and 34 percent moderately agreed with the statement: “An independent, non-partisan process should be set up to reflect on the results of this referendum and recommend what British Columbia should do next.”

Finally, the survey asked the following question:
Suppose an arms-length review panel recommended that British Columbia hold another referendum on electoral reform at the time of the next election with guarantees addressing the major concerns that arose in the recent referendum. Now suppose that the ballot question were the following: “British Columbia is proposing to elect our MLAs by Proportional Representation. This means that the MLAs elected in each region would accurately reflect the diversity of political views in each region. The number of MLAs in each region of BC would stay the same and voters would vote for individual candidates, not for party lists. There would be a moderate threshold to encourage parties to have broad policy platforms.” “If voters endorse Proportional Representation, an independent citizens’ panel with representatives from around the province would deliberate on and recommend a final system that would be voted on in the legislature in a free vote. If accepted, there would be a confirmation referendum after we have used the new system at least twice.” How would you vote? Choose one.
In this scenario, 41 percent definitely or probably would vote for PR, while 36 percent definitely or probably would vote for FPTP. 18 percent were not sure. Imagining such a scenario caused voters who voted for FPTP in the 2018 referendum to change their mind, as well. Of these voters, 15 percent said they would support PR if it was recommended by an independent body of citizens, and another 15 percent said they would be undecided (Canseco 2018).

Whatever the reasons for the voters’ choices, the outcome was clear and unequivocal. All politicians accepted it, and expressed a willing to move on from the issue of electoral reform. John Horgan released a statement saying that, while he was disappointed, he respects the result. Finance Minister Carole James took this further. In a press conference, she stated that “electoral reform is finished.” Andrew Wilkinson argued that the result was a “clear message” that British Columbians do not want reform. In his statement, he also reiterated his belief that the process was “flawed” and that the NDP had “stacked the deck” in favour of reform (Eagland, 2018).
Several weeks after the results were made known, David Eby spoke out, defending the process and the ballot structure (Shaw, 2019). He stated that the first question gave citizens a clear option: do they want to keep the current system, or move to a proportional one? He defended the second ballot question by saying that advocates for reform, and British Columbians in general, could not agree on a single preferred system. Putting multiple systems on the ballot and allowing voters to rank them reflected this, and gave voters a meaningful choice. Eby ultimately said he would not change the process at all. While he did muse whether a Citizens’ Assembly would have affected the outcome, he said he personally believed the referendum result reflected the preferences of British Columbians (Shaw, 2019).

We began by observing that a party that has won under a given set of electoral rules may feel it has little to gain from changing those rules. In the case of BC’s electoral reform initiative, however, the NDP leadership appeared to have decided that the benefits of electoral reform, or at least the benefits of fulfilling an election promise, outweighed the potential costs of remaining with the status quo. The fact that the NDP and the Greens were able to work effectively together in a supply and confidence arrangement pointed to the potential upside of an electoral system that would make coalitions and minority governments more commonplace. The Greens in particular were motivated to change an electoral system that clearly disadvantaged them. However, the cooperation of the NDP and the Greens may also have created in the minds of some voters the impression that these two parties were seeking to change the electoral laws to transform a temporary partisan advantage into an institutionalized feature of the political system. This impression was reinforced by the rapid pace of reform which was also a reflection of the minority position of the NDP. This brings us back to our second paradox of reform: Minority governments may not have the time horizons necessary to carry through on such a difficult and challenging process.

In particular, minority governments may not have the patience to create arms-length, credible, and broad public consultation. The recusal of the Attorney General was insufficient to create a sense that there was a genuinely neutral arbiter overseeing the process. Experts played a role in shaping the process, but not a sufficiently visible public role such as might have given citizens confidence that the process was guided by the public interest. Without meaningful public deliberation and participation, reform foundered on partisan dynamics that are toxic to achieving public goods. In the 2005 referendum–the only referendum in which PR received majority support–the vote was preceded by a Citizens’ Assembly that gave voters explicit input in determining which systems to present for the public to vote on, and created effective electoral-reform ambassadors whom had received extensive education on electoral systems that they could share within their communities. As the Research Co. survey notes, voters’ sense of not being sufficiently informed was a significant motivator for both voting ‘No’ in the referendum, and not voting at all.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was unable to turn dissatisfaction with the FPTP voting system into support for change. A potential majority of British Columbians may well prefer a system that reduces the need for strategic voting and does not generate false majorities. But such sentiments were insufficient to overcome the reservations many voters had about changing the system. On balance, we believe that the 2018 referendum provides compelling evidence that the type and quality of public consultation matters. Voters’ survey responses, and evidence from past referendums suggest that voters are open to change, and that they value broad and rigorous public consultation, but unless the decision-making process is taken out of the hands of politicians, and voters are provided with the information they need to make an informed choice, the public remain skeptical of partisan manipulation.



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Glossary of Terms

Coalition: two or more parties, with enough seats between them to command the trust and confidence of the House, agree to form government and share cabinet or other appointments.
Dual Member Proportional (DMP): A PR system in which most districts would be amalgamated with a second district to create two-member districts. Parties would nominate pairs of candidates in each district, and each voter would cast one ballot. The first candidate would be elected on the basis of the plurality result, as in FPTP; the second would be allocated on the basis of the province-wide vote and the individual district results (Attorney General of BC 2018: 3).
First-Past-The-Post (FPTP): An electoral system based on constituency-level competitions among candidates from different parties. Each riding is carried by the candidate who wins a plurality of votes. Also called Single Member Plurality (SMP).
Mixed Member Proportional: A “hybrid form of PR combines single member districts elected by plurality with a compensatory party list that is utilized to ensure that the overall election results are proportional for the parties.” (Pilon 2007: 184).
Minority government: government is formed by a party that does not have a majority of seats in parliament.
Proportional Representation: A family of electoral systems based on the principle that the proportion of seats for each party in a legislature should roughly match its share of the popular vote (Pilon 2007: 185).
Rural-Urban Proportional Representation (RUPR): STV is used to fill seats in multimember districts in urban areas, while MMP is used in most rural areas. “In the MMP regions, a small number of List PR seat are filled proportionally on a regional basis.” (Attorney General of BC 2018: 4).
Single Member Plurality (SMP): See First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).
Single Transferable Vote: “A form of PR where voters mark their preferences (i.e. 1,2,3, and so on) over the range of candidates in a multi-member riding and candidates who obtain the quota are declared elected” (Pilon 2007: 185).
Supply and confidence: An arrangement in which parties agree to support each other in votes of confidence and on budgets to ensure the survival of a minority government.



Maxwell A. Cameron is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in which capacity he runs an annual Summer Institute for Future Legislators. His research focuses on comparative democratization (especially in Latin America), constitutions, and ethics in politics. His publications include Strong Constitutions (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Megan Dias holds a Masters of Arts in Political Science from the University of British Columbia (UBC). Megan has written about electoral reform for several Canadian newspapers, and has given public lectures on reform in BC. She is currently working as a Program Coordinator with the Institute for Future Legislators at Ryerson.

Chuka Ejeckam is a Master’s student in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and has worked as a research assistant in UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), as well as with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). He has written for the Broadbent Institute on topics including drug policy and electoral reform, and served as a facilitator at CSDI’s annual Summer Institute for Future Legislators. His work focuses on political and economic inequality, drug policy, and labour.

Extremism should ease with electoral reform

By Douglas Todd, The Vancouver Sun, July 20, 2018

It’s not hard to find Canadians who believe many things are going horribly wrong with democratic institutions.

Democracies are weakening through polarization, overblown rhetoric, extremism, corruption by big money, excessive partisanship, hyper-competition, an inability to compromise and a lack of shared vision of the public good.

The head of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions has written a new book bent on reforming the systems and beliefs that create such havoc and hand too much power to oligarchies, small groups that control nations and regions.

Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom (Oxford University Press), by Max Cameron, offers astute observations and philosophical insights about how to rebuild democratic institutions based on the Aristotelian idea of practical wisdom.

I talked to Cameron about the way his book’s themes dovetail with what is arguably this year’s most important democratic issue for British Columbians: The November mail-in referendum on proportional representation.

I have written about how proportional representation systems used in dozens of advanced nations generally (with oft-cited exceptions) lead to greater political consensus, compromise and coalition-building.

One big advantage of proportional representation, in which parties gain seats in rough proportion to total votes cast for them, is that it combats what Cameron calls “false majorities.”

It’s becoming common for political leaders in Canada and the U.S to exploit the 100-per cent power they obtain after winning just 40 per cent or less of the vote.

Many first-past the post winners have been characterized as extremists, such as Donald Trump, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and even, according to some, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and B.C’s Christy Clark.

I’ll dig further into arguments about extremism, since both sides are using them in the debate over proportional representation in B.C., which is characterized by some of the negative forces Cameron cites. But before doing so I’ll highlight some of the democratic advantages Cameron rightly maintains could come with electoral reform.


The UBC political scientist believes the first-past-the-post-system that predominates in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Venezuela, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere incites politicians and their rich backers to fixate on a winner-take-all mentality, leading to abuse of power.

“I think electoral reform could reduce hyper-competitiveness. First past the post tends to polarize the electorate into two parties and increases the chance of false majorities. By contrast, proportional representation encourages coalition-building. I expect parties would be less adversarial in the struggle for power when they know they will be compelled to cooperate in order to govern,” Cameron said.

Applying Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom to the electoral reform debate, Cameron said with many current systems, particularly first past the post, “people neither acquire nor cultivate the skills and knowledge demanded by politics — like listening carefully, speaking respectfully, deliberating openly, judging wisely and acting collectively. And when our politicians model the worst kind of politics, citizens either take their cues from politicians and replicate what they see, or they tune out.”

Proportional representation fosters long-term stability, which benefits citizens. They endure fewer “policy lurches,” which occur when new parties with near-dictatorial term power summarily dismantle the otherwise popular programs their opponents brought into being.

Proportional representation would also reduce oligarchies, where power is vested in the hands of a few and the gap expands between the rich and the ignored lower classes. “(Since) a key democratic deficit that contributes to oligarchy is lack of representation,” Cameron said, “electoral reform that would improve representation could help us resist oligarchic tendencies.”

What will proportional representation do about extremism?

B.C. opponents of proportional representation are stressing it will fuel so-called “far-right” extremism, like the nativist parties that have arisen in parts of Europe. But is that realistic?

“Proportional representation means more parties, which mathematically means smaller parties. In B.C. that would create opportunities for the Greens and Conservatives. I think that is perfectly democratic. If these parties can win five per cent of the vote, why should they not be represented?” said Cameron.

The anti-proportional representation camp appears to be worrying that smaller right-wing parties would have too much of what Cameron called “blackmail power” over a minority government. But politics in Europe is much more complicated than most North Americans understand.

For starters, the populist parties that have recently won office in Poland and Hungary would still have been successful under first past the post, Cameron said. And the “extreme neo-Nazi” parties that opponents of proportional representation often like to cite “are shunned just about everywhere, outside Austria.”

Some nativist parties in Europe do have influence on the political centre, however, Cameron said. And that’s contributing to open debates in some countries about continuing with high levels of refugees and immigrants.

Could the same thing happen here? Cameron said European nativist parties are “reacting to a massive wave of immigration which is very different from what we’ve experienced in B.C.”

Like him, I’ve provided evidence Canada is one of the most successful multicultural jurisdictions in the world. “It is always possible that we could be swept up on anti-immigrant sentiment,” he said, “but if that is the case I don’t think the best way to fight it is by denying representation.”

Indeed, Cameron justifiably says that what he calls the “Brexit disaster” occurred in Britain because politicians didn’t listen to grassroots concerns about the unfettered movement of migrant workers within the European Union. The dangers of extremism dominating in B.C., he thinks, are exaggerated.

This week members of the left-wing Centre for Policy Alternatives came out with a parallel position. Seth Klein and Vyas Saran argue that those claiming electoral reform will feed extremism in B.C. are raising a red herring. “No electoral system has a monopoly on either preventing or fostering far right parties,” write Klein and Saran, “and those advancing claims to the contrary are merely cherry-picking examples to make mischief in this referendum.”

Of course making a shift to proportional representation is not the only reform that Cameron and others desire to improve democracies. It’s absolutely crucial, in addition, to keep removing big money from campaign financing.

“We also need more democratic political parties, less discipline in the legislature and more initiative for ordinary MLAs. And we need a more active and robust civil society to hold politicians accountable,” Cameron said.

Which are all good. That’s why my hope is British Columbians will smoothly advance through the next step of the electoral reform process in this November’s referendum.

Political Party Debates in Canada

The following remarks were presented before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, House of Commons, Canada, November 28, 2017. 

Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before this committee. I strongly support the initiative to create a commission or commissioner to organize federal debates.

The status quo is problematic in many respects. The main concern I wish to address is the lack of transparency, accountability, or public engagement in the organization of debates. Although political debates are an important part of our democracy, the way we organize them is not particularly democratic.

The creation of a commission or commissioner could provide an opportunity for deeper and more meaningful public engagement and deliberation in our election campaigns. Improvements could be made not only in the form and content of debates, but also in the process by which they are organized.

A commission or commissioner could also provide an opportunity to involve a broader spectrum of voices from Canadian society—including First Nations, youth, women, and minorities.

Most importantly, in my view, it would also create an opportunity to counteract the fragmentation of our public life, which I believe is tearing at the fabric of our democracy. We are only beginning to see the effects of this fragmentation.

More and more Canadians get their news content from social media platforms that divide us into smaller publics rather than binding us into one. Political debates are one of the relatively few moments when the whole public can come together and participate in a common activity.

I believe it is important that we do everything we can to sustain a flourishing public life. We need more opportunities for dialogue, deliberation, and engagement of the public in our politics.

It is for this reason that I am involved in a school for politicians at UBC. The Summer Institute for Future Legislators is a program designed to foster the kinds of skills and knowledge needed to be good citizens and good statespersons.

Our participants learn to debate. They engage in question period in the Legislative Chambers. They run caucus meetings. They organize committees and hear witnesses.

And one of the most fascinating transformations that we observe is how participants are quickly seized by the spirit of team work and partisanship. But they are also keenly motivated by a desire for public service. We watch them struggle to balance advancing the interests of the team and working together to find the common good.

That sort of balancing act is what politics involves. It’s what citizenship involves. Unfortunately, there are too few opportunities for citizens to acquire the skills and knowledge to deliberate, to compromise, to balance goods, and to make collective decisions. These are not skills you learn in a textbook. You learn them by doing.

Political debates represent a marvelous opportunity to cultivate citizenship. But to serve that purpose, they cannot be monopolized by parties and the media. We need the involvement of civil society to ensure that the goal of debates is not simply to entertain or create a spectacle, or only to serve partisanship: we need them to promote citizenship as well.

We can imagine ways that debate could be organized and given a form and content that would serve the public interest better than our current system. Very briefly, let me suggest a few ideas for making political debates more democratic.

The commission or commissioner might have an advisory body that reflects Canada’s diversity.

A commission/commissioner could be empowered to place the organization of debates in the hands of an independent body that would include, in addition to representatives of the parties and the media, citizens, civil society groups, and universities. Placing this responsibility in the hands of Elections Canada might be unwise. It must stand above the fray.

The organization of debates should involve open and transparent public engagement to ensure that the key decisions about who participates, what questions are asked, the format, and other matters, reflect the broadest public interest.

In the spirit of our Westminster system, leaders’ debates could be complemented by debates in ridings across the country, as well as debates on specific topics involving ordinary members of parliament. These could be videotapped and made publicly available.

The public should be encouraged to participate in debates by holding their own local face-to-face meetings in small groups or medium-sized assemblies. This could be done by introducing a “deliberation day” holiday (an idea championed by James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman 2004).

Some of these ideas have been more fully developed in other places (see Owen and Griffith 2011), and it would be worthwhile to build on this work. Needless to say, an ambitious agenda to democratize debates would take some time to develop. Creating an independent and adequately funded commission or commissioner would be an excellent first step.


Fishkin, James and Bruce Ackerman, Deliberation Day. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Owen, Taylor and Rudyard Griffiths, “The People’s Debates: A report on Canada’s Televised Election Debates,” written on behalf of the Aurea Foundation. April 2011.

Better Democracy

From Reflections of Canada, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

Canada has an exemplary democracy, but it is showing signs of stress as it enters its 150th year. It is not that our institutions are deeply flawed, although they could surely be improved. Rather, our democracy is stressed because we are having trouble sharing the burdens of responsibility at a time when citizens are under pressure to compete in an increasingly market-driven world.

Democratic elections often pose existential choices. What kind of country are we? What do we want to be? And by what means can we achieve our ends? These choices test our collective wisdom. We hope and expect that our fellow citizens will select their representatives in a manner consistent with our collective aspirations as a people. If voters fall under the sway of a demagogue, democracy may be undermined. If a majority chooses a party that a substantial minority finds reprehensible, the value of democracy is diminished for the minority. Citizens in a democracy, unlike in other systems of government, have a stake in the moral character and judgment of their fellow citizens and representatives. This shared responsibility is one of democracy’s greatest features. And also one of its greatest challenges.

One of the signs of a stressed democracy is declining voter turn-out. According to Elections Canada, voter turnout has declined from an average of 76 percent in federal elections in the 1960s and 1970s to around 71 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, and to 63 percent since 2000. For engaged citizens, participation is a civic duty, which is sustained through civic rituals like voting. For apathetic citizens, voting is a bother. They may not care about the outcome or may think voting makes no difference. Or perhaps they believe that all politicians are the same. Whatever the reason, non-participants refuse to partake in the nation’s communal political life. As a result, the public sphere is diminished both by their absenteeism and by what it conveys to others—that voting is a waste of time.

Another sign of stress is the lack of interest in politics. Few Canadians are members of political parties, much less active participants in riding associations. As a result, they have little experience with the political process. Ignorance can be as corrosive as apathy. So-called low- information voters often make decisions based on gut instinct, favouring “truthiness” (what feels true) over the truth. This encourages politicians to act manipulatively, for such voters are vulnerable to fake news, dog whistles, scandal mongering, and vote suppression, all of which occur with growing regularity in Canadian elections.

Caught up in the demands of everyday life, many voters are so focused on the short term that they cannot slow down to consider the impact of their decisions on future generations. Preoccupied with their own problems, they may fail to take a more encompassing view of what is good for them and their community. To be better citizens, we need to cultivate empathy—the capacity to feel and see the world from the perspective of others—understanding, and judgment. Otherwise, apa-thy, ignorance, myopia, and egocentrism may prevent voters from acting in ways that would have the approval of their own better selves. With greater motivation and knowledge, an apathetic or ignorant voter might come to see the importance of voting—and voting wisely. But how and where do we find our better selves?

Democracy in the classical sense (the Greek word is a conjunction of “rule” and “the people”) provides mechanisms through which citizens may become more engaged, knowledgeable, empathetic, and aware of the ways in which their own lives are inextricably bound to the fate of their fellow citizens. These mechanisms include deliberation, judgment, collective decision-making, dialogue, and conflict resolution. The more citizens are engaged in deliberative processes of meaningful decisions, the more they are able to understand the perspective of others and see their own problems in the light of larger circumstances. The end result is that citizens can reach more mature and enduring judgments, and that is why democracy is better than its alternatives: it makes for better citizens.

In a representative democracy like Canada, the opportunities for direct participation in decisions affecting one’s self and community are limited. Citizens elect their representatives to govern on their behalf, rather than participating directly in self-government. There are few opportunities to participate in deliberation and judgment, to listen and learn from the perspectives of others, and to make decisions of real consequence. Without continuous reinforcement and opportunities for practice, the character and virtue necessary for active citizenship atrophies, and tends to be replaced by apathy, ignorance, short-sightedness, and selfishness. One of the most powerful objections to contemporary liberal democracies is that they do not provide opportunities for the kind of active citizenship necessary to ensure the vibrancy of the practice of democracy.

It is sometimes said that people get the politicians they deserve. It would be more accurate to say that good institutions alone are not sufficient to ensure virtuous citizens and leaders. As Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue in their book Practical Wisdom, a capacity for self-government must be cultivated to ensure voters and their representatives are discerning, judicious, responsible, and generous in outlook. What many Canadians see when they look at their representatives is very different, Alison Loat and Michael Macmillan claim in Tragedy in the Commons. They often see pandering, toxic negativity, excessive partisanship, and permanent campaigning. They see parties operating like public relations vehicles for candidates who worry more about how they are perceived in the polls than serving the public good; desire for media attention leads politicians to gratuitously attack each other, undermining trust in both politicians and politics. They see political parties exaggerate their differences, to the detriment of their ability to work together to get results. They see politicians who ignore evidence, devalue science, and make ill-informed decisions. They see the influence of money, which forces politicians to be permanent fundraisers, often at the expense of time they could spend legislating and governing.

Many, though not all, of the defects in contemporary democracies can be traced to features of neo-liberal globalization: the promotion of competition in all spheres of life, the overreliance on rules and incentives, and rampant individualism.1 The heavy-handed use of incentives and rules promotes the desire for external rewards or gratification, rather than the search for fulfillment through activities like citizenship. A self-centred individualism weakens the bonds of attachment to others and can lead to alienation and, in the extreme, mental health problems. Unchecked competition undermines a healthy culture based on the pursuit of happiness, intrinsic rewards of social activity, solidarity with others, and the ability to work together toward common goods. Such values, which are embraced in many Indigenous cultures and in local and neighbourhood associations, are necessary resources for a vibrant democracy, yet they are under constant threat.

So, what are we to do?

Political cultures depend on practices, and the practice of democracy is a good place to start if we wish to make improvements in our political system. The representative institutions of parliamentary democracy need to be supplemented by participatory innovations that provide citizens with opportunities to acquire the skill and know-how necessary for being good citizens and politicians. Participatory budgeting, which could be adopted in many Canadian municipalities, creates opportunities for engaged citizenship by giving neighbours a say in the allocation of part of the municipal budget. Such innovations provide practical and experiential training for democratic citizenship. Citizens assemblies, in which randomly selected members of the public are given the opportunity to deliberate and propose legislation, are another participatory innovation with the potential to enrich the everyday experience of citizens. Even traditional institutions like schools and universities can do more to pre-pare people for public life by creating spaces in which individuals can experiment with the activities of representation, deliberation, legislation, coalition building, and conflict resolution. Mock parliaments in high school motivate students to vote when they come of age.

This is not to say that we should not also strive to improve our democratic institutions. For example, some form of proportional representation might mitigate Canada’s highly adversarial and hyper-partisan politics. In the short term, hope for electoral reform has been frustrated precisely because of the kind of partisan logic entrenched within the current first past the post system. The failure underscores the need to create well-designed deliberative procedures when crafting reforms—not poorly conceived town hall meetings or superficial Internet quizzes. Even without institutional reform, however, change can come through organizational innovation. For example, Canadian political parties are due for an overhaul. Party discipline needs to be relaxed and more power given to caucus rather than to party leaders. Nomination processes need to be more transparent and better regulated. Parties need to be more deeply rooted in civil society and more democratic in their internal functioning.

More fundamentally, preserving the vitality of democratic practices and institutions demands that we counteract the forces promoting competitive maximizing and individualistic self-gratification. Competitive maximizing may be desirable in the context of business, provided it is well regulated. But when the ethos of competitive maximizing spills over into other spheres of public life, it corrupts and demoralizes institutions necessary for good government. The democratic case for rolling back the rights of corporations is a persuasive one, and we need to seriously rethink the idea of corporate personhood. One cannot attribute to corporations such attitudes as care or responsibility, which are essential for moral agency. Corporations should, therefore, be barred from funding political parties, think tanks, and schools, and their public licence to operate should be conditional upon business practices that advance human needs and environmental sustainability.

To rein in the ethos of competition, it is necessary for politicians to downgrade economic growth and unfettered competitiveness as policy objectives, and emphasize well-being and happiness. Such a “human development” approach offers a powerful alternative to economic growth. Indeed, many countries are beginning to integrate the goal of happiness in policy-making. Bhutan, for example, has pioneered the concept of gross national happiness to replace the gross national prod-uct.2 In Latin America, Indigenous social movements have sparked a lively debate about how to replace a materialistic concept of the good life with sumak kawsay: living well, in harmony with nature and others. One way to promote the objectives of such movements is by constitutionalizing rights that enable non-material fulfillment, including a healthy environment, education, high-quality public child care, and health care. Recognizing Canada’s Indigenous legal and constitutional traditions opens a pathway to similar sources of the wisdom necessary for collective flourishing.

Canada’s sesquicentennial marks an occasion for celebration but not complacency. If democracy is to thrive, it must offer meaningful opportunities for participation and collective decision-making. For a country like Canada, the risk for future generations is not that democracy will be abandoned or overthrown, but that it will be diminished, corroded, and hollowed out by the more powerful forces of the global marketplace. The struggle for democracy is ultimately an effort to ensure that our institutions provide a process through which citizens can find meaningful answers to existential questions. What do we, as a country, wish to do and be? What is good for Canada, as a nation? In seeking answers to these questions, we must strive to perfect our democratic institutions to serve our better selves.

Voting for Democracy

A challenging but magnificent feature of democracy is the way it makes each citizen reliant upon the character and good judgment of all others. Democracy comes to an end if citizens and politicians act only in their narrow, short-term self-interest; but if we have an enlightened and long-term sense of our values and interests, and elect politicians with a vocation for serving the common good, democracy can produce the most just and decent societies in human history.

As we approach the halfway point in this campaign, and with tonight’s leaders’ debate looming, it is worth asking whether party leaders are seeking to buy our votes by cutting tolls and fees, and promising bridges in one place or another, or whether they are offering us a vision of the kind of society in which we wish to live.

Is it to our narrower self-interest that the leaders appeal, or to the common good of all? With all the private cash in politics we have reason to be alert to the inevitability that the parties will be particularly responsive to the interests of their donors. Money in politics undermines public trust because we the voters cannot afford but to ask how the promises parties make align with the interest of their donors.

Will the leaders transcend partisanship? Parties have a tendency to become oligarchies. This is because their raison d’être is winning elections. Competing militates against other functions parties serve: representing constituents, finding legislative compromises through deliberation, and encouraging internal democracy. While some degree of partisanship is desirable—disciplined parties are absolutely necessary in a parliamentary democracy—good government demands a spirit of compromise and a commitment to public service.

How well do the leaders speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, like those among us living in extreme poverty, the homeless, children, nature, or future generations? Many of our fellow citizens will not vote on May 9. They may be struggling to survive from one day to the next. They may lack the skills and knowledge to be active citizens. They may have given up on a system that ignores them. Low turnout is correlated with fewer goods and services. We can judge our leaders by their responsiveness to the voice of the voiceless.

Finally, we should consider whether we being gamed. Our first-past-the-post electoral system encourages the perpetuation of a two-party system in which polarized parties struggle to reach the threshold of majority government, often by narrowly parsing the vote and targeting swing ridings. Strategic voting is another unwelcome effect of the incentive structure of our electoral system. A more proportional system would foster more parties, and create incentives for them to work together between elections. We can’t change the system but we can control our response to it.

Let’s not get distracted or disillusioned by negativity and personal attacks. Let’s ask whether our leaders are encouraging us to think in terms of our long-term, enlightened self-interest—what is good for us and our community as a whole—or whether they are pandering to our narrow, short-term interests, and pursuing the agendas of party and money. The best corrective to the distortions inherent in our system is the wise judgment of an informed electorate.

The act of voting is more than a vanishingly small individual contribution to the outcome of an election. It is about each of us making the story of democracy our own. The heart of that story is the epic human struggle for freedom, justice, and equal citizenship. Our task is to be worthy of that struggle and to hold our leaders accountable to democracy’s robust demands.

A version of this commentary appeared on the CBC election blog.

Reflections on Trump’s Inauguration: Why Character and Judgment Matter in Politics

Trump is a shameless liar, a divisive bully, a misogynist, a thin-skinned narcissist, and an ignoramus. Does it matter? Why should we care about the character and judgment of those we elect to public office?

To answer this question, I start with a line of argument that suggests character and judgment are less important than good institutions, and that good institutions can compensate for poor character. I then want to consider some of the problems with this viewpoint. I argue that good institutions are not enough. Good institutions can foster good character and judgment, and vice versa; but bad character and judgment can undermine good institutions and corrupt democracy.

Whatever we may think of Trump and, in particular, whatever doubts we may entertain about his judgment or temperament, he will operate within a rule-of-law-based system, with a powerful set of checks and balances designed to limit the damage that he can do to the democratic system. Should he seek to violate the constitution or act arbitrarily, he will confront not only the courts but also constraints within the executive branch that have been established to ensure procedural or administrative justice is done. Republicans control the Congress, and this means he will have an ally there, but the new President does not control the Republicans in Congress. They will be a weak mechanism of accountability, since the GOP has increasingly become an anti-system party, but there are a few responsible Republicans in Congress, and the Democrats will also use their influence to uphold democratic oversight. Moreover, the US democratic system as a whole provides many veto points for the public, the media, and powerful private interests to prevent government from act in ways that might threaten basic liberties. In short, the US Constitution will constrain what Trump can do, and the basic realities of the political process are likely to prevent him from doing any real, lasting damage to US democracy.

There may be flaws in this line of argument, but let’s accept that a Trump presidency doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the republic. What does this argument, nonetheless, leave out? It leaves out all the damage that can be done to institutions when the politicians who operate within them fail to respect the underlying principles and values they embody. Institutions may or may not be robust enough to survive this, but even if they do, the vitality of democracy depends on the way in which good institutions foster practices that in return reinforce those institutions rather than corrupt them. This basic point can be made in at least four different ways.

First, the separation of powers is not a strong bulwark against despotism unless properly understood. In the United States, the separation of powers tends to be understood in terms of checks and balances, which is a feature of presidentialism. To use Madison’s immortal phrase, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” If we have learned anything from the current era of hyperpresidentialism it is that this formula is problematic. It is actually very hard for courts and legislatures to stop over-weening presidents from acting in ways that violate constitutional norms. The original meaning of the separation of powers, which can be traced back to Aristotle and forward through Montesquieu to contemporary theories of deliberative democracy, holds that the separation of powers is about the importance of office holders performing specific functions.

A separation of powers system requires that legislators bring laws into effect, judges interpret and apply laws with respect to particular cases, and the executive implements decisions necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the constitutional order in a manner consistent with the rule of law. In other words, it is essential that office holders understand the competence and jurisdiction associated with their roles and learn to perform them well.

This is where Trump represents a problem. At no point since his entry into politics has he indicated any interest whatsoever in adapting to his new public roles. From the moment he descended by escalator in the gilded Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, to when he failed to pivot from candidate seeking the support of his party to presidential aspirant, to his failure to moderate his behavior when he became president-election, Trump has proven impervious to the need to adapt as he shifts from private to public roles. He gives no indication that he intends to comport himself in government any differently. Yet if he continues to criticize judges, excoriate the media, and bully legislators, he will do damage to the separation of powers properly understood.

Second, we can say that Trump’s victory is already a symptom of a deeper malaise in the US body politic. Trump’s message resonated with what Arlie Hochschild, in her remarkable book, Strangers in Their Own Land, calls the “deep story” – a story she heard again and again among the people who support the Tea Party in the American south. Hochschild spent years talking with tea party supporters, trying to make sense of their worldview. They seemed to hate the federal government without acknowledging the benefits they received from it, and to resist regulation that could improve their lives. As a result, they voted for Republicans who were often responsible for perpetuating their plight. To explain their political attitudes she developed a powerful metaphor.

Imagine, Hochschild writes, you are in a line of people on a pilgrimage, trying to climb a hill, over the summit of which lies the American dream. At the back of the line are people of colour, the poor, the elderly, the uneducated. The line moves slowly, and even begins to reverse; then you see people “cutting into the line ahead of you.” They are not following the rules, but they are getting a leg up—special preferences, benefits, and sympathy. Not only that, they are also getting the support of the government. The government is supposed to be like an umpire monitoring the line, ensuring it is orderly, but rather than making sure everyone stays in line, it is actually helping those who are cutting in front of you. You feel betrayed and angry.

Given this frame, or “deep story,” the appeal of Trump is readily understandable. In promising to “make America great again,” he appeals to the way things were before the principle of equal opportunity was betrayed. He promises to take the line-jumpers to task, and to restore the status quo ante. His electoral success reflects the depths of disenchantment among those who feel left behind. For them, Trump’s many vices are more than balanced by his ability to craft a message that resonates with their deep story.

One of the great paradoxes of Trump is that he breaks all the established codes of appropriate communication—he Tweets whatever is on his mind, at any time of day or night; he berates reporters and criticizes comedians and rates actors; he holds grudges against people who criticize him, especially in the media; indeed, he treats the media as a whole as part of a rigged system.  And yet at the same time he is an extraordinarily effective communicator with his base. This is, of course, the essence of demagoguery. It is the mark of the politician who is wily but unwise.

Third, Trump’s path to power exposes weaknesses in the democratic system, including the nomination process, the electoral system, the party system, and party organizations. The failure of these institutions to prevent the rise an outsider – a leader without prior experience in elective office at any level of government – is a remarkable indictment of the political system as a whole. There are evidently breaches in the various filters that have been put in place to ensure that elected officials are socialized by the political process. Politicians are expected to understand the working of government. Before a candidate can occupy the highest office in the land he or she should have a record of successful administration in lower offices of government. Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the presidency, lost against someone who had no record of public service. None of the political filters designed to promote excellence in public service were sufficient to prevent the rise of a candidate who promised, in effect, to tear the system down. It was precisely Trump’s evident contempt for the rule of law that resonated with many voters, which places him in a position to potentially undermine institutions with impunity. It sets up a tension between the democratic legitimacy of a leader with a mandate and the legitimacy conferred by the institutions themselves. Such tensions, familiar to those who work on precarious democracies, are unusual among established democracies.

Fourth, the argument that institutions will constrain the excesses of a leader is weakened by the fact that the United States is a super-power. Not only does the president have his finger on the nuclear buttons, he controls the most powerful military machine in human history. By questioning international norms and institutions like the European Union, NATO, NAFTA, Trump makes it clear that he does not intend to play by the rules of international diplomacy or statescraft. It is in those spheres in which the president has the greatest discretionary power that the importance of character and judgment are most apparent. Trump’s worst mistakes are likely to be in those areas of decision-making that largely affect people outside the United States, especially in theatres in which the constraints on the exercise of US power are weakest.

A robust democracy requires good institutions, but good institutions are not enough. They need to be sustained by democratic practices that demand wisdom and virtue from both politicians and voters. The rise of a leader who lacks good character and judgment represents a fundamental threat to democracy. The threat is not necessarily that the institutions will collapse, but that they will lose their meaning and legitimacy. There is every reason to fear that the American dream, once a unifying vision, has been replaced by deep divisions over the destiny and purpose of the republic. Trump will exacerbate rather than heal those divisions. For those who wish to preserve the republic, the challenge will be not just to resist Trump, but to challenge him with a more generous and democratic vision of the American dream.

Aristotle’s Principle of the Mean

Aristotle says “It is by refraining from pleasures that we become temperate, and it is when we have become temperate that we are most able to abstain from pleasures. Similarly with courage; it is by habituating ourselves to make light of alarming situations and to face them that we become brave, and it is when we have become brave that we shall be most able to face an alarming situation” (1104b). When we are placed in an alarming situation we feel panic and confusion, partly because we don’t know what is going on; we may react badly, focusing on the wrong things. But if we prepare for dangerous situations, and start with risks we understand and have prepared for, we learn to overcome our fears and we let our training take over. Once we have done this with small risks, we can confront larger risks. By becoming brave, we learn to face greater danger. This is a kind of iterative, self-reinforcing process.

At each iteration we may error on the side of becoming over-confident or over-apprehensive. If we are over-confident, we become reckless and may harm ourselves or others; if over-apprehensive, we will not master our fears. Moreover, not all experience is good – some experience may teach us bad habits. That is why we need wise mentors who can point us toward the right balance, which will allow us to progress toward our goal or aim. And this will vary from one person to another. Aristotle emphasizes that the mean is in relation to us, not to the thing we are doing. A good mentor or teacher will know what the individual student needs to learn.

But then Aristotle throws a curve ball (1107a). Virtue is a mean with respect to two vices (excess and deficiency), but “in respect to what is right and best, it is an extreme.” Thus, there can be no mean or excess or deficiency in courage because “the mean is in a sense an extreme” (1107a25). Courage is a virtue that does not require moderation, just as adultery (his other example) is a vice which cannot be accepted even in moderation. What great courage demands in a particular situation, however, will be the mean between recklessness and apprehensiveness. To say courage is an extreme doesn’t mean an endorsement of extreme courage or recklessness. Rather, courage will mean different things to different people at different times and places, but getting it exactly right is always desirable and that requires action guided by the right principles as well as the insight to know what to do in a particular situation.

With the right orientation we can achieve virtue by following the principle of the mean. Using “evidence of visible facts to throw light on those that are invisible” (1104a15), Aristotle says excessive of insufficient exercise are harmful, and the same is true for eating and drinking. It is not just that different people need different amounts of exercise and food. Someone who drinks and eats only for pleasure will not find the mean, but someone who eats and drinks to be healthy will. Contrary to the view that the principle of the mean is useless or vacuous, Aristotle is saying not only that there are right and wrong ways to do things, but that we will only find the mean if we are oriented to the good. But this does seem to beg the question: why would we be oriented toward the good?

Aristotle attaches considerable importance to goods intrinsic to activities. I think this has to do with activities that enable us to function well—i.e. excellence. “Any kind of excellence renders that of which it is an excellence good, and makes it perform its function well” (1106a15). Think about riding a bicycle. It is a purposive activity not only in the sense of going from one place to another (an external aim), but it is intrinsically important not to fall off in the process! In other words, there are purposive actions that are performed as part of the activity—the pedalling, the balancing, the moment-to-moment judgments of speed and direction—so that were one to stop, the activity would come to an end. One could stop trying to get from place to place and still be biking, but one cannot stop pedalling and continue to bike. And the activity here requires finding various means: for example, you can’t go too fast or too slow, you can’t tilt too far in one direction or another, and you need a mix of automatic and conscious effort. Learning to ride a bike is not done by first acquiring technical skill and then putting it into practice. It is through the practice that we acquire the skill.

The mean is intrinsic to the structure of the activity. This seems borne out by the idea that failure is “possible in many ways,” but success “in only one” (1106b30), i.e. that which is the best. The “best” means, presumably, the best of which we are capable. Phronesis arises through activity, specifically the development of one’s potential. Aristotle starts Book II with the observation faculties are endowed as potentialities and are only later actualized, but virtue we learn by doing. It is as if he is saying that when we try to be virtuous we realize we’ve already doing it, or that the aspiration to do something well comes from the practice of already doing it. The minute I try to make a work of art, I am already trying to do it well. Rawls calls this the Aristotelian principle: “other things equal, human behings enjoy the exercise of their realized capabilities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity” (Theory of Justice, p. 426).

Between Rules and Practice: Why We Need Practical Wisdom in Life, Work, and Politics

The following talk was presented at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. You can watch the talk on Youtube.


The ancient Green philosopher Aristotle believed that every activity or practice aims at some good—some state of affairs one has reason to want (or should want). The teacher encourages learning; the nurse brings the sick back to health; the legislator makes laws.

Good practitioners tend to have what Aristotle called virtues or “excellences.” These are qualities of character that enable the practitioner to bring about these goods. They include things like: courage, patience good judgment, the ability to deliberate, discernment or understanding, and empathy.

Aristotle believed that practitioners with such character traits are more likely to know what is the right thing to do in a given situation, to do it at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons. This is what Aristotle called practical wisdom, or phronesis.

Nowadays, talk of virtue or character seems quaintly old fashioned. We think it is enough to follow rules and incentives. Aristotle would have argued that rules and incentives are important, but often they’re not enough.

We need organizations that encourage practitioners to make wise decisions. Only wise practitioners can attain the purposes intrinsic to our institutions.

I’m going to give you some examples of wise practitioners. But first let me give you an example of what happens when organizations discourage practically wise decisions.

On July 5, 2013, an mile-long train carrying over 70 tanker cars, many full of crude oil, was parked at the top of a hill slopping toward the town of Lac-Megantic, 10 km away.

The engineer secured the train with 7 hand breaks but did not turn off the independent airbrakes to check whether the handbrakes alone were sufficient to hold this train in place.

The engineer had worked the train hard to get up the hill and he noticed that the main engine was spewing dark and oily smoke.

After talking with the rail traffic controller, it was agreed to call it a night — the morning crew would fix the troubled engine.

Shortly afterward the engine caught fire. A call to 9-1-1 brought firefighters to the scene. Following protocol, and with the agreement of the track forman, firefighters turned off the train’s engine to kill the fire, not realizing that this would take the pressure out of the airbrakes.

Again, the train was left unattended.  As the pressure in the airbreaks dropped, the train started to roll.  By the time it hit the town of Lac-Megantic it was going 100 km/hr. 6 million litres of crude oil were spilled into the town, and caught fire almost immediately.

The derailment and explosion incinerated the downtown core, killing 47 people. The city looked like it had been hit by a bomb.

How could this happen?

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 6.08.42 PMImagine that we are all-knowing and judicious observers. We look down on Lac-Megantic as if from above.

We can see that nobody grasped the fact that this train, parked on a hill, was like a missile pointed at the heart of the town.

We can see that everyone was trying to do their job, but they were operating inside separate boxes.  One of those boxes was, of course, the company. If we look inside, we discover that it did not have a good safety culture and its CEO was only interested in profits. The company didn’t provide good safety training. It used cheap substandard parts in repairs which caused the train to catch fire. It cut corners, literally: it routed trains with dangerous cargo through populated areas. It parked trains on main lines not on sidings. It used cars that were easily punctured.

If we widen our lens, we discover that the number of government inspectors was drastically reduced in the years leading up to the disaster, even as the number of trains carrying oil dramatically increased.

As all-knowing spectators we can see that the disaster could have been avoided by wise decisions.

–       Suppose the engineer testing hand breaks w/o airbreaks

–       Suppose the train had been parked on a siding

–       Suppose the CEO had promoted a culture of safety in  his company

–       Suppose inspectors had noticed the many problems with company’s practices and had enforced safety regulations

Those would have been wise decisions. How can we create organizations that induce wisdom among its members? The answer, not surprisingly, often comes from practitioners themselves.


We need organizations that encourage practitioners to make wise decisions. Only wise practitioners can attain the purposes intrinsic to our institutions.

I am going to give you a couple of examples of practically wise professionals. I am going to show you how in each case they encountered a morally-significant problem. They pursued the aims of their activity. Sometimes they ran up against the culture of the organization of which they were a part. And when that happenedLiz Evans, they created new institutions to encourage better practice.

The first example is Liz Evans. She was a psychiatric nurse working in a Vancouver hospital dealing mental health emergencies. Before doing her daily rounds she’d sit at a table with doctors, other nurses, occupational health specialists, and orderlies. She’d talk to about getting to know her patients—how she listened to them, talked to them, and tried to understand their problems.
Her colleagues would look at her like she was wasting their time.

Evans found that hospitals are great for dealing with acute emergencies, but they put people in boxes. They take them in a moment of time, and treat their symptoms. She found it was hard for hard for practitioners to take off their physiological lens and see that they were dealing with people who had stories, who were dealing with sadness and pain. Many of the patients in her ward were homeless and poor. The hospital staff would treat their symptoms and discharge them without dealing with the underlying problems. Often they’d be back in a month or so, or worse they’d not be back which might mean they had perished in the streets.

So Evans left the hospital. She joined an NGO that was trying to provide a safe space for the homeless and poor in the DTES. Around this time about 400 people were dying of overdoses every year in BC, mostly in the DTES. That’s more than one person every day. HIV infection was the highest in North America – and comparable to SubSaharan Africa.

So, working with other nurses, nuns, academics, drug users, mothers of drug users, church leaders, and lawyers, Evans helped turn that safe space for vulnerable people into a supervised injection site that would provide clean needles, prevent overdoses and the spread of infection, and detox for those who were wanted it. It is called InSite.

To run an organization like this demands a special set of skills. The ability to know when to leave someone alone. To listen to what people say they need, rather than offer what you think they need. Putting them at the centre of attention, not yourself.

InSite has reduced HIV infection and overdoses, extended life expectancy, and saved lives. It has won the support of mayors, councilors, parliamentarians. The police regularly refer people to InSite. And it has survived a supreme court challenge.

None of this would have happened had people like Liz Evans and many others not seen the human side of the train wreck that was happening in the DTES. She had (and has) the qualities of character—empathy, the ability to listen, the courage, and the motivation—that comes from the belief that health care is about preventing harm and finding ways to help people and communities to flourish.

The capacity for wisdom may be inherent in human nature, but it has to be cultivated. Wise practitioners are interested in how you cultivate good practice.


Practical wisdom involves knowing the right thing to do in a given situation, doing it at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons. Politics may be the activity in which we need practical wisdom the most – and where it can be hardest to achieve.

When Preston Manning was elected as leader of the official opposition he saw many problems with how Canada’s democracy was working.  Parliamentarians had few free votes, backbenchers had little power, committees were not working well. Question period was a circus.

His initial goal was to try and change the institutions. He proposed senate reform. He tried to reduce partisPreston Manninganship in the House of Commons. For example, he would give ministers questions in advance of question period so that they could prepare thoughtful and informed answers. It didn’t last for long. Most MPs prefered the posturing and pettiness that would get them on the 6 o’clock news.

So, when he left Parliament, Manning decided to try another solution: to strengthen the “values, knowledge, skills, ethical foundations” of the people in politics. What better way than a school for politicians.

After all, if you want to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, firefighter, a train engineer, nurse, a soldier, or entrepreneur, there are schools for all those things. Why not for politics? Politicians manage the biggest budgets and run the largest organizations in our society. They are responsible for the laws and regulations that govern every aspect of our lives.

So Manning approached UBC to propose a school for politicians. For the past 3 years we’ve been running a Summer Institute for Future Legislators. The goal is to focus on what it means to be a legislator. To educate politicians so they have the knowledge, discernment, judgment, courage, capacity for deliberation, and other capabilities or virtues necessary to make good laws and wise policies.

We are already seeing some success. Last year one of our participants, Heather Sweet was elected to the Alberta Legislature. She said she was glad to participate in the program, and learn about legislation, representation, constituency service: “exposure to inspiring practitioners,” she said, “is helpful to anyone interested in serving in elected office whether at the local, provincial or federal levels.”

Good laws and regulations are important, but they are not enough. We also need wise practitioners.

We need practitioners with the skill and knowledge to interpret and apply laws and regulations.  And most importantly, we need wise practitioners—like Liz Evans, Preston Manning—to help us design organizations that encourage the people who work in them to become wise practitioners.

I began this series with the tragedy at Lac-Megantic because it is a metaphor for the runaway problems we face in our complex and inter-connected world. Runaway climate change. Runaway epidemics. Runaway violence. Runaway inequality. In the face of these challenges we need practical wisdom like never before.

I have given you examples of wise practitioners – people who have confronted morally-significant problem and have been able to grasp the full meaning of those problems.

They have the character traits and virtues necessary to be good practitioners. They illustrate through their example how good practice involves more than rule-following or responding to incentives. They illustrate how a wise practitioner will often refuse to accept the narrow definition of a problem imposed by an organization—a bureaucracy or party—particularly, when that gets in the way of the aims of an activity.

Sometimes we need to step outside the “boxes inside boxes inside boxes” that the organizations we work in create. Wise practitioners are often at the forefront of efforts to change the institutions in which we work to enable the kinds of practices that truly lead to the public good.

We need practical wisdom in all aspects of our lives—our friendships, our families, our work places, our leisure activities, and in our politics. Happily, practical wisdom is something that comes naturally to us, and is an intrinsic part of what it means to be alive. As Aristotle understood, the pursuit of the good is the very essence of what it means to live a fully human life and to flourish in the communities in which we live.

After the Paris Attacks: Canada’s Role in the Fight Against ISIS

Comments to be presented at: “After the Paris Attacks: What Must we Learn?”
Liu Institute for Global Issues – Multipurpose Room. December 1 at 12:30 PM 

There are few certainties to guide our response to the threat of ISIS, but one thing seems clear: we do not have a strategy. As one US military commander put it last fall, “We do not understand ISIS, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.”

Let me simply note two of the most obvious unresolved dilemmas facing the United States and its allies. A military defeat of ISIS would benefit Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. So, assuming the US were to have an effective strategy against ISIS, that would still leave unresolved the matter of how to rebuild Syria. Gwynne Dyer has written a book called “Don’t Panic” in which he concludes that to stop ISIS we have to back the Assad regime. Perhaps Dyer has failed to take his own advice, but his point does underscore the dilemma.

Another dilemma arises from the proposed solution of containment. Containment was a strategy used against the Soviets during the Cold War. The USSR was a state. ISIS is emerging as a prototypical state. It taxes and seeks to monopolize coercion within a territory, and asserts its right to rule—as a Caliphate—based on religious legitimacy. It has a rudimentary bureaucracy with standard operating procedures; a flag; it trades oil and antiquities outside its borders; and it produces slick if sickening propaganda. ISIS controls the territory and population of a small country. It operates like a protection racket (to use Charles Tilly’s term) or “stationary bandit” (Mancur Olson). Containing ISIS, if it means allowing it to hold its territory, would signal the end of Iraq and Syria as we know them.

On the other hand, defeating ISIS militarily would involve massive destruction and loss of life, but it would not end the problem of terrorism (indeed, it could very well intensify it). It is important to recall that the rise of ISIS is directly linked to the invasion of Iraq. The De-Baathification of the Iraqi government and disbanding of the Iraqi army provided many of the recruits and top leadership of ISIS.

So, what should Canada do? I think the Liberal government has, so far, got the balance about right. Our primary mission should be humanitarian. We should offer diplomatic good offices where possible. To be relevant we must be engaged in the military effort without a direct combat role.

Why not a direct combat role? Because we didn’t break it, so we don’t own it. Before the invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell advised Bush that “if you break it, you own it.” The US invasion broke it, and by leaving in 2011, President Obama allowed Iraq to slide into sectarian violence. Like it or not, the US owns this problem.

Prime Minister Harper would almost certainly have sent Canadian troops to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, had he been prime minister then, and his policies while in office were aimed at reversing the Canadian aversion to involvement in international conflict. Yet he never made a compelling case for Canada’s role in bombing ISIS. His arguments were partisan, and motivated by a desire to change Canada’s role in the world in ways that did not enjoy broad support.

Moreover, the last election was a decisive moment for Canadian foreign and domestic policy. It would be impossible to separate the Harper government’s bombing of ISIS from its reluctance to admit refugees, its proposed barbarian practices snitch line, and its use of the niqab as a wedge issue. This is why Trudeau has insisted that admitting more refugees is about nation-building. It is an attempt to consolidate a commitment to multiculturalism. In this sense, under the Trudeau government, domestic sentiment and international policy have been, for now, re-aligned.