Heath’s Critique of the Democracy Deficit in Canada

… an Atlas resource page in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Click for Heath paper

Click for Heath paper


University of Toronto political philosopher, Joseph Heath, has written a critique (pdf on right, reference below) of recent assertions about Canada’s democracy deficit. (See also Democratic Deficit.)

Three models of democracy

Heath notes that “there is no widely accepted theoretical account of what makes democracies democratic – or more specifically, there is no account of precisely how democratic institutions serve to confer legitimacy upon the power of the state.”

Heath describes the “three of the major models of democracy that currently dominate the academic literature”:

“Each different model identifies different institutional practices as the core features of a democratic society, and thus each model generates different recommendations when it comes to the task of making society “more democratic.” From this perspective, I discuss some of the major proposals for reform of the Canadian system – such as proportional representation, an elected Senate, and free votes in parliament. I try to show that, in these debates, the issue at stake is not whether our institutions should be made more democratic, but rather which conception of democracy should be assigned priority.”

He argues that public debate in Canada on a democracy deficit has been rooted in only one of the three models, the aggregative model, which identifies democracy with the practice of voting:

“Thus most of the proposals for correcting the democracy deficit involve having more people vote on more issues, more often. Yet democratic societies function through a complex set of institutions and practices, which include but are not limited to the practice of voting. Democratic societies are also characterized by the rule of law, the protection of individual rights and liberties, the freedom of assembly and debate, a free press, competitive political parties, consultative and deliberative exercises, and a wide variety of representative institutions. If any of these elements were absent, we would hesitate to say that the society was fully democratic.

Heath used the three models to look at three supposed sources of a democracy deficit in Canada: party discipline, first-past-the-post, Senate reform.

Party discipline

Heath notes that the “most common complaint about current democratic practice is that parliamentarians have become “trained seals,” who blindly endorse (or are strong-armed into endorsing) whatever legislation is tabled by cabinet:

“Parliamentary debate, according to this view, has becomes a pointless exercise. The problem also manifests itself in committees, where the unwillingness of majority members to deviate from the party line puts a significant damper on deliberation (since the eventual outcome is always a foregone conclusion). The problem is exacerbated when the opposition members begin to feel that their contributions are pointless, and so become increasingly obstructionist and less constructive in their comportment.”

But Heath argues that this view fails to recognize that “party discipline does an enormous amount to promote deliberation, both within parties and in the public at large”:

“This is because with party discipline in place, parties can actually be expected to implement the electoral programme that they run on. Not only do parties in Canada dedicate considerable energy and attention to the development of their platforms, but the tradition that has developed of each party releasing its platform prior to elections has had a salutary effect upon public debate. Free votes, on the other hand, would significantly reduce the importance of this policy process – since members would be free to pick and choose from it as they saw fit. Free votes also make it far more attractive for interest groups to lobby individual parliamentarians, rather than attempting the more difficult task of influencing the party’s internal policy-making process.”

He also warns of unintended consequences of weakening party discipline – that it would weaken the legislature and shift power to the judiciary:

“Giving more power to backbench MPs would reduce the power of the legislature to govern effectively, which would in turn increase the pressure on the courts to make social policy. It is easy to forget that there is, in every society, a constant and steady demand for state power. People have problems, and they want them fixed. In many cases, the state is the only institution with the power to impose binding solutions. If the legislature is handicapped, so that it is no longer able to respond adequately to these demands, people will increasingly appeal to other branches of the state. This will result in increased politicization of the judiciary, above all, and of the civil service (especially regulatory agencies). One can see this tendency very clearly in the United States, where because of the failure of legislatures to legislate effectively, social issues ranging from gun control to health care administration are routinely addressed through highly politicized liability suits.”


Heath notes that most critics of first-past-the-post endorse some form of proportional representation aimed at entrenching the principle that the number of representatives from a given party should mirror the number of votes cast for it.

But Heath argues that “proportional representation is not “more democratic” than first-past-the-post, it merely reflects a preference for an aggregative over a competitive conception of democracy” by treating elections “as a process of preference-aggregation, and not as a competition for political leadership” and that:

“… proportional representation has its own peculiar disadvantages. First, there is the well-known fact that it makes the formation of a majority government extremely difficult. Thus it systematically weakens the power of the state. As a result, it is unlikely that one “tier” of government in Canada would adopt this system if the others did not. For example, if the federal government were to adopt proportional representation, while the provincial governments remained first-past-the-post, the result would be a significant shift of power away from the federal government toward the provinces. While it is often noted that the ruling party and the prime minister are exceptionally powerful within the Canadian system, critics often overlook the fact that Canada is in the unusual position of having adapted the parliamentary system to govern a federation. The provincial premiers in many ways counterbalance federal power, and amplify the power of the opposition (just as the federal government counteracts the centrifugal tendencies of the provinces). For the federal government to unilaterally adopt proportional representation would significantly disrupt the existing equilibrium (in favour of a decentralization that is opposed by the majority of Canadians outside Quebec).

“Furthermore, while first-past-the-post is extremely effective a producing governments, it is also very good at removing them. A surprising number of commentators simply fail to realize that the Canadian system has an extremely high rate of turn-over. One of the major flaws of proportional representation is that it relies upon lists drawn up by the parties to determine who gets elected to parliament. This effectively turns every parliamentary position into a patronage appointment. It also makes the 20 or so most powerful individuals within each party effectively “untouchable” by the electorate. As long as they maintain their base of support within the party, it would take near-total electoral elimination to dislodge them. This is a source of considerable complaint in Israel, where politics for many years involved simply a steady rotation of the same old faces. This breeds considerable cynicism in the electorate – creating the impression that no matter how you vote, the same people always get in. In Canada, by contrast, cabinet ministers have often failed to secure re-election (something that would be all but impossible under most systems of proportional representation).

“Finally, it is worth mentioning that the adoption of proportional representation would be entirely at cross-purposes with the goal of encouraging greater autonomy among parliamentarians. In most proportional systems, members rely entirely upon the support of the party for their position; they cannot develop an independent power base with the electorate in their riding (of the sort that many long-standing MPs in Britain enjoy). Thus MPs are likely to be even more subordinate to the party.”

Senate reform

Heath notes that the non-elected nature of the Senate, combined with recent scandals and media hostility, has led to a “lack of legitimacy is sufficiently extreme that it has begun to compromise the Senate’s ability to carry out its deliberative functions.”

But Heath argues that:

“Unfortunately, the movement to reform the Senate has been almost completely hijacked by smaller provinces, who have used it as an attempt to create a “fifth column” for provincial interests within the federal government. Thus an enormous amount of attention has been lavished upon the proposal for a “triple-E” senate (which would see the Canadian Senate transformed into a precise duplicate of the American Senate – with an equal number of Senators from each province) despite the fact that such a proposal is a political non-starter. A “double-E” Senate [elected and effective], with perhaps some adjustment of the regional balance, is the most that anyone could hope to obtain.

“But what is the purpose of a “double-E” Senate? Most reform proposals are based on aggregative views, and so fail to respect the distinctive contribution that the Senate makes to the Canadian political process, as the chamber of “sober second thought.” In other words, they fail to take the deliberative function of the Senate seriously. As a result, they either cannot see any function for the Senate at all, and so propose that it be abolished, or else they seek to reconstruct it as a duplicate of the House of Commons, with simply more weight given to regional interests. Both positions essentially see the function of the legislature as counting up heads, balancing conflicting interests, and handing victory to the majority. They are remarkably blind to important role that informed deliberation plays in the political process.”

Implications for democratic reform

Heath acknowledges that “democratic institutions, once established, are extremely difficult to reform … because the people who ascend to power will usually be those who benefited the most from the existing set of rules.” He understands why this “makes it easy to believe that the cause of democratic reform in Canada has fallen victim to the harsh realities of political power.”

But he argues that “despite its superficial plausibility, this diagnosis is ultimately too simplistic” and that:

“Most of the proposals for reform and the demands for “more democracy” are deeply flawed, and are based on a demonstrably inadequate conception of democratic politics. As a result, it is doubtful that any of these proposals would improve anything in the Canadian system. Furthermore, they exhibit a peculiar blindness to many important features of how the current system works. Thus in many cases these proposals run the risk of destroying elements of the current system that are functioning well, in return for benefits that are, at best, unclear.

“As a result, I am inclined to view the institutional stasis of the past ten years with significantly less alarm than many other commentators. While there are clearly defects in the current system, all of the proposals for large-scale reform seem to be equally defective. Furthermore, almost every proposal on the table would have the effect, in one way or another, of weakening federal power. After the narrow defeat of the 1995 Quebec referendum it is hardly surprising that the federal government should be reticent to handicap itself in this way.”

Heath’s “bump under the carpet”

In a subsequent Policy Options article (reference below), Heath makes the case that the “desire to represent somehow the will of the majority through our electoral system is a futile quest” and that electoral reform can move but not eliminate the “bump under the carpet.” He writes:

“Since there will often be no majority winner at the riding level, the system instead awards victory to the individual who gets the most votes. The net consequence of doing this in each riding is that it usually results in one party gaining a legislative majority. This may seem like an “artificial” majority, until we stop to consider the fact that, in many circumstances, any majority will be artificial. [See also Condorcet’s Paradox]

“We can imagine this element of arbitrariness as something like a bump under the carpet, a bump that can be moved around, but not eliminated. This is in fact that the major lesson learned from formal voting theory over the past few decades. One glance at this literature and it is easy to see that it gets complicated very quickly, with people developing increasingly arcane systems. And yet we know from first principles that each one of these systems is going to have a flaw, or contain an element of arbitrariness. The bump under the carpet can be moved around, but it cannot be eliminated.

“One response to this situation is to drop the preference for elections that yield majority governments. This is, in effect, what proponents of proportional representation have been advocating. They take issue not so much with the fact that individuals can be elected with less than 50 percent support but with the fact that a party can win the majority of seats in the legislature with less than 50 percent support. In their view, parliamentary seats should be allocated based strictly on vote share.

“The question one should ask, when considering proposals such as this, is “where does it move the bump?” The answer is that it moves it into the legislature – because after all, even if there is no majority government, a majority of votes in the House of Commons is still required to pass legislation. And since the majority will is often non-existent there, something arbitrary is going to have to happen, in order to get legislation passed.

“Thus, the best that can be said for proportional representation is that it moves the bump somewhere closer to out of sight. Rather than having a voting system that reliably delivers majority governments it will be left to politicians in the legislature to put together a majority, using whatever backroom horse-trading and negotiation tactics they can come up with. We can rest assured that there will be an enormous amount of arbitrariness in this as well.”

Peter Leowen’s perspective

Heath’s cautions about unintended consequences of changes to the first-past-the-post system, have been reiterated by political scientist, Peter Loewen, (reference below) who wrote on 26 August 2016:

“… Canada has functioned relatively well as a democracy. We have had nearly 150 years of uninterrupted democratic rule with dozens of peaceful transfers of power. By the standards of the times, our elections have been well-conducted, our franchise liberally composed, and our policies relatively enlightened.

“This is not nothing.

“And it is particularly not nothing in a country which is highly regionalized, with economies that are largely at odds with one another, with several major religious groups, not to mention several founding ethnic groups and then immigrant waves that at various times viewed each other as unfit for common purpose and interaction.

“That this country has been held together and integrated might be dumb luck. It may also have something to do with an electoral system which has rewarded parties that do the work between elections of building the largest possible coalitions of people, and then putting in place policies that address their diverse demands.

“Our electoral system is a central democratic institution. It exists in concert with a myriad of other institutions. It informs our politics not only through its rules, but through the norms and practices which have evolved alongside and within. We should carefully consider not only the upside and drawbacks of reform, but also the merits of our current system.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Electoral Systems and Democratic Reform (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Joseph Heath (n.d.), The democracy deficit in Canada, at http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~jheath/democracy.pdf, accessed 12 August 2016 and uploaded to the Atlas at http://www.atlas101.ca/pm/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Heath-Democracy-Deficit-in-Canada.pdf.

Joseph Heath (2016), Electoral reform and the illusion of majority rule, Policy Options, 21 June, at http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/june-2016/electoral-reform-and-the-illusion-of-majority-rule/, accessed 28 August 2016.

Peter Loewen (2016), Consider the merits of our system before electoral reform, Ottawa Citizen, 26 August, at http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/loewen-consider-the-merits-of-our-system-before-electoral-reform, accessed 27 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 28 September 2016.

Image: Joseph Heath (n.d.), The democracy deficit in Canada, at http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~jheath/democracy.pdf, accessed 12 August 2016.