Electoral Reform: Quebec Will Hold a Referendum With a Clear Question

I took this photo of the building which houses Quebec’s National Assembly in May 2008, which ended an unusually snowy 2007-2008 winter season.

Last spring, I wrote about the prospect that the Legault government in Quebec would implement mixed-member proportional representation in time for the next provincial general election scheduled for 2022 in a piece for Policy Options. Recent developments answer this question in the negative – but in an interesting way. The Legault government has still taken a unique approach which distinguishes it from what governments in other provinces have done.

To recap, during the lead up to the provincial general election in 2018, Legault pledged that his party would table a bill in the National Assembly to switch to MMPR and rejected what British Columbia and Ontario did with citizens’ assemblies and referendums. Legault even promised during the provincial election campaign in 2018 that he would not “do what Trudeau did” and abandon electoral reform if his party won a parliamentary majority.[1] The Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec won a parliamentary majority in 2018, and Premier Francois Legault pledged in his Opening Speech that his government will by October 2019 introduce a bill to switch Quebec’s electoral system to MMPR for the next scheduled provincial election in 2022.

Legault has kept this promise in a clever way after facing pressure from within the parliamentary party to abandon the policy.[2] In September 2019, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, Electoral Reform, and Access to Information, Sonia LeBel, tabled a bill to switch Quebec to MMPR. However, Bill 39, would not enter into force upon Royal Assent; instead, it will enter into force and switch Quebec to MMPR by Order-in-Council if and only if a majority of Quebeckers support MMPR in a referendum which will be held in conjunction with the next provincial general election in 2022. Under Quebec’s MMPR, the National Assembly would remain fixed at 125 seats, with 80 single-member districts and 45 party-list compensatory seats, called “regional seats” and drawn from 17 regions. Parties would need to meet a minimum threshold of 10% in order to win any representation from the compensatory seats, and this system would exclude any overhang or levelling seats altogether.[3]  I suspect that the biggest fanatics behind proportional representation in Canada will not like Quebec’s model of MMPR because of its very small district magnitude and very high threshold of 10%, and because it rejects the possibility of overhang seats and levelling seats. In other words, it’s not a very proportional form of proportional representation.

The Charest government considered a form of MMPR in Quebec very similar to what the Legault government has now endorsed, where National Assembly would contain a fixed number of 127 seats, 77 from single-member districts and 50 drawn from party lists.[4] But instead of treating the Province of Quebec as a whole as one at-large district for the party-list seats, as Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly did for that province, the 50 party-list seats would fall under a series of 24 to 27 super-districts.

Ontario held its referendum on switching to MMPR only in principle (based on a report issued by the Citizens’ Assembly and without a piece of legislation outlining precisely how it would work) concurrently with its general election in 2007. But Quebeckers, uniquely amongst Canadians in other provinces who have voted in electoral reform referendums, will vote on a complete and detailed legislative framework for MMPR and know all the details of the system instead of merely voting on a vague idea and general principle. Furthermore – and perhaps most importantly – section 227 of Bill 39 specifies that this referendum on switching to MMPR will require only a simple majority, and not the comically complicated super-majorities of 60% of the total popular vote plus at least a simple majority of support within at least 60% of the existing electoral districts that British Columbia required for switching to STV in 2005 and 2009 and which Ontario mandated for switching to MMPR in 2007.

Sous réserve du premier alinéa, la présente loi entre en vigueur uniquement si, au terme d’un référendum devant être tenu le même jour que le scrutin de la première élection générale qui suit le (indiquer ici la date de la sanction de la présente loi), la majorité des votes déclarés valides, soit 50 % de ces votes plus un vote, est en faveur du nouveau mode de scrutin prévu par la présente loi.Le texte de la question soumise au référendum est le suivant :

« Êtes-vous en accord avec le remplacement du mode de scrutin majoritaire uninominal à un tour par le mode de scrutin mixte avec compensation régionale prévu par la Loi établissant un nouveau mode de scrutin?
Oui / Non ».

The Government and Legislature of Quebec would never endorse a referendum requiring that the “yes” side meet a super-majority threshold, if you see what I mean. That would set a bad precedent for potential future referendums on a different question. Ah-hem. But in a departure from Quebec’s recent history with other referendums, the National Assembly has also this time offered a clear and simple question, rendered in the following in the English-language version of the bill:

“Do you agree with replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system by the mixed electoral system with regional compensation set out in the Act to establish a new electoral system?

If Quebeckers vote in favour of MMPR, it would take effect in the general election scheduled for 2026. A provincial legislature alone can undoubtedly alter the province’s electoral system under the Section 45 Amending Procedure. Citizens’ assemblies and referendums merely provide political cover, and governments can decide whether to employ them or not; they do not amount to legal-constitutional requirements. If a provincial government truly believes in switching from a majoritarian to a proportional electoral system, then Cabinet should likewise take responsibility for implementing it fully instead of using citizens’ assemblies and referendums as intermediaries. In the current National Assembly, three of the four parties (the governing nationalist-autonomist CAQ, the confused and near-defunct Parti Quebecois, and the socialist-secessionist Quebec solidaire) support electoral reform; only the Liberals, the Official Opposition, support SMP.

But the Legault government’s new approach should at least still force cabinet ministers to support and campaign for their own bill during the referendum and provides voters with a clear option on a clear question. No one can lambast the proposed electoral reform  as vague. In contrast, the McGuinty government in Ontario in 2007 showed at best benign disinterest and at worst outright hostility to the more radical form of MMPR that the Citizens’ Assembly had proposed. And why not? After all, the Citizens’ Assembly ensured that Ministers of the Crown were not responsible for the policy. As much I would prefer to retain a majoritarian electoral system, I also want governments to defend and justify their own policies instead of laundering their responsibility through Citizens’ Assemblies. Before the Legault government had tabled its bill, the only two precedents in Canada for switching electoral systems were that the provincial legislature passed a government bill into law to change the electoral system or that governments would cynically study electoral reform to death in committee or offshore responsibility onto a Citizens’ Assembly and then hold a referendum with an absurdly high threshold on what the Citizens’ Assembly recommended. These super-majority thresholds make a mockery of referendums by manipulating the odds in favour of the status quo; if the people are to decide on a binary, yes-no question (where, by definition, a plurality is impossible), then a simple majority should suffice. British Columbia should have switched to STV back in 2005 given that 57.69% of British Columbians voted in favour of the policy in that referendum. In any other context, 57.69% would be seen for what it is: a massive majority.

Bill 39 currently languishes in the Report Stage in the National Assembly, and the Coronavirus has certainly rendered it a non-priority for the time being. But it will probably still pass Third Reading and receive Royal Assent at some point before the next provincial general election currently scheduled for October 2022. I suspect that if the Legault government commits to MMPR and strongly campaigns in its favour in 2022, this will increase the chances that the measure will pass, especially since it only requires a simple majority.

I look forward to watching Quebeckers vote in a referendum with a clear question and not pertaining to secession!

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[1] Guillaume Bourgault-Côté, “Réforme du mode de scrutin: ‘On ne fera pas comme Justin Trudeau,’ jure Legault,” Le Devoir, 10 September 2018 [accessed 25 February 2019]. < https://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/536418/reforme-du-mode-de-scrutin-on-ne-fera-pas-comme-justin-trudeau-jure-legault&gt;

[2] Charles LeCavalier, “Un referendum sur le mode de scrutin en 2022Journal de Quebec, 25 September 2019.

[3] National Assembly of Quebec, 42nd Legislature, 3rd Session, Bill 39, An Act to establish a new electoral system (Quebec City: Official Printer of Quebec, 2019), 2-4.

[4] Quebec, “Briller parmi les meilleurs: Pour que chaque vote compte – la proportionnelle mixte,” (Gouvernement du Quebec, 2004), 1-2. <http://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/bs36849?fbclid=IwAR1uH6wKoE1BLLQKsXwzymA9fbfundBI2x1RGuPpDRFkf7_m_w0Quq6ecdo>


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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7 Responses to Electoral Reform: Quebec Will Hold a Referendum With a Clear Question

  1. Stephen Zakos, Jr says:

    Excellent article!


  2. ezgranet says:

    Excellent article! Given this system seems to resemble that used in Scotland or Wales more than it does the type used in New Zealand or Germany, perhaps a better English term would be the British ‘additional member system’, which encapsulates the semi-proportional nature of such systems better than MMPR.

    The history of the use of the two terms is quite interesting, with the (English) term ‘mixed-member proportional representation’ having been coined by New Zealand’s Royal
    Commission on the Electoral System in 1986, and coming to dominate the literature. [1] However, I have always liked the usage that distinguishes between the German model of ‘mixed’ systems and the Scottish/Welsh model, because it preserves a distinction that was there before the term MMPR was invented. For example, Roberts in 1977 clearly distinguishes between ‘additional member’ systems (a term coined the year before by the Hansard Society) and the West German model. [2]

    [1] Lundberg, ‘ ‘Electoral System Reviews in New Zealand, Britain and Canada: A Critical Comparison’ (2007) Government & Opposition , Vol 42, № 4, p 476
    [2] ‘Point of Departure? The Blake Report on Electoral Reform’ (1977) Government & Opposition , Vol 12, №1, pp 42–59

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point. Perhaps MMPR is not the best term to describe the system which the Legault government has proposed. I was thinking more of New Zealand’s MMPR and of the model which the Citizens’ Assembly had proposed for Ontario back in 2007, with a lower threshold of something like 5% and 70 single-member districts plus 30-odd compensatory party-list seats which would be allocated based on the popular vote province-wide. That would have produced a higher district magnitude and a more proportional outcome.

      I have a long paper coming out in the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law later this year where I described the origin of mixed-member proportional representation in West Germany and how the Germans call it “Personalisiertes Verhältniswahlrecht,” or, literally in English, “personalised proportional representation law.” I didn’t know or mention that the Kiwis came up with “mixed-member proportional representation” as a name for this system in English, but that makes sense based on how they adopted it in 1996.


      • I shall keep an eye out for that paper! I really like the German term; it is interesting how the linguistic differences seem to betray the direction of travel towards reform (ie the British see it as adding additional members to FPTP, whereas Germans see it as adding personal constituency representatives to list systems).


        • Indeed! They started in opposite directions. The Federal Republic of Germany really was adding single-member electoral districts to the Weimar Republic’s party-list proportional representation. Apparently, after Potsdam, Konrad Adenauer and the Christian Democrats wanted single-member plurality, while the Social Democrats and Free Democrats wanted to revive the Weimar Republic’s system — so they compromised by amalgamating the two and thus created what I’ve always known as mixed-member proportional representation.

          This paper should come out in July or August.

          By the way, I just listened to your interview on BBC 5 from last year, and I like how you slipped in that aside on Bagehot’s famous line about the dignified vs efficient elements of the executive. I got the sense that the BBC reporter did not pick up on it, however.


  3. excellent research


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