Voting reform: An idea whose time has come

By Walter Robinson
web posted February 26, 2001

Last week the NDP used one of its precious opposition days to forward the following motion for debate:

That this House strike a special all-party committee to examine the merits of various models of proportional representation and other electoral reforms, with a view to recommending reforms that would combat the increasing regionalization of Canadian politics, and the declining turnout of Canadians in federal elections.

The NDP is right: a national debate on voting reform is urgently needed. It would address problems such as the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's office, declining voter turnout, and a widening disconnect between voters and MPs. Sadly, due to House rules, this motion was debated only and did not and come to a vote. But it raised critical and fundamental questions.

Why do we need a new voting system? Ours works just fine. This is what Liberals said in response to NDP leader Alexa McDonough's eloquent opening remarks and those of her colleague, Lorne Nystrom, MP for Regina-Qu'Appelle, for whom voting reform is an abiding passion.

Our archaic first-past-the-post (FPTP) system continues to give parliamentary seats to the party that wins the most votes in an election and discards the rest. In most cases, the discarded votes represent a majority of votes cast in the riding.

As a result, we continue to elect "faked majority" governments. In the most recent election, the Liberals garnered 41 per cent of the national vote (meaning almost 6 in 10 voters didn't vote for them) yet they earned 57 per cent of commons seats and will exercise 100 per cent political power for the next three to five years. In 1997, it was much the same story. With only 38 per cent of the popular vote – the smallest mandate in Canadian history for a majority government – the Liberals clung to government.

Is this just a federal anomaly? No, It's the same story in the provinces. In B.C., the current NDP government has a majority even though it received fewer votes than the opposition Liberals. Similarly Lucien Bouchard became Premier of Quebec with an overwhelming majority of the seats although the PQ earned fewer votes than the Liberals. And in Ontario, Mike Harris continues to enjoy a majority government despite the fact that 56 per cent of Ontario voters cast ballots against him in 1999.

What about international comparisons? Well, there are only a handful of modern democracies that still employ the FPTP system. And only three democracies with populations over 8 million people still use this voting system. To be fair, those three countries are Canada (obviously), the U.S., and the U.K.

However, in the U.K., recent elections in Ireland, Scotland and Wales all used some form or variations of proportional representation (PR) to elect their respective assemblies. And a few years back, British Prime Minister Tony Blair initiated a study of electoral reform (the Jenkins Commission) and has since indicated that he is prepared to have a referendum on the issue of PR.

Okay then, but what else is so bad about our system? It exacerbates regional differences. The November election result clearly shows that Canada has become increasingly balkanized. The Canadian Alliance garnered about 1.9 million votes across the four Western provinces for 64 of their 66 seats. But they also received more than one million votes in Ontario; all for a paltry two seats.

Meanwhile, the Liberals cleaned house in Ontario with about 2.3 million votes – about twice as many votes as the Alliance but 50 times as many seats. In the West, this electoral perversion continues. The Liberals received about 950,000 votes in the four Western provinces – about half the Alliance – but they only received one-fifth as many seats.

So what are the alternatives to our FPTP system? One option would be to force parties to garner absolute majorities to gain power. This could be achieved through run-off elections or transferable or preferential balloting. Another system would employee proportional representation (PR). Under PR, the distribution of seats and power is a function of the popular vote cast for respective candidates and/or parties.

For example, if House of Commons seats were allocated based on a pure proportional model, the tally, using the results from the 2000 election would be: Liberal, 123 (instead of 172); Alliance, 77 (instead of 66); Conservatives, 37 (instead of 12); Bloc Quebecois, 32 (instead of 38); NDP, 26 (instead of 13); and six "others" would each have won a seat instead of being shut out.

Actually, versions of proportional representation systems are employed in more than 90 jurisdictions and can be tailored to reflect the needs of different countries. For example, some people believe a German or New Zealand-style system of combining first-past-the-post and proportional representation might be suitable to Canada. Such a system would retain the concept of MPs representing traditional ridings, while the overall result would better reflect the voters' wishes.

PR has led to instability in places like Israel and Italy. With majority governments a rare outcome in PR-style systems, wouldn't Canada become politically unstable? Again, PR-style systems are used in dozens of countries, Italy and Israel are outliers in this regard and their political instability has more to do with deep-seated regional and religious issues. Blaming their voting system is a red-herring argument.

Now, admittedly, a PR-style system could give birth to even more political parties, but this would be an expression of the people's will and it is not to be feared. Moreover, in several European countries, voters regularly are presented with double-digit party choices, but they are intelligent enough to discern between the frivolous and serious contenders.

Yes, parties have to combine forces in order to rule, but this yields governments that are both more representative and more accountable. Are there is less chance of having wasted votes since even small parties can make their presence felt. So strategic voting is also of much less interest. You have more opportunity to vote for a political party rather than against it.

Minimum vote or percentage thresholds can also be built into the system to ensure that minority parties don't paralyze parliament. Besides, after 20 years of arrogant majority rule by Liberal and PC governments, a little uncertainty in those holding the reins would be a good thing.

But would a PR-style or majoritarian system be better for Canada? It would certainly engage more people. Canada has seen a disturbing decline in voter turnout over the past four elections. In 1984 and 1998, 75 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. In 1993, this number dropped to 69.6 per cent and, in 1997, it fell again to 67 per cent. Figures now indicate that last November's turnout was about 60 per cent. In countries with PR-style systems, voter turnout is consistently 8 to 11 percentage points higher the FPTP nations.

Okay I'm convinced, but the NDP motion is history, where do we go from here? Check out www.fairvotecanada.org. This recently formed organization will hold its founding meeting in Ottawa on March 30th and 31st will a national conference of academics, activists, journalists and politicians all offering their perspective on how voting reform could work in Canada. The conference is appropriately titled Making Votes Count.

Indeed, voting reform is an idea whose time has come.

Walter Robinson is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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