Election reform: Canada in desperate need of proportional representation


House of Commons security guards receive a standing ovation from Members of Parliament. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)
House of Commons security guards receive a standing ovation from Members of Parliament. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)

The Parliament of Canada should initiate the most broadly acceptable model of proportional representation (PR) for electing members to our House of Commons, mostly because doing so would create a chamber where MPs are elected in proportion to votes received rather than our present winner-take-all system.

Canada, the U.S. and U.K. are the only major Western democracies still using the first-past-the-post voting system. Our election laws should no longer prescribe that the only voters electing MPs are those favouring each riding's most popular political party. Now the votes of those supporting minority parties — about seven million in the 2011 federal election — achieve nothing in terms of post-election representation. That model was created centuries ago and is simply out-dated for modern times.

Réal Lavergne of the Fair Vote Canada civil society adds:

“Among the world’s 35 strongest democracies, 25 use PR and only six use winner-take-all systems of one sort or another... Comparative research as compiled by Fair Vote Canada shows that countries with PR do better on a wide range of criteria, yielding a higher level of economic equality, greater representation of women in parliament, a more collegial style of politics, better economic management and better environmental performance."

Voter turnout in federal elections has declined across the country in recent years, probably mostly because of rising citizen discontent with our most important democratic institution. This is no doubt aggravated by our electoral practices. One study indicated that voter turnout in PR elections is more than eight percent higher than those where the winner-takes-all.

Opposing view:

Election reform: Complaints about money and electoral districts are for losers

Consider some results from some recent Canadian elections. In 2011, 39.6 per cent of the total national votes cast elected a Conservative "majority" government. In 1997, 38.5 pe cent elected a Liberal “majority." In the 1990 Ontario election, only 37.6 per cent produced an NDP “majority." An even more bizarre result occurred in the 2006 New Brunswick election. More residents voted for the Conservatives, but the Liberals still won a majority of the seats. If one democratic goal is to treat all voters with respect by attempting to ensure that all votes count equally, results must be proportional. A party’s share of the MPs in the House of Commons ought to reflect roughly how Canadians voted. If a party wins, say, 40 per cent of the votes cast nationally, they will under most PR models elect about the same percentage of MPs. More than 80 nations have now created voting systems with at least some element of PR.

Opponents of PR claim that "too much democracy” reduces the possibility of forming effective governments, but the full list of nations using PR — including Germany, Switzerland and Sweden — indicates otherwise. PR does lead to frequent coalition governments, but political parties in Canada are already coalitions of often-concealed internal factions. Coalitions resulting from PR would be more representative of voters and negotiations would be more visible to Canadians than those done within parties behind caucus doors. Coalitions of two or more parties quite often appear to be closer to public opinion on issues than one-party governments.

Critics assert that PR encourages extremists to be elected, but overlook that in our present system vote splitting has allowed MPs to be elected with less than 30 per cent of the vote in their riding. In Germany’s PR model, for example, parties require more than five per cent of the popular vote before being allowed a representative in the Bundestag.

PR implies more politicians, say critics, but the Law Commission of Canada for one recommends keeping the same number of MPs from each province and territory, but making every three ridings into two larger ones and adding regional MPs elected by voters unrepresented by the local election results. Choosing the best model of PR for Canadians today will be important. One that seems well-suited to us is the hybrid known as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) used in Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere. Each elector gets two votes, with one being applied to a local district candidate whose election is determined by first-past-the-post. The other is applied to the national parties. The seats in Parliament are allocated on the basis of the votes going to each party. If not enough MPs are elected in constituencies to reflect a party’s national vote, it gets additional seats from its national party list to “top up” its number of seats. Unless a party gets five per cent of the popular vote, it cannot add any seats from the national party list.

In short, it is time to act on PR.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.