09 June 2003

Proportional representation for Canada?

Many of us have long been working for and speaking out in favour of electoral reform in this country. Like many Anglo-Saxon democracies, Canada operates with what is variously known as a single-member-plurality system, or first-past-the-post, or winner-take-all. This means that the country is divided up into so-many electoral districts -- or ridings, as we call them here -- each of which elects a single member of parliament to represent it. The winning candidate need not have the support of a majority of voters in the riding. In fact, in many ridings this outcome is highly unlikely. In a closely matched four-way race, for example, the winning candidate could obtain the seat over the opposition of slightly less than three-quarters of the voters. That this is not very democratic is becoming obvious to increasing numbers of Canadians.

Here then is some exceedingly cheerful news from The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson, writing in saturday's edition: "A balanced act for voters." Writes Ibbitson:

It is now almost inevitable that many -- perhaps even most -- Canadians will soon experience a reconstruction of their political system more radical than anything envisioned by the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.

Three of the larger and two of the smaller provinces are, to varying degrees, progressing toward some form of proportional representation as a means of electing legislatures, displacing the "first past the post" method we have known since Confederation. The federal government is awaiting a report on whether it should follow suit.

Most Canadians don't seem to know this internal revolution is under way. But once the process is complete -- and it could be complete within a very few years -- most of us may be governed in a way very different from the way we are governed now.

Under proportional representation (PR), most governments in Canada will be coalitions of several parties working together more or less in concert. The advantage will be a more consensual form of decision-making. The disadvantage could be chronic instability. Regardless, PR is almost certainly on the way.

The author also makes the connection, noted by a number of scholars and observers, between electoral reform and voter turnout:

Chronic misrepresentation of voter support in legislatures may be one contributing factor to the steady decline in voter turnout, which, at the federal level, has fallen from 70 per cent in 1980 to 61 per cent in 2000. Tuesday's Manitoba election had the worst turnout for the province in half a century: an appalling 53.9 per cent.

In today's edition of The Globe and Mail, Ibbitson continues his exploration of electoral reform by describing a forthcoming citizens' assembly (or what might be called a constituent assembly) in British Columbia to address electoral reform in that province: "Citizens' assembly: Handle with care." Perhaps Canada's current one-party-dominant semi-democracy will be running its course soon. Ibbitson's columns offer some hope for this.

Incidentally, Canada's other national newspaper, The National Post, generally opposes a move to proportional representation (PR), despite its tireless advocacy of various other political reforms, particularly those that would rein in the powers of the prime minister. I am mystified by this. They too would like to bolster democratic accountability in this country, but they cannot bring themselves to support one of the principal reforms likely to bring this about.

By contrast, in past editorials The Globe and Mail has come out in favour of a German-style mixed-member form of PR for this country. I myself agree with this, as it would be the least disruptive to our current way of doing things, while promising to compensate those political parties handicapped by a first-past-the-post system.

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