Saturday, January 14, 2006

Canada's false sense of division

from the Winnipeg Free Press, View from the West

Fri Jan 13 2006

Trevor Harrison

THE current election is threatening once again to end in a stalemate. In doing so, it will highlight a major failure of Canada's institutions.

With less than two weeks to go, the likely election result will be a House (of Commons) divided against itself, and a country that -- on the surface -- would appear equally and distressingly divided. How has this come about?

While the Conservatives talk of democratic reforms bearing on such things as an elected Senate and constituencies choosing their own candidates, the main obstacle to democratic participation -- and the main culprit dividing Canada and Canadians -- is our antiquated electoral system. Our current first-past-the-post system eliminates the subtleties of voter choice by forcing a "winner," always (it will be noted) the Conservatives or Liberals. In effect, the result is a kind of false positive regarding the acceptance of these dominant parties' platforms.

Worse, the current system reinforces the appearance of regional differences where none, or at least very little, actually exist. Consider the 2004 federal election results.

The Liberal party won nearly 44 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons with not quite 37 per cent of the votes cast. The Conservative party won 32 per cent of the seats with about 30 per cent of the votes. The Bloc won roughly 18 per cent of the seats with little more than 12 per cent of the votes. In short, each of these three parties was disproportionately rewarded in terms of seats compared to the number of votes they received. The New Democrats (only six per cent of the seats for almost 16 per cent of the votes) and the Greens were the big "losers." By contrast, an electoral system based on pure proportionality would have resulted roughly in the following seat distribution: Liberals, 113; Conservatives, 91; New Democrats, 48; Bloc Québécois, 38; the Greens, 13; and the "Other" about four seats, although in most jurisdictions with proportional systems, seats are not allotted to parties below the four per cent barrier.

The problem is bigger than just these numbers suggest, however. Under the current system, "natural" winning (if not governing) parties have been created in specific regions of the country -- notably, the Bloc in Quebec, the Liberals by and large in Ontario, and the Conservatives decidedly in Alberta. For a variety of reasons, the Liberals are most likely to continue winning the most seats across Canada, but with little representation (under the current system) in the Bloc and Conservative regions. In consequence, every time the Liberals win overall, these regions feel excluded from decision-making. This sense of not being represented is almost entirely an artifact of our archaic electoral system, however. While the Bloc cannot claim support in other regions, as it does not run outside Quebec, this is not the case for other parties.

For example, the Liberal party polled 22 per cent in Alberta in 2004; likewise, the Greens received over six per cent of the vote in that province, while, the Conservatives polled over 31 per cent in Ontario.

In changing our current electoral system to better reflect voter intentions, we might want to break with national proportionality to allow for proportional representation based on provincial boundaries.

In this instance, for example, Alberta's 28 seats in 2004 would have been distributed between the Conservatives (17), the Liberals (6), the New Democrats (3), and the Greens (2). After distributing the residual "other votes," Ontario's 106 seats would have been distributed between the Liberals (48), the Conservatives (34), the New Democrats (19), and the Greens (5).

Three immediate benefits would result from this change. First, voters' intentions would be better represented in the House of Commons. Second, compromise and debate would be encouraged. In consequence, the idea of coalition governments would become normalized in Canada, as in Europe, and not viewed as something to be feared and avoided at all costs. Third, the creeping (or galloping) seeds of regional alienation would be deprived of at least one source of nurture.

Successful political institutions create understanding and bridge differences. Canada's institutions no longer do this; indeed, they sow the seeds of division and mistrust. Whatever the outcome of the current election, we must begin immediately restructuring our institutions, starting with the current electoral system.

Trevor W. Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and editor of the recently published, The Return of the Trojan Horse: Alberta and the New World (Dis)Order.

2 Comments:

Blogger Wayne Smith said...

By Mike French

I would like to have a different electoral system, as I'm sure every other Canadian citizen wants. But are we being naive by thinking that this will really happen?

The present government seems to think so, but they don't seem to think it's important enough to do anything about it, because they know they would certainly lose the election. If the Liberals really wanted to change the system to be more fair to the actual voters and to ensure the voter that "Yes, your vote will count", then why haven't they done thing one about it since they have been in power?

Wasn't it Jean Chretien (Liberal) who said if he ever became Prime Minister the first thing he would do is bring in proportional representation? Not sure if this is a broken Liberal promise or if they are still making a decision about it.

The Tories seem to be on the same page as the Liberals. They would like to see change, but on election day, when I'm sure they will become government, the PR question I'm sure will be put on the back burner until the next election, when they will bring it up again for a campaign promise.

The NDP and the Greens seem to be in favour of changing the system now. We all know the NDP and the Green party have absolutely zero chance of being elected Prime Minister this election with this system.

Most Canadians know who will win an election long before election day, and it is for this reason that I believe many people don't even bother to vote, because they feel it is a waste of time.

I have voted every election since the day I was old enough to vote, and not once did the candidate that I voted for ever even come close to winning. The reason why they never won was because they weren't Liberals or Tories. Since I do not support the Liberals or the Tories, and never have for that matter, my vote is automatically garbage, and the garbage is probably where it will end up.

It is for this reason that my wife and I have considered not to vote at all this election, and not to vote on any future elections until the the voting system has been changed so that my vote will actually mean something. I am tired of voting for a candidate to try to make a difference, and then seeing a Liberal's face come on TV and say Canadians have spoken, and they like what Liberals are doing.

If the libs win 40% of the votes and they assume power, that means that 60% of voters do not like what they are doing.

I wonder if the NDP and the Green party had more support and were just as strong as the Liberals and the Conservatives are right now, and they had a chance to win the election, would they still be as adamant as they are about changing the system NOW? Probably not.

Thanks,
Mike French


I feel your frustration, Mike, but keep voting! It's all we've got.

If you want the situation to change, how about letting those candidates know how you feel about the voting system?

Wayne

5:01 AM  
Blogger Wayne Smith said...

I feel your frustration, Mike, but keep voting! It's all we've got!

If you want the sitation to change, how about letting the candidates know how you feel about the voting system?

Wayne

5:05 AM  

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