Thursday, January 26, 2006

What if Canada had a different way of electing MPs?

By Robert Sheppard, Reality Check Team | January 24, 2006 | More Reality Check

Take one look at the new electoral map and you realize right away that it is not only jarringly colour-coded but also politically misleading.

Great swaths of NDP orange, Liberal red and Conservative blue fairly jump out of our lonely northern terrain as if they were part of some medieval war plan. At first glance you have NDP orange shooting right up the left coast and Liberal red, flowing in a huge majestic line from Nunavut in the central Arctic down through middle Manitoba and along the northern shores of Superior and Georgian Bay into the Ontario heartland. The two together look like they have the blue Conservative beast encircled in its Prairie stronghold. While in Quebec the teal blue of the Bloc Québécois rises up from its base along the Ottawa River like a stylized fleur-de-lis.

The imagery is all wrong, of course (way too much geography). The reality is, Stephen Harper's Conservatives scored a paper-thin minority albeit with impressive national representation across the country. In fact, they hold key ridings in every province but P.E.I. and have no shortage of regional cabinet material to choose from. The underlying reality, however, is also misleading.

As the non-partisan group Fair Vote Canada likes to point out, our first-past-the-post electoral system, in which we like to revel in all those close three-way races on election night, tends to provide enough distortions all on its own. Consider the fact that, in the current election, the NDP won about a million more votes than the Bloc but took only 29 seats to the BQ's 51. Or that the Green party attracted more than 650,000 voters and won no seats while the Liberals' 475,000 voters in Atlantic Canada produced 20 MPs.

Just wasteful politicking you say? Get the Greens to concentrate, Bloc-like, on only a relative handful of ridings instead of all 308 and perhaps they will achieve electoral success on their own. Well, maybe. But is it right that the Conservatives win three times as many votes as the Liberals in the Prairies and take nearly 10 times the seats? Or that the Conservatives earn nearly half a million votes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and yet are totally shut out of the big three urban centres?

Fair Vote's solution is some form of proportional representation, or PR, a system in place in New Zealand, Israel and some big European countries like Germany. It's an idea that bubbled to the surface in the 2004 election and kind of did again this time. The NDP's Jack Layton is a big PR guy and even suggested back in December it would be the price of his party's support in a minority Parliament. The problem is he doesn't quite have the numbers now to hold that balance of power. (The math: 124 Conservatives and 29 NDP are two votes short of a majority.) But there could be defections or resignations on the Liberal or Bloc side that will end up giving the NDP more minority clout - and Harper did say at least once during the campaign he'd be open to having some discussion on PR with Layton.

Read the whole article

Wayne's reply posted to

Thank you for your attention to the critical issue of electoral reform for Canada, and for mentioning the work of Fair Vote Canada.

As Robert Sheppard points out, our current voting system distorts the message that voters send at election time, and in particular, it exaggerates and distorts the regional distribution of our votes. As Sheppard says, "The imagery is all wrong."

This is a serious matter for national unity. The inability of the Liberals to elect western MPs for the last decade, in spite of the fact that they get a quarter of the votes in the west, even in Alberta, has contributed greatly to western dissatisfaction with Canada, and has lead to cries of "The West wants in!" Meanwhile, the significant over-representation of the Bloc Québécois has meant that federalist voices have been stifled in Québec.

Sheppard is right again when he says, "The underlying reality, however, is also misleading." Our winner-take-all system leaves huge blocks of voters unrepresented. In this election, the Conservatives took every seat in Alberta with 65% of the votes. The 500,000 Alberta voters who voted otherwise are unrepresented in Parliament.

Most striking in this election is the total exclusion of our largest cities from the government caucus. Almost half a million Conservative voters in and around Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver elected no one at all. There will be no cabinet minister from any of these cities in the new government. A new deal for cities indeed!

I could quibble with a few points in the article. Sheppard says, "Layton's idea is simpler. He'd keep the current first-past-the-post balloting and then just add 100 seats, which would be divvied up based on popular vote. You win 30 per cent of the vote, you get 30 extra seats which the party allocates as it sees fit."

Well, not quite. The Mixed Member Proportional system advocated by the NDP, and also by the Law Commission of Canada, an independent federal agency that recently conluded a two-year study of our voting system, is a fully proportional system based on the model developed in Germany after WWII, and recently adopted in New Zealand, Scotland and Wales. Although it retains the use of our familiar single-member ridings, it is a fully proportional system, so if a party gets 30% of the votes, they will end up with 30% of the seats.

More serious is the false implication that under this type of system a party will have the ability to "allocate" seats "as it sees fit." This common misunderstanding gives rise to concerns that political parties will have too much power under this form of PR, and voters will lose the ability to decide who goes to Parliament.

In fact, under this type of system, each party puts up a list of candidates, and voters get to decide which list to vote for, and in some cases, who will rise to the top of the list, as well as voting for their local riding member.

This illustrates the tremendous need for public education on this topic. Although Fair Vote Canada has been encouraged by the explosion of awareness of the need for fair voting reform that became evident during this election campaign, most Canadians are still unaware that there are other ways to vote, that proportional voting has been the normal way of doing things for most industrial democracies for most of the last century, and that the frustration we feel with politics and politicians is largely caused by the fact that we don't get the government we vote for.

Fair Vote Canada is not selling any particular voting system. We are calling for a process of public education and consultation leading to a referendum, so Canadians can choose a modern, fair, proportional voting system for Canada.

Thank you again for contributing to the dialogue! I hope you will continue to learn about this problem and promote discussion on this topic.

Wayne Smith, President
Fair Vote Canada


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