Tuesday, January 17, 2006

When a democracy is not really democratic

By John Gray, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Jan. 16, 2006

Before Canadians go to the polls on Monday, one conclusion is already clear. That is, whatever happens, the results will be curiously at odds with the votes that were actually cast.

There will be no big surprise about this, because Canada and most of the rest of the English-speaking world are cheerfully defiant that its voting system is determinedly undemocratic.

A vote here is not worth as much as a vote there. Indeed, sometimes a vote is worth nothing, so that whoever casts that vote has no voice in determining the shape of Canada's government.

Thus, in the 2004 election, the Liberals got 37 per cent of the vote across the country but ended up with a disproportionate 44 per cent of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. They got 135 seats when a proportionate share would have been 113 seats.

In the same election, the New Democrats got 16 per cent of the vote and won just 19 seats. The Bloc Québécois, in contrast, won 12 per cent of the vote but got 54 seats.

The reason for the disparity is that the NDP vote is scattered in 308 ridings across the country while the Bloc does not even bother to contest ridings outside Quebec. But in Quebec's 75 ridings, the Bloc got 49 per cent of the vote.

There are other even more startling imbalances. In the 1997 federal election, the Liberals won 99 of Ontario's 101 seats, yet they won less than half the vote. In Prince Edward Island the Liberals won all four seats with 45 per cent of the vote.

Most politicians agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system in which there is such a disparity between votes cast and seats won. The harsh reality is that all votes are not equal.

The best that can be said about the current system, known as first-past-the-post, is that it is more likely to produce majority governments and thus a certain stability in the federal capital.

But even that is only partly true. In the last 40 odd years there have been 14 federal elections, six of which have resulted in minority governments. So majorities are by no means guaranteed.

Even when there is a majority of seats, it does not by any means necessarily reflect a majority of votes cast. In 1997 the Liberals won a majority of the seats in the Commons with a mere 38 per cent of the vote.

Whatever the apparent injustice of the first-past-the-post system, it has remained stubbornly resistant to change.

For a time after the last election it appeared there might be some leverage for change. NDP Leader Jack Layton announced he would demand a referendum on electoral reform if his party held the balance of power in the minority government.

Layton and the NDP had been particularly outspoken about electoral reform, but when push came to shove, electoral reform was not on the table. Layton supported the Liberals with no mention of reform.

More recently Layton said "proportional representation will be a big part of any discussion" about support for any future minority government.

Both Liberals and Conservatives have said they would consider electoral reform but neither party has shown particular excitement for the idea – perhaps because the larger parties are more likely to win a majority under the first-past-the-post system.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said his party convention last March expressed some interest in electoral reform "although we haven’t adopted any particular specific model."

Fair Vote Canada, a lobby group for electoral reform, reported that Liberal leader Paul Martin "continues to avoid the issue." In recent years both British Columbia and Prince Edward Island have held referendums on whether they should adopt proportional representation at the provincial level but both fell short of the necessary level for approval.


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