Let’s debate proportional representation, again

Another chance to fret about the current situation
The chamber of the House of Commons is seen during Question Period Wednesday March 27, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

When the House convenes this afternoon, MPs will be called to debate the following motion from the NDP:

That, in the opinion of the House: (a) the next federal election should be the last conducted under the current first-past-the-post electoral system, which has repeatedly delivered a majority of seats to parties supported by a minority of voters, or under any other winner-take-all electoral system; and (b) a form of mixed-member proportional representation would be the best electoral system for Canada.

Though the motion is unlikely to pass, it will at least be interesting to see if it can win a few stray votes from the Conservatives and Liberals. Liberal party delegates voted two years ago to endorse a preferential ballot. And the government seems to officially oppose the NDP’s proposal for proportional representation—the government apparently having decided that referendums in three provinces constitute a settled debate. But perhaps there are a few fans of mixed-member proportional representation among the blue and red teams (Stéphane Dion has proposed a sort of preferential proportional system).

This will be at least the fifth time the House has debated proportional representation in the last 12 years. In 2011, it was part of an NDP motion to study Senate and electoral reform (defeated by a vote of 214 to 77). In 2007, it came up in discussion of an NDP MP’s motion to strike a committee to study democratic reform (defeated 175-91). In 2003, the NDP called for a referendum on electoral reform (defeated 144 to 76). And, in 2001, it was part of both an NDP motion calling for a study and an NDP MP’s motion calling on the government to pursue electoral reform. (It seems to me that neither item was put to a vote.)

That 2003 vote on a referendum was touted as the first time the House had voted on proportional representation since 1923. That motion actually won the support of various Canadian Alliance MPs, including Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney, James Moore, James Rajotte and Scott Reid. Moore and future government whip Jay Hill both told the House they were not in favour of proportional representation, but they were unhappy with the status quo and in favour of public debate on the situation.

Hill was troubled by the prospect of a party being able to govern like a dictatorship without a majority of the popular vote:

It is a debate that Canadians should have. Canadians want to have a debate about their Parliament because, and I will sum up with this, something is wrong when we see an elected dictatorship put in place to run the business of this country with 38 per cent of the votes in a federal election . . .

The honourable member is right on the mark when she states that there are too many Canadians who feel disconnected. They are not engaged because they feel that their vote does not count for anything. Referring to the example I used, there is something seriously wrong with our system when 62 per cent of Canadians in the 1997 election did not vote for the government, did not vote Liberal, yet the Liberals had a massive majority that enabled the Prime Minister to act like a dictator.

Indeed, the math of first-past-the-post was something of a concern back then. Here is Jason Kenney in 2001, hectoring a Liberal MP:

In the last two elections, respectively, the Liberal party earned 38 per cent and 41 per cent of the popular vote, which was far short of majority. Yet, with roughly 60 per cent of Canadians opposing its program, it managed to completely monopolize political power in the country. Does he think that is in the best interest of democracy?

Furthermore, does he not think it would be helpful to national unity if the composition of Parliament in some way reflected the diversity and plurality of political views we find in the regions? Would he not think that the 25 per cent of the voters of my province of Alberta who voted for Liberal candidates should have a larger representation in this place than they currently have?

. . . Does he have any regard at all for the fact that Canada is now the only multi-party advanced democracy in the world that has a system of voting designed in, and for, 16th-century England, when candidates really were non-partisan candidates elected for the purpose of representation?

. . . Would he not concur with me that we should be mindful of the many international precedents in other parliamentary systems, such as sister Commonwealth countries, including Great Britain, which has adopted a form of modified PR for its regional assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

I wonder if the member could address these points. Does he not think that a greater reflection of the plurality of views in different parts of the country would be healthy for democracy? Does he apologize at all for the fact that his government shamelessly exercises completely uncontrolled power, even though it is opposed in elections by 60 per cent of Canadians? Does he think that every other complex multi-party democracy in the world has it wrong and Canada alone has it right?

Now that we have managed to drive voter turnout down to 60 per cent, does he think that is a record of success and vibrancy in our democracy?

Scott Reid was of the opinion that the system was broken and suggested a preferential ballot. Reid also had a “three-stage” proposal for reforming our electoral system that involved a commission and two referendums, the second referendum being conducted along a preferential ballot.

Not that anyone asked me, but I’m not a fan of pure proportional representation or the mixed-member model of proportional representation. I’d rather an MP be strictly elected to represent a single riding. However, I would like to see those MPs elected via a ranked ballot, which has the added virtue of being a simple fix. Regardless, we won’t accomplish much without first (or additionally) changing the ways in which MPs function within the House, however they are elected.