National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

This item is in response to the article “Electoral Reform: A democratic panacea that ignores governance” published on Dec. 17, 2016.

As we inch closer to the Liberal government’s spring deadline to table legislation to scrap our majoritarian first-past-the-post voting system, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that defenders of our “archaic” system, as Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef describes it, are coming out of the woodwork.

The clarity about the option now before us — keeping our majoritarian system or moving to a proportional voting one — must by very worrying to some. That’s because proportional representation is about taking power away from the elites and putting it in the hands of regular people.

Academics Michael Behiels and Robert Jackson are the latest to fret that proponents of electoral reform haven’t thought through governance issues. They’re wrong.

Let’s unpack this latest defence of first-past-the-post, a system invented by the English aristocracy to protect their power in Parliament. In fact, it’s so far past its best-before date that only a few democracies in the world actually use it.

First, Behiels and Jackson lament that the Liberals ceded their majority on the special parliamentary committee on electoral reform (ERRE).

Since only a minority of voters actually voted for the Liberal Party in the 2015 election, the government, upon the recommendation of the New Democrats, agreed to change the structure of the committee to reflect how people actually voted. That meant the Liberals only held a minority of the seats (aligned to their level of support) and the Green Party and the Bloc Quebecois, which together garnered the support of over 1.4 million voters in 2015, actually sat at the table so the voices of these voters were heard.

Behiels and Jackson characterised this capitulation as “naive.” I call it fair and democratic. And it actually worked very well, showing why proportionality works. The committee members came together, heard from experts, reached out to ordinary Canadians, and produced a Majority Report that reflected what the overwhelming majority of people told them: bring in a proportional voting system that incorporates local representation.

The committee’s Majority Report concluded that the architects of this hybrid system should be guided by the Gallagher Index, which is a simple way to measure how closely the composition of a government matches the proportion of votes received by each party. “This is an easier concept to grasp than any of, say, health care policy, transportation, or environmental regulations, each of which Canadians vote on all the time,” explained mathematician Brenda Fine in Maclean’s.

Perhaps Behiels and Jackson missed Fine’s explanation — because the professors appear befuddled by what they called a “complicated” index. They also lament how “technical” the report is. “The Committee got carried away with the details of electoral systems and missed the point that they were supposed to come up with ideas that the public could readily absorb.”

Huh? Condensing hours of testimony and months of work into a clear recommendation for a proportional system that retains the local connection between an MP and the electoral is straightforward and easily digestible.

So are the benefits of a proportional system.

First, national unity would be strengthened if Canada moved to a proportional voting system. Broadbent Institute Chair Ed Broadbent made this case when he testified at ERRE. Broadbent walked through how distorted outcomes under our current system bred regional divisions in a country as regionally diverse as Canada, citing the Liberal government’s decision in 1980 to bring in the National Energy Program (NEP) as a case in point.

The Liberals had received over 20 per cent support in each of the four Western provinces and yet won only two seats in Manitoba and none at all in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the oil-producing provinces. Without those voices at the Cabinet table, the government barrelled ahead with the NEP, sewing the seeds of regional discontentment that lasted decades.

Second, contrary to popular myth, there is no proliferation of parties with marginal or extreme agendas in PR countries. It does become harder – though not impossible – for single parties to get a majority, so these countries are often governed by coalitions. But coalitions provide good, stable government.

 

In fact, elections are no more frequent and politics tend to be less polarized under PR because parties know they may have to work together. (Under Canada’s current first-past-the-post system, elections have been more frequent since the Second World War than many countries that use a proportional voting system, including Italy, the poster child for political instability.)

This dynamic means it’s harder to undo national initiatives. There’s less lurching from one extreme policy position to another from election to election. This bodes well for a stable public-policy development and implementation, Alex Himelfarb, the former Clerk of the Privy Council Office, explained when he testified at ERRE.

So yes, advocates of electoral reform — and supporters of PR specifically — have thought a lot about governance. That’s why we need to seize this historic opportunity to bring in a truly fair and democratic electoral system. It’s pretty simple, really.

Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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