Democracy for the Rest of Us

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Fed up by governments that rule like kings with a fraction of our votes? Proportional representation offers a way for us all to have a voice. By voting strategically, we can make it happen come the next election.



PHOTO: David Suzuki Foundation.

Canadians seem to have lost faith in democracy. According to a recent poll from Samara Canada, the majority of Canadians do not believe that their elected representatives reflect their views, nor do they think that their representatives hold the government to account. Voter turnout hovers near historic lows. Perhaps none of this is surprising; in most Canadian elections the majority of voters cast their ballots for parties that don’t win.

The problem is rampant at all levels of government.

On the federal level, fewer than 40 percent of Canadians voted for the Conservatives in the 2011 federal election, yet Stephen Harper wound up with a majority of the seats. Provincially, only 46 percent of Manitobans voted that year for Greg Selinger’s NDP, yet they took 65 percent of the seats. Ontario’s Kathleen Wynn leads a majority government despite the fact that over 62 percent of voters there wanted to elect someone else.

PropRepsidebar for websiteThe percentages in some municipal elections are even worse. Montreal’s mayor is in office on the basis of 32 percent of the vote. Belleville Ontario’s mayor got all of 26 percent in their last election. Three quarters of those who went to the polls voted for someone else! Winnipeg’s Brian Bowman, too, is in office on less than half of the vote.

Indeed, only in a minority of elections are governments elected with a majority of the vote. Usually, it is the minority who are handed the power to rule. This is because all it takes to be elected in Canada is a plurality of the vote; in our “first past the post” system, the candidate with the most votes wins. There is no need to win a majority.

While this is certainly not the only problem with Canadian politics, it is fundamental to many of our other problems. Stephen Harper could never have run roughshod over prevailing Canadian values – decimating environmental laws, silencing scientists, turning Canada away from peacekeeping – had his power in the House of Commons been commensurate with the percentage of votes his party received in previous elections.

The United States also has a winner-take-all system. Bill Clinton, running against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992, was elected with only 43 percent of the vote. Wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998 with just 38 percent of that state’s vote. The U.S. usually avoids this problem, though, because it has a system that ensures that third party candidates only very rarely have a chance. Perhaps we could implement something like that, too. But somehow it is doubtful Canadians would tolerate a choice between, say, only the Liberals and the Conservatives.

Fortunately, a much better solution exists. Most of the democratic world uses it in one variation or another. That solution is proportional representation. In such a system, the number of seats that a political party gets in the legislature or parliament directly matches the proportion of the vote it won. In fact, in the Western world, only Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain still use the nonproportional first-past-the-post system.

And even that is changing. In the early 1990s, the people of New Zealand forced a referendum. They switched from a system like we have to what is called “mixed member proportional representation.” Around the same time, even Great Britain instituted proportional representation for their Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

While some “prop rep” systems are quite complicated, many aren’t, and there is really no reason that they should be. The simplest version is likely the best. Under this mixed member version of proportional representation, the number of seats a party gets in a legislature is matched to the percent of the overall vote that the party won in the election.

If we were to adopt mixed member proportional representation in Canada, the candidate with the largest number of votes would still win in each riding; we would still have locally elected MPs and MLAs. But these local winners would take only half of the seats in the House of Commons and the provincial legislatures. The remainder of the seats would be divided automatically so that the total number of seats each party gets is proportional to their popular vote in the election. Each political party would decide just who among their ranks would actually sit in those seats. Thus, a major party that wins 40 percent of the vote would end up with 40 percent of the total seats; a minor party, like the Green Party today, that wins 5 percent of the vote would be rewarded with 5 percent, even if the party didn’t win in any of the first-past-the-post ridings. Pretty much no matter how a person voted, someone in government would reflect that vote.

Under a prop rep system like this, no government could be formed without the support of a majority of voters. Often it would take a coalition of parties to do that. Coalitions that can shift with the times would make for governments far more attuned to the desires and preferences of Canadians.

proprepsidebar 2So, as dismal as Canadian politics seems right now, there is a lot of hope. We can have proportional representation soon. Both the NDP and the Green Party are onside. So is a large proportion of the Liberal caucus. Joyce Murray, Liberal MP for Vancouver-Quadra, ran largely on that platform in her leadership bid in 2013. Just last December, half of the Liberal MPs who voted on an NDP motion endorsing mixed member proportional representation voted for it. This was despite the fact that Justin Trudeau voted against.

Clearly, with enough public pressure – and by strategically voting for politicians who support prop rep – we can have such a system soon in Canada.

For now, though, we’re going to have to work. In the 2015 federal election, we’re going to have to make do as best we can with what we have. Polls consistently show that roughly two thirds of Canadians want someone other than Harper and his Conservative Party to form the next government. If that’s going to happen, then those Canadians are going to have to either vote strategically – assess which candidate in their home riding has the best chance of winning more votes than the Conservative, and then vote for him or her – or persuade a lot of disaffected voters who feel the same way to vote this time. Better yet, do both.

It’s no easy task, but there are resources to help.  Catch 22, at least in the past, has provided the information one needs to make a strong strategic choice. The Election Prediction Project can provide you with information for your own riding, too. Fair Vote Canada is also working hard on the issue. And hopefully Project Democracy will be active this year, as well.

Not to be forgotten, the Council of Canadians is mounting a strong get-out-the-vote drive this year – on their website you can pledge to vote and to cajole at least two friends to join you.

It won’t solve all our problems as Canadians, but proportional representation certainly would help. And so would asking any Liberal you know to lobby Justin Trudeau to get onside.

Dave SteelewebDavid Steele is President of Earthsave Canada and a long-time advocate of prop rep. 


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