A Made-in-Canada Proportional Representation System

On October 4, 2004, the first session of Canada’s 38th Parliament will open and I hope that all federal MPs will resolve to take seriously the issue of democratic reform in this country, especially that of our national federal electoral system.

The ongoing debate over reforming Canada’s electoral system includes three schools of thought:

One group staunchly supports the current First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) election system; the second wants to replace it with a traditional Proportional Representation (PR) system; and now a newer third group is urging Canadians to consider a hybrid system which would retain the best traits of the other two, while vastly improving the overall fairness of the process.

The old FPTP system has admittedly served Canada well. It grew up from grassroots people’s democracy. It was used long before the Great Reform Bill of 1832 in the U.K. and was used in the U.S. from the outset of the republic.

FPTP is a plurality electoral system, not a majoritarian one. The candidate with more votes than any other wins the election. It becomes a majority system only when two candidates are running for a given riding. This system demands accountability from each and every MP to all the people of the riding, whether they elected him or her, or not.

Additionally, the elected member establishes an accessible public office in that riding. Not surprisingly, electors take into account the record of their MPs on local issues when casting votes in the next election.

MPs are held personally responsible to all the people of their home riding for policies adopted by the entire party they represent; and if that party forms the government, the same holds true for government policies enacted under their watch. All in all, the FPTP system is the people’s democratic power at work.

Understandably, many electors who are strongly pro-FPTP do not want their vote assigned to someone they may never have met, whose track record on local issues they do not know, and who they cannot hold accountable for their voting record in Parliament. In other words, the staunchly pro-FPTP movement does not want to see electors’ votes delegated to the party in general, but to a specific person.

Conversely, those who promote Proportional Representation as the answer want a new electoral system altogether.

They argue, not without reason, that the electoral system should be more accommodating to those parties which receive more of the popular vote under the current FPTP system yet win no seats, or very few, in proportion to the actual numbers who voted for them.

In the June 28 federal election, for example, the Green Party received more than 500,000 votes across the country, yet won no seats because not enough of those half-million voters lived in any given riding to effect a clear win. (However, the status quo, or pro-FPTP movement frequently argues, "but this is what democracy is all about.")

By contrast, in the same federal election, one independent candidate won a seat with only 17,466 votes, because all the voters were from one riding.

In this case, the pro-PR argument is that the current FPTP system is actually a deformed type of democracy and that a PR election would have given the Green Party one or more seats and a voice in Parliament.

However, there must be a cutoff point in the PR system as to the support-level at which a party will win seats. Let us say a given party must receive more than 10,000 votes across the country to be eligible for representation in Parliament. If this were the case, then the Green Party would certainly have earned seats on June 28 — but then, so would the Marijuana Party, Christian Heritage and Progressive Conservative parties. And if the limit were lowered to 5,000 votes, then you’d have to add the Marxist and the Canadian Action Party as well.

Those in favour of PR do not really care if an MP is elected by, and accountable to, the voters of a given riding. In the PR system, an MP is more a delegate of his or her party than a direct hands-on representative of the people.

The greatest advantage of PR is that parties, even small ones, can be represented in Parliament. Every MP under the PR system is appointed by the party — or later elected by voters — from a larger list made public before the election (which in theory should represent more women, and minorities).

The disadvantage of the PR system, though, is that the personal touch, as well as direct accountability between people and MPs, would be lost forever.

The third group whose voice for electoral reform is beginning to be heard across the land, is suggesting a hybrid system — Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) — in which FPTP would still be used to elect the 308 existing federal seats, but with an additional allocation of say, 100 seats, to be awarded to parties according to the percentage of popular votes they receive in a given election, thus increasing the size of Parliament by one-third.

Another outcome would see the current number of seats retained, while still allocating 100 to parties who qualify under the PR system; this could increase the population size of some ridings by up to 30% and in some cases, become unwieldy.

The answer perhaps could be found in a new made-in-Canada system using PR-like weighted voting in Parliament, but keeping the existing FPTP electoral system for its obvious benefits of direct and accountable democracy.

The new system will empower each MP with a vote weighted according to his or her party’s popular vote. In our current federal Parliament, for example, the weighted vote of the above-mentioned independent MP would be 1 — corresponding to the least number of popular votes divided by the number of seats for his party (a party of one), or 17,466.

An MP from the Liberal, Conservative, Bloc Quebecois, or NDP parties, however, would be allowed the equivalent of 2.1, 2.3, 1.8 and 6.5 votes, respectively. Electronic counting of votes will make the system easily implementable.

These weighted vote ratios correspond to the number of popular votes divided by the number of seats won by the party, which for the parties listed would be, respectively, 37,000, 40,000, 31,000 and 111,000.

This new hybrid system would have a PR-like parliamentary system, while maintaining the same number of MPs, along with the same number and size of ridings. Thus, any vote for a given party is not wasted under the new system, provided that party can get at least one candidate elected in one riding.

The new system prevents any party from imposing on voters an MP known only to the inner circles, but not to the people. Simply put, a thoughtfully implemented hybrid system of this type will be what all Canadians want … fair.


* First appeared in Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Canada