Saint City News column: Canada badly needs a cure for electoral dysfunction

This column appeared in the Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, edition of the Saint City News.

Is there a relationship between pipeline bombings in northern British Columbia and the recent federal election?

Possibly more than we’d like to think.

The point is that, as the results of this month’s federal election clearly illustrate, electoral outcomes in Canada don’t accurately reflect voter preferences. This is another way of saying our democracy isn’t very healthy, whether or not you’re pleased with the idea of another Conservative minority.

Indeed, Canada is suffering from a case of electoral dysfunction, and we’re not going to be helped by the little Tory-blue pill we just swallowed!

The problem is that our first-past-the-post system of geographically based representatives is strongly biased in favour of the biggest national political parties and parties with a strong regional base.

If our actual votes had been reflected in the makeup of Parliament, there would be 23 Green Party Members of Parliament today. Instead, 940,000 Green voters got a big fat zero for the number of MPs who will represent their views in Parliament.

By comparison, 813,000 Conservative voters in this province got 27 Alberta MPs to represent them in the House of Commons. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now, these figures come from a group called Fair Vote Canada, which is dedicated to the proposition that Canada should have a “proportional representation” system in which voter preferences would be reflected in the makeup of Parliament.

If a pure proportional representation system had been in operation on Oct. 14, the group concluded, 117 Conservatives would have been elected (instead of 143), plus 81 Liberals (not 76), 57 New Democrats (not 37), 28 Bloquistes (not 50), 23 Greens (not none at all) and two independents (ditto). In reality, the numbers of votes that went to small parties would probably have been bigger, because many voters who now support smaller parties’ programs don’t want to waste their votes on a lost cause.

The problem with proportional representation, of course, is that while it fixes some problems, it contributes to others. It divorces MPs from geographical interests, for example, and makes unstable minority governments more likely.

An ingenious solution to one of these problems has been devised in New Zealand, which in 1993 adopted a system called “Mixed Member Proportional” in which voters choose geographic representatives in a Parliament that also reflects over-all party preference.

By the way, this isn’t something that “reforming” the Senate will fix. Anyway, you can’t trust Prime Minister Stephen Harper to implement meaningful non-constitutional change to the Senate.

Let’s say he decides to appoint Senate candidates elected by provincial voters. If voters in, say, British Columbia elect a New Democrat, what are the chances he’ll follow through and appoint her to the Senate? At least as good as him obeying his own fixed-election-date law, I’d guess.

But the need to ensure proportionality in Canada’s electoral system is real, because the side effects of not doing so are potentially grave. When citizens lose faith in their ability to influence policy by voting and at the same time see their interests threatened, they will find less palatable ways to make their point.

Many won’t bother to vote at all, as happens now in Alberta. But it’s not that long a road from giving up on voting to slipping a bomb under a pipeline. It’s happened in other democracies and it can happen in ours.

If that’s why bombs are now going off in B.C., it’s a sign the need to fix this problem is real, and urgent.

NOTE: On last week’s predictions: I was right about another minority government, wrong about the Opposition leader. Call it a combination of solid analysis and wishful thinking. Batting average: .500.

2 Comments on "Saint City News column: Canada badly needs a cure for electoral dysfunction"

  1. Wayne Smith says:

    You said:

    “The problem with proportional representation, of course, is that while it fixes some problems, it contributes to others. It divorces MPs from geographical interests, for example, and makes unstable minority governments more likely.”

    Neither of these things is true. It is our current system that gives us unstable minority governments, or haven’t you noticed.

    Our current system also gives us terrible geographic representation, despite being totally based on geography. Regional representation is distorted (not everybody in Alberta votes Conservative), and most of us live in safe ridings where we have no real choices.

  2. Wilfred Day says:

    We don’t have to invent a new electoral system, although we can tweak existing ones to suit Canadian circumstances.

    MMP, which you mention as having been devised in New Zealand in 1993, was created by British political scientists for post-war Germany in 1946. The Germans liked it so well they kept it, and it then came back to Britain where it’s used in Scotland, Wales, and the London Assembly. Usually it has closed lists which I would not suggest for Canada, but the German province of Bavaria has used an open-list MMP model for 60 years. Tried and true. And then there’s STV, used in Ireland for 86 years, and in other places too.

    Whether the north half of Alberta with 15 MPs has 10 local MPs and 5 regional MPs under MMP, or is divided into 3 multi-member districts under STV, it would elect proportional and accountable MPs, and every vote would count, at last.

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