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Reality Check

What if Canada had a different way of electing MPs? By Robert Sheppard, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | January 24, 2006 | More Reality Check

Take one look at the new electoral map and you realize right away that it is not only jarringly colour-coded but also politically misleading.

Great swaths of NDP orange, Liberal red and Conservative blue fairly jump out of our lonely northern terrain as if they were part of some medieval war plan. At first glance you have NDP orange shooting right up the left coast and Liberal red, flowing in a huge majestic line from Nunavut in the central Arctic down through middle Manitoba and along the northern shores of Superior and Georgian Bay into the Ontario heartland. The two together look like they have the blue Conservative beast encircled in its Prairie stronghold. While in Quebec the teal blue of the Bloc Québécois rises up from its base along the Ottawa River like a stylized fleur-de-lis.

Stephen Harper is greeted by supporters as he arrives in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006. (CP photo)  
The imagery is all wrong, of course (way too much geography). The reality is, Stephen Harper's Conservatives scored a paper-thin minority albeit with impressive national representation across the country. In fact, they hold key ridings in every province but P.E.I. and have no shortage of regional cabinet material to choose from. The underlying reality, however, is also misleading.

As the non-partisan group Fair Vote Canada likes to point out, our first-past-the-post electoral system, in which we like to revel in all those close three-way races on election night, tends to provide enough distortions all on its own. Consider the fact that, in the current election, the NDP won about a million more votes than the Bloc but took only 29 seats to the BQ's 51. Or that the Green party attracted more than 650,000 voters and won no seats while the Liberals' 475,000 voters in Atlantic Canada produced 20 MPs.

Just wasteful politicking you say? Get the Greens to concentrate, Bloc-like, on only a relative handful of ridings instead of all 308 and perhaps they will achieve electoral success on their own. Well, maybe. But is it right that the Conservatives win three times as many votes as the Liberals in the Prairies and take nearly 10 times the seats? Or that the Conservatives earn nearly half a million votes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and yet are totally shut out of the big three urban centres?

Fair Vote's solution is some form of proportional representation, or PR, a system in place in New Zealand, Israel and some big European countries like Germany. It's an idea that bubbled to the surface in the 2004 election and kind of did again this time. The NDP's Jack Layton is a big PR guy and even suggested back in December it would be the price of his party's support in a minority Parliament. The problem is he doesn't quite have the numbers now to hold that balance of power. (The math: 124 Conservatives and 29 NDP are two votes short of a majority.) But there could be defections or resignations on the Liberal or Bloc side that will end up giving the NDP more minority clout - and Harper did say at least once during the campaign he'd be open to having some discussion on PR with Layton.

The problem with PR is that it can be deathly complicated. B.C. put forward the one-two-three version last year in which voters would be asked to rank their top three choices and then seats would be allocated accordingly. But the idea didn't quite pass a referendum.

Layton's idea is simpler. He'd keep the current first-past-the-post balloting and then just add 100 seats, which would be divvied up based on popular vote. You win 30 per cent of the vote, you get 30 extra seats which the party allocates as it sees fit.

If such a system was in place this time, the results would still produce a Tory minority and the NDP would still be the fourth party in terms of seats. But it would bump up enough in seat count to hold a clear balance of power.

The way things exist now, the Conservatives have 124 seats in the 308 seat Parliament. (That is 40 per cent of the total seats with 36 per cent of the popular vote. It's less popular vote than Joe Clark had actually when he formed his ill-fated minority government in 1979; but he had 136 seats which was only 10 shy of a majority.) With a 100 additional seats and PR, Harper would have 160 seats, 39 per cent of the total. The Liberals, with 103 now would have 133; the Bloc would increase from 51 to 62; the NDP would go from 29 to 47; and the Green party would have five. Notice that even though the NDP earned more popular support than the Bloc (17.5 to 10.5 per cent), it still doesn't receive as many seats even under PR. So it's not an absolute panacea.

In minority Parliaments like this one – and critics of PR say it tends to produce more minority situations – governing parties still would have to negotiate for support. In the current Parliament, the Conservatives are going to have to find allies, probably on a case-by-case basis, as Paul Martin did last time, to get legislation passed. Budgets, throne speeches, confidence motions and key government legislation are all considered matters of confidence and can send a government down to defeat. But often matters don't come to a full boil, especially in the so-called honeymoon following an election: opposition parties tend not to have all their members show up for key votes.

The Liberals probably won't put up much of a legislative fight in the early months at least as they go about choosing a new leader. Still, Harper's minority is so thin that he will need either the Liberals or the Bloc to support him directly, or some combination, to survive.

And looking down the road, the Conservatives aren't going to have an easy time finding support for their GST cut if it means eliminating the income tax breaks the Liberals and NDP passed in the last Parliament. Harper may be willing to exchange one for the other but it's hard to see any of the opposition parties willing to help him push that through. A similar tussle could take place over day-care funding. The three opposition parties all support creating a government-subsidized system, not merely giving a child-care allowance to parents to spend as they see fit.

A simple PR system would bring the NDP into the equation but these changes do not take place overnight. Proposed reforms would almost certainly have to go through extensive committee hearings to canvas the many ideas and then be put to some kind of referendum, which is what B.C. and P.E.I. have done.

Adding PR to a Conservative accountability package may make some of their other reforms more politically palatable. And the advantage of PR is the voices that will be added: Prairie Liberals, urban Conservatives.

It is not just that a Harper government would be able to appoint new PR MPs to represent Toronto, say. It is also that these people would be constantly present in the governing caucus and could help change the way a government thinks about an otherwise under-represented region. It would also change the face of the electoral map. It wouldn't be abstract expressionism but it would add a few more deliberate dabs of colour.

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