Canada·Point of View

De-clogging the veins of democracy

Joe Schlesinger says that our main electoral problems aren't with minorities or coalitions but the way we vote.

The problem is not minorities or coalitions, it is with how we vote

This election campaign's tug-of-war between the devil of a future dominated by minority governments and the deep blue sea of contrived coalitions is annoying enough to make many Canadians wish we had a better voting system.

It just so happens that there is such a system and it is closer to the old ideal of "one person, one vote." It is called proportional representation, or PR. And with so many Canadians disillusioned with today's politics, this may be a good time to take a closer look at it.  

Our current first-past-the-post system is far from equitable and is quickly becoming ever more so.  

On average, an MP from B.C. represents more than three times the number of constituents as an MP from PEI. A similar disparity exists between many ridings within provinces.  

It takes far fewer voters, for example, to elect MPs in rural ridings than it does in cities and their suburbs. Unless tackled, this inequality is bound to rise as Canada becomes more urbanized.

Among those hardest hit would be the fast-growing ethnic communities concentrated in the underrepresented ridings of our largest metropolitan areas.

The discrepancy between rural and urban representation is also aggravated by several grandfathered provisions, some entrenched in the Constitution, that guarantee certain provinces more seats than the number of their inhabitants would warrant.

The Maritimes have 11 excess seats. Manitoba and Saskatchewan have eight and Quebec seven.

This leaves the fast-growing urbanizing provinces of B.C., Alberta and Ontario shy of their fair share in the 308-seat House of Commons.  

A bill to increase Ontario's number of seats by 18, Alberta's by five and B.C.'s by seven was introduced last year. Vehemently opposed by the Bloc Quebecois, it died with the outgoing Parliament.

Too fair?

The biggest fault line in our electoral system, though, is that you don't need a majority to win — a third or even less of the vote will do.

Stephane Dion and Jack Layton trying to sell the idea of coalition government at a rally in Toronto in December 2008. It didn't really work out. (Mike Cassese/Reuters) (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

It is the kind of anomaly that has landed us in the controversy about the legitimacy of minority governments and coalition rule, and has no doubt put off voters and led to lower turnouts on election day.

Inequities such these have made PR the dominant voting choice of democracies everywhere outside of North America and Britain. It is used by more than 80 countries from the model democracies of Scandinavia in the North down to New Zealand and Australia in the South.  

PR's attractions are obvious. The number of seats won accurately reflects the number of votes cast for specific parties.

There are no wasted votes. Minority parties have a better chance. So have independent candidates.

But there is such a thing as having too fair a system. For one thing, it almost always requires — oh, dreaded word — a coalition. Such coalitions can be unstable.

The instability trap

Israel is the best example. As little as two per cent of the national vote is enough to get a party seats in the Knesset. That may make for an all but perfect voting system. But not for stability.  

In Israel, the need for coalitions turns tiny parties, some of them with as few as three seats, into the tail that wags the dog.  

The current Israeli coalition of more than a dozen parties is totally dependent on the support of fringe groups that use their power to push through hard-line special interest policies that are not supported by the majority of voters.

Other coalitions, like the current British one involving Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (L) and deputy PM Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, are more stable. Though not always popular. (Leon Neal/Reuters)

It is no wonder then that the average lifespan of Israeli governments has been just 25 months.

The instability trap can be avoided by raising the threshold for winning seats.

Germany and New Zealand, for instance, have a five per cent threshold and consequently, for all the vagaries of coalitions, stable governments.

More importantly, perhaps, both have a modified PR system called mixed-member proportional representation or MMR.  

In MMR, voting is held under the traditional first-past-the-post method. If a party wins more ridings than it is entitled to by its national PR share, it gets to keep these excess seats.

But additional seats are then allocated to the other parties to bring everyone up to the percentage of the overall national vote they received.  

In Canada, the MMR system has been studied over and over again by several provinces. A form of MMR was even used in Alberta and Manitoba between the 1920s and1950s.

More recently, however, the system was rejected by PEI voters in a plebiscite in 2005, and a similar vote in Quebec has been shelved.

The veins of democracy

Changing over from the system Canadians have used throughout their history to the more complicated MMR method would certainly take some getting used to. But it could solve some of our current problems.  

Take this election. Whatever comes out of it, the result will not be representative of Canada as a whole.   Never mind minority governments, even most majority governments fall far short of being elected by an actual majority of Canadians.  

In 1993, when Jean Chretien's Liberals reduced Kim Campbell's Tories to two seats, the Grits took only 41 per cent of the vote but ended up with 60 per cent of the seats.  

It can also happen the other way around with the party that gets the most votes losing because, thanks to the unfairness of vote distribution, it has won fewer seats.  

As for coalitions, the Liberal-NDP regime that has been bruited about would be just be another minority. The support of the Bloc would help keep it afloat, but it would also make it highly vulnerable to the Bloc's narrow interests and demands.  

The plan now in the hopper, to add 30 MPs to the 308-seat House, can only go so far. Even if passed, it would only help correct the imbalance for a decade or so. 

No one is likely to favour a bloated Parliament in which the only thing that changed was the ever-growing size of the chorus of backbenchers cheering and jeering on command.  

Somehow, while we safeguard the splendid traditions of our parliamentary system, we must modernize it to make it more equitable and effective. If we don't, we could end up clogging the veins of democracy.

A hard look at our current system and replacing or combining it with a form of PR might be just the ticket for Canada in the 21st century.  

We could always retain the Speaker's mace and 18th-century tricorne hat as a reminder of where we came from.