Now is Canada's moment to embrace proportional representation

The special committee on electoral reform passes through Winnipeg on Tuesday. There is no better time for this country to mature politically by implementing proportional representation, writes Alon Weinberg.

This single, small reform will unlock the doors to many new voices, writes Alon Weinberg

Next week, the special committee on electoral reform passes through Winnipeg, among other stops. There is no better time for this country to mature politically by implementing proportional representation, writes Alon Weinberg. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

Canadians have a few weeks left to raise their voices for a change to our electoral system that will greatly improve our democracy for generations to come.

As Canada turns 150 next year, there is no better time for this country to mature politically by implementing proportional representation, to create a system that allows all political perspectives garnering sufficient support to be represented in our House of Commons.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised 2015 would be this country's last "unfair" election run under the first-past-the-post system.

Next week, the special committee on electoral reform passes through Winnipeg, among other stops.

Progressives and those of all stripes who value democracy should make sure to voice their support for a system of proportional representation.

This single, small reform will unlock the doors to many new voices and issues previously ignored in our political discourse.

Electoral reform may not be an end in itself. It may not be a just solution to Canada's shameful treatment of Indigenous peoples and the insufferable on-reserve living conditions many are born into. An electoral system cannot reverse the lack of progress on climate change or help create a much-needed, immediate transition to cleaner energy sources, nor can it stop pipelines; nor will electoral reform alleviate overnight the crushing poverty that as many as one in seven people in this country — one in five children — live in. And it certainly will not immediately engage all of the 30 to 40 per cent of the electorate that does not even vote.

But proportional representation that aligns the percentage of seats for any given party with the percentage of votes it receives will completely change the stagnation in our democracy that, since Canada's inception, has bred disillusionment, disenfranchisement and political cynicism.

As a means to a more progressive end, a system of proportionality in our elections will create a quantum democratic leap in this country, as it will allow candidates for office and parties as a whole to take principled positions, and it will allow the electorate to finally vote for a positive vision of this country instead of — as is too often common, especially in the recent election that ousted the Harper Conservatives from power — voting against the party and policies they most despise.

Outdated system

The first-past-the-post system, an archaic blast from Canada's British colonialist past known as the Westminster System, only ever made sense in the context of a two-party political system.

While Canada has four thriving main parties (five in Quebec) and a bevy of smaller ones, if you look at the history of who has governed this country, it has effectively only ever been a two-party system. But is a two-party system very healthy for our democracy? Does it represent the full spectrum of opinion in our society?

One need look no further than Manitoba politics, effectively a two-party game, to see how the system fails us.

Following the massive PC majority in April, a recent survey showed that nearly four in five Manitobans interpreted the result not to be a shifting of our politics to the right but simply reflective of a desire to change.

We tend to vote governments out, in this case after a whopping 16 years of NDP rule. A look south at the dysfunctional two-party lock on power in the U.S. should prove the point beyond any doubt.

Proportional representation would broaden our politics to create a much needed injection of new voices, new ideas and previously under-represented groups — women, visible minorities, youth, and indigenous people come first to mind — in our Parliament.

Canada, for instance, ranks 64th globally in percentage of women in Parliament.

Scoring better are most European countries, the vast majority of which use some system of proportional representation.

A proportional electoral system completely changes the evolution of a country's political culture and transforms the way power is understood.

In Canada, since World War I, we have had 16 majority governments, but only four of these have earned a majority on the basis of winning a majority of the popular vote.

In other words, a party with only minority support gets to command the entire agenda of Parliament, as power is won outright.

Add to this whipped members of Parliament voting according to the Prime Minister and his cabinet's wishes, and we see the result of first-past-the-post elections is government by dominance, by control and by the implementing of a single agenda by the party in power.

In a proportional system, a single-party majority is rare if not non-existent.

This shifts power from being the object of control to the result of cooperation and collaboration.

When more than one party's support is required to pass a law, amendments to laws are common as are negotiations, debate, and, when needed, compromise.

Compare that to the 450 page omnibus budget bills of the previous government that changed more than 70 acts with one bill, and which permitted zero amendments, and we see how desperate Canadians ought to be to make the switch.

Mature politics at 150

A mature country needs to work to integrate the political diversity within its borders into its systems of governance rather than to continue to marginalize and dominate minority voices.

A mature politics is what Canada deserves at 150. We have four weeks to make the Parliamentary committee aware that maintaining or switching to a different winner-take-all system is not a viable option.

We need almost every vote cast to be represented in Parliament, for every voice to be a part of this country's ongoing political evolution.

Canadians are proud to pat ourselves on the back for living in one of the planet's best nations. Our political history says otherwise.

Now is the time to reverse this history.

Alon Weinberg is the communications chair for Fair Vote Manitoba, a chapter of Fair Vote Canada.


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