Proportional voting might have spared West the National Energy Program: Ed Broadbent

A proportional voting system may have spared western Canada the imposition of the national energy program, Ed Broadbent suggested Monday.

First past post voting creates regional power bases that don't reflect popular vote says former NDP leader

The former NDP leader makes the case for mixed-member proportional representation. 7:29

A proportional voting system may have spared western Canada the imposition of the national energy program, Ed Broadbent suggested Monday.

The former NDP leader said the infamous program, which devastated the oil industry, is an example of the kinds of mistakes a government can make when its share of seats in the House of Commons does not reflect its share of the popular vote.

Testifying before the all-party committee that is studying electoral reform options, Broadbent noted that the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau won only two western seats — both in Manitoba — in the 1980 election, despite winning around 25 per cent of the vote in the four western provinces.

Trudeau, the late father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, went on to impose the national energy program, which alienated westerners — particularly in Alberta — for decades.

Broadbent said that shows how Canada's first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system distorts voters' choices and can lead governments to make bad policy choices for regions in which they have little representation.

"The point I'm trying to make is ... even through goodwill, if you do not have in the cabinet people from different regions that are going to be making crucial policy affecting those regions, you can make serious mistakes," he told the committee.

"The first-past-the-post system distorts the electoral system in Canada and the 1980 election is a perfect example of that ... The first-past-the-post (system) can have a negative effect on our national unity politics."

Had the 1980 election been conducted under some form of proportional voting system, in which the number of seats won more accurately reflected each party's share of the popular vote, Broadbent said Trudeau would have had "many, many times" two seats in western Canada.

Notwithstanding his party's near shut-out in the West, Trudeau won a majority in 1980. But Broadbent, NDP leader at the time, said the prime minister was so concerned about the lack of western representation in his government that he asked him and other New Democrats to join the cabinet.

They declined the offer.

Ending regional the regional power base

In another example of how first-past-the-post can hurt national unity, Broadbent said the system over-represents regionally concentrated parties like the separatist Bloc Quebecois, while under-representing small parties which actually receive more votes but whose support is more thinly spread across the country.

In the 1997 election, the Bloc won twice as many seats as the NDP despite winning fewer votes — and none of them from outside Quebec.

In the same election, the western-based Reform party and the Progressive Conservatives won close to the same number of votes but Reform won three times as many seats.

Justin Trudeau promised during last fall's election campaign that it would be the last conducted under first-past-the-post. The committee has been hearing from experts over the summer and is to conduct cross-country consultations this fall before submitting a final report by Dec. 1.