Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Liberals for proportional representation

First of all, let me say that I have to take back at least part of the snarky post I made about Anne McLellan earlier this week. While I still think it's incredibly arrogant for her to think that she represents everyone in Alberta who doesn't vote Conservative, there may actually have been an intentional--albeit subtle--proportional representation message behind her rather odd comments at the Alberta Liberal strategies press conference.

Why do I say that? Well, she showed up on the doorstep of a friend of mine the other day, a friend who happens to be one of my Fair Vote Canada colleagues. When McLellan asked for his support in the upcoming federal election, he asked about her views on electoral reform and proportional representation...and believe it or not, she actually came out in favour of it. She stopped short of embracing the citizens' assembly plan so dear to Fair Vote Canadians--she thinks government should play a key role in any electoral reform--but the fact that she wasn't just agreeing with everything my friend said actually gives me hope that this was more than just an election promise. So here I am with egg on my face. Sorry, Anne.

And speaking of Liberals for proportional representation, the Globe and Mail's Roy MacGregor brought us this terrific column yesterday in which Lester Pearson's former EA comes out in favour of what sounds like Mixed-Member Proportional representation.
It's a day old, but I was busy yesterday, and I wouldn't be me if I didn't provide the few stragglers still reading political blogs at this time of year with all their electoral-reform-Globe-and-Mail-column needs.

He is, many will say, The Grand Old Man of the Ruling Party -- and he, too, thinks the system is broken.

Tom Kent is 83 years old. The former principal assistant to prime minister Lester Pearson -- as well as former deputy minister, former Crown corporation head, former chair of a royal commission and lifelong intellectual spark of the Liberal Party of Canada -- believes that Canadian democracy is currently in such a bad state that the future of the country itself is endangered by elections such as the one we are now well into.

He even says that the current Prime Minister, Paul Martin, rose to power "in the most undemocratic way possible." He won the party leadership through money; he won the last election, barely, through a system that no longer reflects the country or the reality of 21st-century politics.

Then, to compound matters, the Prime Minister failed to follow through on his promise to fix what virtually everyone concedes no longer works as it should.

"He talked about democratic reform," says Kent from his home in Ottawa, "but he failed to do anything about it."

Earlier this week, Kent was one of 60 prominent Canadians offering his name to a Fair Vote Canada petition aimed at persuading broadcasters to commit debate time to this topic.

Democratic reform is, as all politicians and media are finding out as they travel about this grumpy country, a simmering issue that is thought to be tied directly to voter disenchantment and declining turnout.

Rethinking Canada's anachronistic first-past-the-post electoral system is nothing new to Kent. He began to worry about the "winner-take-all" riding system as far back as the 1960s, only then it wasn't nearly the destructive force he sees it as today.

"It didn't work as badly then as it does now," he says. "Back then, there were the two major parties and some smaller parties. And while it could be exhausting for the ministers to be in minority governments, it actually worked out pretty well.

"At that time, first-past-the-post had not produced what is now the fatal thing in Canadian democracy: the fracturing of the country through regionalism."

In Kent's opinion, the system "really broke" in 1993, when the long-standing Progressive Conservative Party fell to only two seats in the House of Commons and a new reality fell into place where Reform would stand for the West and the Bloc Québécois for Quebec, and Ontario would essentially decide who held the prime minister's chair.

Kent sees nothing in the immediate future but further fracturing of the notion of Confederation, an entangled and broken cat's cradle that includes Quebec separation, western alienation and confusion throughout the rest of the country.

Change, he says, is absolutely necessary, but change will come "only when people have reconciled themselves to the fact that without reform we're going to have continued fracturing." No one knows what the exact solution is to the first-past-the-post system -- that, presumably, would evolve over time -- but Kent himself favours a "mixed proportional" system much like that first suggested a generation ago in the Pepin-Robarts commission on Canadian unity.

Kent believes in a system that would combine some proportional representation with the current system of single-member constituencies.

As there are currently 308 seats in the House of Commons, each one held by the candidate who gets the highest number of votes in each riding, Kent suggests 300 such seats continue on that basis, and another 100 be added to more fairly represent general voting patterns. This would ensure everything from seats for the Green Party to extra seats to compensate for areas where the established parties showed well but not well enough to claim victory.

"The real question," Kent says, "would be if you went for such a system would you build a new chamber to accommodate the 400 seats, or would you just tear out the desks?" Kent believes tearing out the desks in the Commons would vastly improve decorum, making Parliament Hill more like Westminster.

"I think it would improve the level of debate," he contends.

But he would hardly stop there. He'd return power to constituencies so that policy bubbles up rather than filters down. He'd have the election financing money go to the constituencies rather than to party headquarters. Much of the current dysfunction has been caused by "the collapse of the party process" and the increasing consolidation of power at the top.

He'd set fixed election dates. He'd work to restore a proud, workable system of government to replace the current reality where "the policy people have all drifted away, the mechanics have taken over and the only policy discussion we have comes from an imported rock star."

But is it possible?

"Yes," he believes, though he's hardly optimistic.

His one hope, he says, is another minority system where the New Democratic Party clearly holds the balance of power.

And where the price of their support is not about taxes and programs. But rather the NDP "insisting" on real electoral reform.
A nice little present for electoral reformers everywhere.


Blogger said...

Here is what I do not like about proportional representation. A party with 3% of the vote in the last election would have had nine seats. That would have given 3% of the population a HUGELY disproportionate influence on policy and politics. With our current system, minority blocs are accommodated with the party system. No political party can form power if they represent only one segment of society. Political parties in Canada have been accommodations of various groups. In that system, accommodating 3% has a low priority. Accommodating 10% has some priority. And accommodating any group with 15% or more becomes a higher priority. I think that is a better way, though there is always room for improvement.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Not true, at least not in most PR systems (and any that would be realistically considered for Canada). Under Mixed Member Proportional, each party is required to surpass a threshold of 5% in order to assume seats. Single Transferable Vote also has a built-in threshold that functions similarly.

For more information, you might want to read my FAQ, especially the bits about coalitions toward the end.

Blogger said...

Actually, I like the STV system. Reform like that, and I mentioned I'm open to improvement, is something I'd be in favour of considering.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I do prefer MMP, but I fully admit that that's just about familiarity. I've lived in a country that has it and I can more clearly envision what Canada would be like with it. I've been reading a lot about STV this year, though, and I've come around to the point of view that the specific system matters much less than making Canadian representative democracy both more representative and more democratic.

My earlier point to you, though, was that PR doesn't really work the way you imagine it to work. Not only will a party with 3% of the vote not get into parliament at all under any system with a threshhold, but even a party with 10% of the vote doesn't actually end up wielding a hugely disproportionate amount of power most of the time. That's the bogeyman people hold up to talk people out of PR, but looking at how things work in practice doesn't tend to bear that out.

I disagree with you, by the way, that political parties in Canada are accommodating of various groups--the Canadian political culture is a very antagonistic one as a result of the polarizing effect of our electoral system. When a majority government has a hold on power, they don't tend to want to give any of it up, and nor do they have to.

Mark Richard Francis said...

Merry Christmas!