Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Half of Canadians support national referendum on PR: poll

I'm about to flagrantly violate copyright and cut and paste an entire piece from the Hill Times from this morning. (This is because they way they use javascript makes it impossible to link directly to individual pieces. I have nothing but respect for the Times, though, so if this rubs someone over there the wrong way, they should drop me an email and I'll pull this post.)

I have two things to add to it, though. First, I can't let the wording stand that "a system of proportional representation would effectively eliminate Canada's tradition of majority governments." As I have stated before, most governments produced by voting systems based on proportional representation are majority governments (majority governments consisting of more than one party) and there is no reason to think that this would be any different in Canada.

Second...what can I say? This is simply an extraordinary result. Not just in light of what happened in Ontario last week, but overall. See, the battle all electoral reformers face consists of a) getting people to make the connection between their overwhelming distaste with the way politics works in Canada and the voting system that makes that possible, and b) showing them that there's a tried-and-true alternative used in most of the democratic world that would get rid of a lot of the things they don't like. Some days I'm not even sure these goals are attainable without giving every Canadian the same opportunities to live abroad that I've had. Reformers keep explaining and explaining until we're blue in the face, though, and although sometimes it feels like shouting into a void, this poll is saying that we've had an effect. Extraordinary.

Anyway. Shutting up and turning the floor over to Simon Doyle from the Hill Times, now.

Half support national referendum on PR: poll
Only one-third of Canadians are satisfied with how Parliament works, says a new poll

About half of Canadians support holding a national referendum on changing Canada's electoral system in the next general election, and 45 per cent say that in such a referendum they would vote in favour of proportional representation, shows a wide-ranging new poll on Parliament.

The poll, conducted by Innovative Research Group for The Hill Times, comes on the heels of a failed referendum on proportional representation held in the Oct. 10 Ontario provincial election, in which 63.1 per cent of voters supported the existing electoral system and only 36.9 per cent voted for a system of PR called Mixed Member Proportional.

"A lot of people are looking at PR as dead in Ontario right now, whereas it may just be sleeping," Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research, said in an interview. "The rejection of this particular proposal for PR in Ontario is not the end of the road for change. It just illustrates the challenge in change because it's hard to get a majority in any specific proposal."

The poll shows significant support for a system of proportional representation in Ontario and Quebec, where, respectively, 46 per cent and 52 per cent said they would vote in support of PR if a national referendum were held in the next general election. Still, such levels of support are short of the "super majority" required in recent referenda on the electoral systems in B.C., P.E.I., and Ontario, all of which required 60 per cent majority votes to change the existing electoral systems.

The poll shows a large degree of dissatisfaction with the function and structure of the Canadian Parliament. In total, 41 per cent of respondents said they are dissatisfied with the way Parliament works. Thirty-five per cent said they are satisfied and 21 per cent said neither.

The poll asked respondents whether they believe the structure of the House of Commons allows MPs to represent communities effectively, to which 59 per cent said the structure is not effective and 35 per cent said it is (only four per cent said it is "very effective" and 31 per cent said "somewhat effective").

"It doesn't pick up the role that the MP plays as ombudsman for the community, probably because, although they work like crazy in their constituency offices every weekend or whatever, only a small number of constituents actually benefit from that or see it or go in and buttonhole MPs about things," Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said in an interview. "Once elected, the member of Parliament is representing the community."

Prof. Clarkson suggested that Ontarians may have rejected the MMP proposal because they want strong local representation and did not like the idea of generating "list" members in the legislature to be selected by political parties, as the MMP system proposed. However, Prof. Clarkson acknowledged that momentum for some form of PR seems to be growing.

"It's on the agenda now," he said, adding that effective lobbying has helped identify electoral reform as a priority. "It may be like the Quebec referendum. It'll keep coming back until they win."

When asked whether there should be a national referendum on PR in Canada's next general election, 48 per cent said yes nationally, 32 per cent said no, and 20 per cent said they don't know. When asked how they would vote if a such referendum was held, 45 per cent said they would support a system of PR, 28 per cent said keep the current First Past the Post system, and 27 per cent didn't know.

Innovative Research Group surveyed 1,296 Canadians on a national panel between Oct. 4 and 10. The poll is considered accurate within a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Respondents were not impressed with the jobs their MPs do in representing the views of their communities in Parliament. Sixty-one per cent said MPs are not effective at representing their communities' views and only 35 per cent said they are effective. However, when asked specifically about their own member of Parliament, the number was slightly less negative, with 54 per cent saying their MP is not effective in representing the views of their community and 35 per cent saying their MP is effective.

Prof. Clarkson said that "ruthlessly negative" advertising by political parties is contributing to the negative public view of politicians and their work. He said opinions of politicians are low, with call-in radio shows, for instance, heaping dislike and scorn on elected officials. "It's unjustified given how hard they work and how little corruption there is, but the negativity about individual MPs may be connected to that," he said.

In a report released this month by the Public Policy Forum, one expert describes Parliament as a "media circus," in which MPs are inexperienced legislators who do not fully understand the system and feel as though they have little influence in government decision-making.

The report says that MPs in the backbenches of government are frustrated by their feelings of powerlessness and marginalized by control over caucus by the Prime Minister's Office. Government MPs have a lack of influence in the system, and can do little but become increasingly partisan and vocal in the House of Commons, House committees and the news media. The result is that MPs add to a lack of decorum in the House but little to policy formation.

"It was observed by a number of leaders that the system will continue to deteriorate until the current Westminster model is capable of providing a more substantive role for Parliamentarians in policy making," the report says.

Poll respondents said they prefer majority governments when they are led by the party that they voted for. When asked whether they prefer majority or minority governments, 37 per cent said minority governments, 20 per cent said majority governments, and 38 per cent said it depends on which party forms the government.

A system of proportional representation would effectively eliminate Canada's tradition of majority governments, which are normally formed with less than half the popular vote. A national system of PR would elect parties' MPs to House in the same proportion as the popular vote won by each party, greatly reducing the chance of electing majority governments. The system would make minority and coalition governments the norm.

Prof. Clarkson said that support for minority governments tends to come from the centre-left of the electorate, because minorities have historically given the balance of power to parties such as the New Democratic Party or its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. "That was an implicit theme in the referendum in Ontario. Maybe it wasn't even realized, but had we brought that in, it would have put the NDP in a position of power for the foreseeable future," Prof. Clarkson said.

The poll also found that only 39 per cent of respondents voted for their current MP. Forty-six per cent said they did not vote for their sitting MP.


Anonymous said...


This may help me too. :)

Anonymous said...

My goodness.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, this was the easiest post I've ever written, so I can't accept your thanks! But I'm glad it will help. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post IP.

I was very disappointed with the outcome of the recent Ontario referendum. When I first heard of the referendum, coincidently from this site, I immediately sent a note to my friends and family in hopes of raising awareness of the upcoming referendum. I also discussed the referendum with colleagues at work and others outside of work.

From my discussions with people around me I believe were two major factors that led to the rejection of the referendum proposal: first, as you pointed IP, people did not make the connection between their view on the current politics of the nation and the voting system in use. Second, but more importantly, there was a insidious and consistent attempt at misleading the public by weasely-pundits in and on our increasingly right-wing-leaning media. The latter was so apparent leading up to the vote that I kept hearing very intelligent people around me regurgitate the ridiculous arguments advanced by the media and their pundits.

Every time I heard the same phrase "...a fringe party could get elected and destroy the province..." or "...list members would only be loyal to the party and not their constituents..." I would just about make a run for the window to try and put myself out of misery. I couldn't believe that these otherwise intelligent adults would allow themselves to be so easily manipulated by the media. I also clearly realized that the average person will not make the effort to educate themselves on many issues but rather trust the biased views they get from the media (left- or right-leaning).

The effort to derail the referendum and ultimately cause it its failure reminded me of the swiftboating tactics used by some organizations south of the border ( You know you have won even if you lost when your opponent has absolutely no credibility or an argument to make but rather it/they/she/he resort to fear-mongering and outright lying.


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I share your frustration at the misinformation that was out there. I actually think a lot of the misinformation was probably innocent--people regurgitating arguments they'd vaguely heard without thinking about it. But some of it was clearly deliberate lies, and the people who do that are much more dangerous than the occasional Sheila Copps. The analogy with Swiftboating is a good one.

I disagree, though, that it's about "right-wing" vs. "left-wing." Electoral reform isn't a left-wing issue (and I'd argue that it actually hurts the cause to paint it like that). Being left-wing isn't a requirement for being interested in making our representative democracy actually representative and democratic. There are centre-left pundits who oppose reform (e.g., the aforementioned Sheila Copps) and there are centre-right pundits who support it (e.g., Andrew Coyne).

Anonymous said...

It isn't a left-right issue, if by "right" you mean "conservative". To be conservative is not to oppose all change; it is to oppose change that is not well thought out. The Ontario MMP scheme was not well thought out. It violated the democratic principle that candidates must have equal standing - an impossibility since party-affiliated candidates would enjoy a legislated advantage over independents - and there were lesser potential abuses (eg. political promises being essentially worthless, the parties could always resort to using lists to protect unelectable candidates since there was no legislative safeguard). It also violated the principle of direct representation and accountability. Since there were no other alternatives proposed - a simple binary choice to change or not - and the pro-reform advocates seemed unwilling to even mention, let alone seriously consider the likely unintended consequences, the conservative course is to reject the change until a satisfactory alternative is on offer.


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


It won't surprise you that I can't agree. I lived in a country that's had pretty much exactly the voting system that was proposed in Ontario, for years and years. We know how it functions in practice, and it doesn't function as you describe.

The current system produces an advantage for party-affiliated candidates over independents, but by teasing apart the decisions about the individual and the desired government, MMP would have done away with that advantage, giving people the chance to vote for the party they want to see in government, but also an independent as their local representative if they so chose. And as for the "potential abuses" you describe--you're not comparing like with like. It only makes sense to look at the potential abuses of FPTP versus the potential abuses of MMP, or look at the actual way FPTP functions in practice versus the actual way MMP functions in practice. Comparing worst-case-scenarios for one system and ordinary functioning of another makes no sense at all.

All water under the bridge now, though, of course, so it's a bit beside the point to have this argument now. It sounds like you like STV--well, I like it, too. Let's work to get it passed in B.C., then we can talk about other potential reforms in Ontario.

Anonymous said...

When you combine this poll with the Ontario referendum result, the logical conclusion is that there is appetite for reform, but not just any PR system will win public support.

MMP seems to be the darling of much of the electoral reform crowd, but STV is what truly appeals to the voters.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Actually, some further drilling down into the available data on why the referendum failed so badly suggests that it wasn't about the particular system that was proposed, but about a number of other factors, including the specific knowledge voters had about the effects of that system.

As far as optics go, though, you may be right--it may simply be easier to win a referendum involving STV right now than to try again with MMP.

Wilf Day said...

What the best system would be federally is not for me to say. That's why we need a independent citizen-driven process like a Citizens' Assembly.

However, I think I can confidently predict it will be one of two options: STV or regional open-list MMP. Quebec has regional open-list MMP on the table, from the last report on PR there. Scotland, which has a pretty good regional MMP model, also has open-regional-list on the table, recommended by the Arbuthnott Commission. I think MMP with province-wide closed lists is dead in Canada.

A third option would be "near-winner" MMP, with no lists at all: the additional "top-up" MPs would simply be the local candidates of the under-represented party who came closest to winning, as used in the German province of Baden-Wurttemberg. I know a few Conservatives who like that option, but it won't be widely known until someone puts it on the national agenda, which is not happening.