Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Proportional Representation Is a Must

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Proportional Representation Is a Must

Article excerpt

Public discontent with government and politicians has increased over the last two decades, is greater in Canada than in the US, and greater than most places world-wide. Canadians think government is not responsive to them, or their needs. We are supposed to be a representative democracy. Elected members are supposed to speak and act for their constituents. What then is wrong? This article argues that institutional change to render government more responsive should start with the electoral system.


The past decade has seen many proposals for reform. For example, the 1985 McGrath Report suggested many parliamentary reforms. The purpose was to give elected members an effective legislative function. The Report raised great expectations. In 1992 a group of parliamentarians, and academics studied the Report's impact and sadly concluded nothing has changed. Party discipline was strong as ever, and private members still had no legislative function. Other popular proposals include direct democracy measures, such as, Referendum, Recall, and Initiative. These aim at participatory democracy, and increased government responsiveness to the people.

All such attempts to shape a more democratic system are futile. Parliamentary reforms fail, because in spite of reforms, power remains with the cabinet, and elected members lack the power to hold cabinet accountable. Direct democracy fails, because it is ill-suited for the parliamentary system.

Our British Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral system pre-dates universal suffrage and large extra-parliamentary political parties. It is not designed to serve the needs of modern, participatory democracies. Typically, SMP allows a minority to elect government. In BC, the New Democrats formed a majority government with 40% of the popular vote. Sixty percent of the people did not support Mr. Harcourt, his platform, or his party. In Ontario, Bob Rae did the same with even less popular support. SMP over-rewards the party with the most votes and under-rewards parties with fewer votes. For example, in the 1991 BC election, Social Credit won 24% of the popular vote, but just 7 seats; even worse, in 1993 the federal Progressive Conservatives received only 2 seats for their 16% of the popular vote. Under a proportional electoral system, Social Credit would have obtained 18 seats, the Progressive Conservatives 47 seats, and both would still have a substantial parliamentary presence.

Changing to proportional representation is not only fairer to political parties, it also provides more democracy for voters. For example, the unfairness of the last federal election is directed not only at the Progressive Conservative party, but also at the 2.1 million Canadians whose votes were rewarded with just 2 seats. That is over 1 million Conservative votes per seat. In contrast, the Liberals needed only 31,909 votes per seat. The vote of Liberal supporters was 34 times more powerful than the vote of Conservative supporters. The unfairness of our system has become particularly obvious since the courts ruled that section 3 of the Charter guarantees not only the principle of one person one vote, but also that votes should be equally effective.

Our system does not allow the people's will to be represented in government. On election night most voters get a representative they did not vote for. No wonder most people complain government is not responsive. It is not representative of them. In Quebec a separatist minority came to power, ignited a national unity crisis, and is the cause of economic uncertainty for all Canadians. Such extremism in public policy caused by a minority would not happen under proportional representation. Electoral systems should accurately reproduce in the legislature, the will of the majority, and thus meet the requirements of democracy. That is why New Zealand recently cast off the British system in favour of proportional representation--the people's system. …

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