The Uncertain Path to PR

By Pilon, Dennis | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

The Uncertain Path to PR


Pilon, Dennis, Canadian Dimension


The election of a minority Liberal government in the June federal election has created a historic opportunity to push democratic reform in Canada, specifically dumping our unrepresentative, uncompetitive first-past-the-post voting system for some form of proportional representation. While there have been minority governments before--throughout the 1960s, from 1972-74 and in 1979--this is the first time since Mackenzie King's farmer/labour-supported Liberal minority government of 1921 that a number of key political parties favour at least considering PR.

While the federal Liberals continue to dismiss PR, the NDP and the Greens are solidly in favour of the change, while both the Bloc and the Canadian Alliance wing of the new Conservative party voted in Parliament a year ago for an NDP private member's bill to hold a national referendum on the issue. Electoral reform also appears to be advancing on a number of provincial fronts: New Brunswick, P.E.I., Quebec and B.C. The Liberals in Ontario have also promised to examine the question.

FIRST-PAST-THE-POST: LIMITS AND LIABILITIES

But all these promises may yet amount to little. If recent attempts at reform elsewhere mean anything, to actually change any of Canada's entrenched voting systems will prove more difficult than it appears.

This is because FPTP is a powerfully undemocratic voting system that is very attractive to those that wish to wield near-dictatorial power. There are powerful interests in most parties opposed to the change. And Canada's media remains hostile or indifferent at best to the question.

What we do in the next few months could make all the difference to the success or failure of the current PR initiative. If we want reform to succeed, we've got to get the issue into public view, get people talking about it, and connect public frustration with politics to our antiquated, "all or nothing" voting system.

The recent federal election certainly underscores how badly our current first-past-the-post voting system works. Nationally the Bloc, Conservatives and Liberals were all over-represented while the NDP and Greens were dramatically under-represented. The NDP's 16 per cent translated into just 6.2 per cent of the seats; almost five per cent for the Greens failed to garner them a single seat.

More dramatic inequalities were produced at the regional level. The Conservatives won 93 per cent of the seats in both Alberta and Saskatchewan, despite wildly different levels of popular support: 62 per cent in Alberta versus just 42 per cent in Saskatchewan. In B.C., the right slipped to just 37 per cent of the popular vote but still won 61 per cent of the seats. Other regions also produced dramatic inequalities. In Quebec, 49 per cent of the popular vote gave the Bloc 72 per cent of the seats. In Ontario, the Liberals' 45 per cent gave them 71 per cent of the seats.

By contrast, the NDP was badly under-represented in all regions of the country. And women, visible minorities and Aboriginal peoples all remain dramatically under-represented in the new parliament.

TOWARD PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION

If bad representation alone could catalyze voting-system reform we would have had PR long ago. …

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