Geographic Representation and Electoral Reform

By Pearse, Hilary | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Geographic Representation and Electoral Reform


Pearse, Hilary, Canadian Parliamentary Review


The close relationship between parliamentarians and residents of the geographic district they represent is an essential element of the electoral system in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Debates on electoral reform in these countries have typically accepted the importance of the relationship without question. This essay looks at the basis for the continuing attachment to geographic representation. It concludes that there is evidence to support the importance of the role played by directly elected constituency representatives but suggests that the attachment to geography comes at a cost, by restricting electoral reformers in their choice of alternative options and constraining parties and representatives from exploring the full potential of new electoral systems.

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Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand share a tradition of single-member districts with plurality or majority electoral formulas. Due to their common history as British colonies, the modern political systems of Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all derived from the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. However, there is some variation between the systems. The first-past-the-post plurality electoral system is currently used in the United Kingdom and Canada, and was used in New Zealand from 1946-1993. Under this formula, the candidate in a single-member constituency need only win a plurality of the votes to be elected. In contrast, the majoritarian Alternative Vote system used to elect members of the Australian House of Representatives requires candidates to win an absolute majority of the vote. Since 1996, just more than half of the members of the New Zealand parliament have been elected using the traditional plurality system in single-member districts, while the remainder are indirectly elected via party lists in proportion to the nation-wide support for their party. All four countries currently elect one candidate per geographic constituency, although various forms of multi-member districts have been used in the past in the Canadian provinces, and two- and three-member districts for national elections existed in the United Kingdom until 1950.

Vernon Bogdanor describes the plurality system as it developed in Britain and the British colonies as being "profoundly linked to the notion of territorial representation." (1) As representatives of constituencies, MPs were "attorneys seeking the redress of grievances before committing their constituencies to the payment of the expenses of government." The concept of parliament as an assembly for the representation of constituency interests was later eclipsed by Burke's notion of the parliament as a "deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole." (2) Rather than acting as a 'delegate' for the will of the constituency, the representative is a 'trustee', elected by their constituents in recognition of their wisdom, to exercise their judgment as they see best. The rise of modern cohesive political parties has further challenged the concept of representation. A description of representation in Australia is equally applicable to the other three countries studied in this paper: "Within major parties, the popular images of elected representatives are neither as trustees nor delegates of their voters, but as partisans." (3)

Even in an era of party dominance, the perception of the representative as a delegate for their constituency persists.

Eulau and Karp define the modern understanding of representation as comprising four possible 'components of responsiveness.' In addition to 'policy responsiveness' and 'symbolic responsiveness', they include 'service responsiveness'--"the efforts of the representative to secure particular benefits for individuals or groups in his constituency"--and 'allocation responsiveness'--"the representative's effort to obtain benefits for individuals or groups in his constituency through pork-barrel exchanges in the appropriations process or through administrative interventions. …

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