Will Canada Seriously Consider Electoral System Reform? Women and Aboriginals Should

By Studlar, Donley | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Will Canada Seriously Consider Electoral System Reform? Women and Aboriginals Should


Studlar, Donley, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


Donley T. Studlar is Eberly Distinguished Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University. He has published extensively on Canadian topics, including gender representation in legislatures and provincial cabinets.

For some time, Canada's first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system has been subjected to criticism for increasing the regional distinctiveness of the party caucuses in Ottawa. In a plurality system, the one candidate with the most votes, not necessarily a majority, wins the single seat in the district. A party with a substantial vote over the country or even a region has sometimes received few parliamentary seats in return.

In contrast, proportional representation (PR), of which there are several variations, attempts to maintain a closer correspondence between the percentage of votes for a party and its seats. An increasingly popular form of PR in Western democracies is Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), a combination of the two.

Although academics and political commentators have periodically raised the electoral system question, only rarely has FPTP been seriously addressed in the political arena. For a brief time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the issue did generate some political interest, but even that quickly subsided. The election results of 1993 and 1997 may resurrect political interest in electoral system reform.

A debate that hasn't happened

This article examines the history of electoral system reform in Canada and why Canadians have been reluctant to confront the issue. Other contributions to this volume explore the regional and partisan dimensions of the question. This one will consider briefly why women and Aboriginal peoples should consider alternative electoral systems.

Canada has been a persistent and recognized exception to the established relationship that FPTP will lead to a two-party system because regionally based, smaller parties have been able to sustain themselves by winning seats in the House of Commons from that region. In this century, the Progressives, Cooperative Common-wealth Federation (CCF), New Democratic Party (NDP), Social Credit, Creditistes, and, currently, the Bloc Quebecois and Reform have been successful in gaining seats in the federal House of Commons.

Progressive Party insurgency from the West into the then two-party system in the 1920s briefly led to consideration of changing the electoral system on the federal level. Two government-sponsored bills to change to the Alternative Vote, which would have required a majority vote for a party to gain a seat, did not pass second reading. A hiatus of almost a half century occurred before reform of the electoral system was again considered on the federal level. Meanwhile, the few experiments with the form of PR known as the Single Transferable Vote, notably in Western cities and provinces, were abandoned by the 1960s.

The question of changing the electoral system reached the political agenda in a brief and limited fashion in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Conservative minority government elected in 1979 had only two MPs from Quebec, at the same time that the Parti Quebecois governed the province and was preparing to hold a referendum on sovereignty. These circumstances prompted questioning of the continued viability of FPTP in a country with such severe regional divisions. The most significant political advocate for considering a form of PR was the Pepin-Robarts Task Force on Canadian Unity, which noted that: Experience in other federations indicates that when party membership in the central parliament becomes concentrated in regional blocs it is an advance signal of eventual disintegration. The regional polarization of federal political parties corrodes federal unity. Because we see developing signs of such a situation in Canada we have come to the conclusion that electoral reform is urgent and of very high priority.

NDP leader Ed Broadbent supported a change after the 1979 elections, as did academic and political spokespersons for western Canada, then beginning to assert its own regional demands. …

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