Electoral Systems and Representative Legislatures

By Young, Lisa | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Electoral Systems and Representative Legislatures


Young, Lisa, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Lisa Young is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. This article is based on a presentation to the Canadian Study of Parliament Group on April 25, 1998.

There are several reasons for wanting to see more representative legislative bodies in Canada. At the symbolic level, a legislative body that reflects the diversity of Canadian society affirms that society's inclusiveness and egalitarian nature. When legislative bodies fail this test, the legitimacy of the government they support suffers in the eyes of excluded groups. Moreover, some Canadians believe that a more representative legislature or House of Commons would enact different kinds of legislation - legislation that was sensitive to the interest of women or minority groups. This article looks at some of the arguments in favour of a new electoral system.

There is little question that, in demographic terms, Canadian legislatures are unrepresentative. Our parliament and legislatures still over-represent professional white men and under-represent virtually every other segment of the population. Women comprise less than 30% of the members in any of Canada's provincial legislatures, and only 20.6% of the current House of Commons. Although reliable statistics are more difficult to come by, a cursory glance at the membership of the House of Commons or almost any provincial legislature suggests that the diversity of Canadian society - in terms of ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation - is not reflected in our governing bodies. These patterns of under-representation are not random. They have persisted over an extended period; even more significant, they offer a rough reflection of the distribution of power, wealth, prestige and authority in contemporary Canadian society.

Several of the major Canadian parties have tried to devise answers to this question, adopting measures ranging from special training programs and recruitment practices aimed at women, to the NDP's affirmative action plans, to the Liberal party's appointment of women candidates. To varying degrees, these programs have been successful in increasing the number of women candidates, and may have had some effect in encouraging candidacies from other under-represented groups. The success of these efforts has been limited, however, by their awkward fit with the Canadian electoral system.

In Canada, we tend to see our territorially-based single member system as both neutral in effect and somehow natural. Upon closer examination, we can see that it is neither. By grouping citizens according to their geographic location, our electoral system privileges territorial identity. It tells us that we are, above all else, members of territorially-based communities.

When we talk about representation in Canada, we talk about it in primarily territorial or regional terms. It would be considered completely unacceptable if a province with half the country's population had only a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons. The notion that an Albertan could adequately represent the views of a Quebecker, or vice versa, would be considered laughable. Yet we do not see an urgent need to reconsider an electoral system in which women (over half the population) hold only a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons, and we argue that non-Aboriginals can represent the interests of Aboriginals. The primacy of territory in our discussions of representation is both a reflection of the significant regional cleavages in Canadian politics, and serves to reinforce them (as Alan Cairns pointed out 30 years ago). (1)

This emphasis on territorial representation has the effect of muting non-territorial claims for representation, effectively rendering them secondary. The institutional manifestation of a territorially-defined conception of representation - our single member plurality electoral system - also places practical barriers in the way of non-traditional candidates or, more precisely, non-traditional candidates who lack a geographically concentrated constituency. …

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