Proportional Representation in Canada


Another Canadian election has gone by where the majority government is formed by a party winning only 40% of the popular vote. This has political watchers and pundits increasingly vocal about changing the electoral system. But most of them agree it needs changing.

So far, however, the Liberals are mum on how their campaign promise to reform our electoral system will be implemented. And while I have faith our new Prime Minister will be true to his word, since it will come from a committee effort, one can only wonder what sort of camel that horse will be.*

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in election reform and the institution of a better, more equitable and more democratic form of representation. With the passage of the voter control legislation by the Harper Conservatives – a law that represses voter participation in our democracy, rather than encouraging it – I became concerned that unless we change the system, we are doomed to continuing abuses in our less-than-representational governments.

However, I have yet to see proposed a system that, in my mind, works efficiently. Proportional voting has three distinct methods, and a couple more sub-methods, none of which strike me as entirely satisfactory. But all seem more fair than our current method in giving Canadians real representation. Fair Vote Canada notes the goal of proportional representation is…

…to balance the benefits of introducing some element of proportionality with the capacity to maintain accountable government, most notably as a direct link between elected politicians and their constituents.

Back in 2007, there was a referendum in Ontario for a mixed-member proportional system. It failed (36.9%) to garner the support, probably because the proposed system was simply too damned complicated. Selling a new voting method to the public is never going to be easy easy, but this one sank itself by being so hard to articulate. Plus the process of explaining (and selling) it was poorly organized. As Wikipedia notes:

A June Environics poll showed that 70% of those polled were not familiar with the proposal, including over 50% who knew nothing at all about the upcoming referendum… Citizens were expected to get the information they needed from various websites or from the press. Remarkably, although the Citizens’ Assembly had produced a shorter version of their report and a short leaflet further summarizing it, Elections Ontario distributed neither, to the surprise and disappointment of the Citizens’ Assembly.

As it notes on the Fair Vote Canada site, there’s more than a change to to way we count votes in a proportional method:

PR Systems MUST have multi-member districts: One key feature of PR voting systems is that they use electoral districts that elect two or more MPs. PR-list and STV do this by combining current single member ridings into larger multi-member ridings. If five ridings are combined into one, then all voters in that new riding will help elect 5 MPs for that riding.

Recreating election districts for the whole nation is not an inexpensive proposition. Plus I expect it to be fraught with controversy as such changes in the past have been. However, I trust the pain will be worth the gain in strengthening our democracy.

Canada – at all levels of government, including municipalities with ward systems** – uses the traditional ‘first past the post’ system where the winner of any riding wins. That person doesn’t need to win a majority, just get more votes than the second-highest candidate. Hence the problem: the popular vote doesn’t count for anything in the counting.

For example, in my own riding of Simcoe Grey, in 2015 Conservative MP Kellie Leitch won with 46.5% of the vote. More people voted against her than for her. But she won nonetheless, and all those other votes cast are lost, a situation replicated across Canada in every riding.***

Using the current system, the seat counts came in at:

  • Liberals: 184
  • Conservatives: 99
  • NDP: 44
  • BQ: 10
  • Green: 1

However, if the seats were given out according to the percentage of the popular vote each party received, the results would be:

  • Liberals: 135
  • Conservatives: 108
  • NDP: 68
  • BQ: 17
  • Green: 10

Which would mean a minority Liberal government, not a majority. And therein lies the problem: governments never want to give up power, and are loathe to change to a system that could undermine their strength. Will Trudeau’s Liberals support a system that might see them in a minority position next election?

Passing contentious or controversial legislation or budgets is difficult to impossible without a majority. But for Canadians, there are distinct advantages to minority or coalition governments.

First is that very Canadian trait of compromise. Coalitions and minorities simply have to compromise with others to get things done. Working together is not easy, and for some of the larger parties it may be impossible. But for others – the Green Party for example – it is a better way to have their voice heard in legislation.

Second is how laws get passed. Right now, if a budget fails, the government falls. That, too, must change, because we may see few majority governments under a new electoral system in future. Under a proportional system, if the budget fails, well then the government has to go back to their desks and hammer out one that will pass. Which means compromise.

Compromise means that the non-ideologues among us (including me) also have better representation. Yes, the ideologues will get shirty and stick their heads in the sand rather than compromise. But that’s always been the case. Wiser, cooler heads will see the advantages.

I am a political agnostic in that I have no faith in any particular party or platform. I have attitudes about issues, about finances, about taxes and so on that sound like they are cherry-picked from each of the four major parties, but owe no totality to any. I suspect there are many more people like me out there who don’t personally adhere a party line, but rather have a broader view of Canada and the world that the narrow confines of party ideology allow. Proportional representation will allow our wide political spectrum to be better expressed than the current system. ****

We need to have a better electoral system and we need it soon. What that system will look like, I cannot say, only hope that it will be more horse than camel.

* The old saw being that a camel is a horse designed by committee.

** At-large systems, like Collingwood’s, are rare. There are arguments whether they serve the electorate better or worse than ward systems.

*** There were 97,145 people eligible to vote here, but only 65,393 did so; a third of voters opting out. If you count eligible voters, then Leitch won with only 31%. This is one reason Canada needs a law to make voting mandatory, like Australia and 21 other countries have. If you don’t want to vote, you can choose to pay a fine instead.

**** I share some small-c conservative ideas about taxes, deficits and debts that fit with the Conservative financial platform, but my attitudes about immigration, women’s issues, aboriginals, veterans, science, environment, international relations, the military and other areas did not. But no other party’s platform was a complete fit, either. The current electoral system is an all-or-nothing method that doesn’t allow such shades of attitude. You get the bad with the good.

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