Op-ed

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Only proportionality will fix our democratic malaise

by Hugh Segal, Ed Broadbent and Alex Himelfarb

The Globe and Mail
May 10, 2016

The Liberals have promised that 2015 would be the last election under our current system and that they would engage Canadians in defining the alternative. This promise comes more than 10 years after the Law Reform Commission proposed electoral reform grounded in the principle of proportionality as essential to addressing a growing democratic deficit. After all, elections are how we choose who will represent us and grant them the authority to govern.

We have long recognized the flaws in our first-past-the-post system, inherited when democracy was not nearly so valued, but we are one of the few remaining countries that has not undertaken the needed reforms. We now have a historic opportunity.

But time is short and Canadians are growing increasingly impatient for the government to announce the consultation process so it can meet its promised deadline.

The central problem with our winner-take-all system is that the composition of our elected parliament does not reflect how we actually voted. A candidate who receives a plurality of the votes wins, even if a majority of the voters chose others. The majority of the votes in such a case have no impact on the outcome of the election.

That means a party that receives only a minority of votes, say less than 40 per cent, can form a majority government, taking full control of the policy agenda. In fact, this is the norm in Canada. But this cannot continue. In a representative democracy, representativeness surely should matter.

Our system has fed a democratic malaise. Little wonder that when voters believe their vote makes no difference, many opt not to vote. We have no cause to celebrate the 2015 increase in voter turnout when still more than 30 per cent of the electorate stayed home.

It has also fed regional discord. In a country as regionally diverse as Canada, the electoral system must have the capacity of enabling a government to govern effectively and the opposition’s capacity to provide informed criticism. Regional representation is required for both. Our current system is seriously deficient in meeting this requirement.

In 1980, when the Liberal government of the day brought in the National Energy Program (NEP), the Liberal Party had received over 20 per cent support in each of the four Western provinces and yet won only two seats in Manitoba and none at all in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the oil-producing provinces. One can only speculate how different the NEP might have been had those voices been represented in cabinet.

With proportionality, national unity would be strengthened.

As the Law Reform Commission – and numerous other commissions – have recognized, we need an alternative to winner-take-all and that means a proportional system in which all votes are equal – and every vote counts, precisely what the Liberals promised.

The government has announced eight principles to guide electoral reform that do not include this particular language. We note, nonetheless, that only a proportional system can meet the government’s first principle: To ensure that votes are fairly translated into elected results.

No more staying at home because our preferred candidate cannot win. No more so-called strategic voting in which we vote to stop a party we like the least rather than choose the candidate or party that best reflects our views.

Not surprisingly, countries with some form of proportional representation – and that is the majority of advanced democracies and 85 per cent of OECD countries – elect more women, more members of minority communities and more diverse legislatures.

Given that most democracies have opted for greater proportionality, there’s a good deal of evidence on how it’s working. And it is working.

Voter participation and trust in government are higher. There has been some increase but no proliferation of parties. It does become harder – though not impossible – for single parties to get a majority so these countries are often governed by coalitions. But coalitions in fact provide good, stable government. Elections are no more frequent and politics tend to be less polarized because parties know they may have to work together.

While some are pushing preferential ballots – where we rank candidates – this is not an improvement over winner-take-all. Ranked ballots can be introduced in either our current system or in a proportional system, but, on their own, they do not solve the problems. Indeed, if introduced into our current system they will create even larger false majorities and make things even less representative, as they inevitably disadvantage parties challenging the status quo whose voters deserve as much fairness as any others.

Electoral reform is not about what works for any particular party or parties in general. It’s about the public interest, what works for voters, what makes our democracy stronger. The only alternative to what we have now is a proportional system. We have delayed for too long. The window is closing if we are to make the changes in time for the next election. We cannot miss this opportunity.

Ed Broadbent is chair of the Broadbent Institute, Alex Himelfarb is former Clerk of the Privy Council and Hugh Segal is Master of Massey College.

Photo: Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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