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One Citizen, One Vote: Towards Proportional Representation

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Issue: 5 Section: Features Geography: Canada Topics: democracy, elections

August 8, 2003

One Citizen, One Vote: Towards Proportional Representation

An interview with Larry Gordon, Executive Director of Fair Vote Canada

by Susan Thompson

Fair Vote Canada’s Larry Gordon advocating proportional representation. photo courtesy of Fair Vote Canada

Fair Vote Canada (FVC) was formed in August of 2000 as a multi-partisan citizen's campaign to reform Canada's voting system. FVC promotes the adoption of a system that is proportional, uses positive, effective votes, and results in a stable and accountable government. The organization does not recommend a specific type of proportional representation, but calls for a public process which will allow Canadians to learn about voting system alternatives and choose a new one.

In keeping with its multi-partisan mandate, FVC had left-wing feminist Judy Rebick and Walter Robinson of the right-wing Canadian Taxpayers Federation co-write an op-ed article on fair voting for the Globe and Mail after the last federal election. They both continue to serve on Fair Vote Canada's National Advisory Board along with many other prominent Canadians such as David Suzuki, Karen Kain, and Pierre Berton. FVC also maintains regional chapters across the country as well as several special interest caucuses. The organization's website was recently revamped to include more information and a new online petition.

Dominion: Why is fair voting important?

Larry Gordon: The heart of the political system in a representative democracy is the voting system because that's the tool we citizens use to create government in our own image. Unfortunately, Canada has one of the most widely discredited and ridiculed voting systems among major democracies. We are one of the few industrialized democracies still using the first-past-the-post voting system which most major countries scrapped between 50 and 100 years ago. Could you explain briefly what that means? What are the characteristics of the first-past-the-post or winner-take-all system?

A winner-take-all voting system is just what it says. Some people win the right to have their voices represented and everybody else loses. In a single riding, whoever has the most popular partisan viewpoint as expressed at the ballot box wins the right to be represented by parliament. Everybody else who voted--equal citizens, with equally legitimate viewpoints under the law--loses the right to be represented in parliament. And that basically subverts the whole idea of democracy. Representative democracy is a system in which every citizen wins the right to be represented and then we agree that the majority wins the right to make decisions until the next election. Our voting system does neither. Many of us do not win representation at voting time because of the winner-takes-all system, and we seldom actually have legitimate majority governments.

How many legitimate majority governments have we had?

Since WW I we've had exactly four legitimate majority governments. It's a very rare occasion. Currently, we have a government that controls 57% of the seats in parliament, which is a significant majority--but they were voted in by only 41% of the voters participating in that election. That is a dramatic distortion of what voters said at the ballot box and created yet another phony majority government. So we have minority rule in a parliament that is not representative of the people of this country. That isn't tolerable in a democracy.

According to Fair Vote Canada, a large number of votes are wasted as well--and your organization recently did a study which found that a majority of votes in Nova Scotia are wasted--is that right?

That's right. Wasted votes are defined by political scientists as votes cast that do not produce representation for voters. So anybody who cast a vote in our current system for a losing candidate has cast a wasted vote. They might as well have stayed home or destroyed their ballot.

Is that contributing to voter apathy in Canada?

Yes, exactly. This all follows a very common sense logic. If you have a voting system where many people understand at a gut level that they do not get representation, that really decreases the motivation--it's frankly not logical for many people to vote in many ridings across the country. So it's not surprising that countries that use the winner-take-all voter systems have lower voter turnout and more voter disgruntlement than countries that use fair voting systems.

Which countries use the first-past-the-post system?

Among the major industrial democracies it's really just Canada, the U.S., and Britain. Interestingly, Britain has brought in proportional representation in the Scottish assembly that was just started recently, the Welsh assembly, and they use proportional representation to elect their representatives to the European parliament. About the only place in Britain that they're not using PR right now is electing parliament itself. So among major industrial democracies its really been Canada and the U.S. that are wedded to this system.

Getting back to some of the perceived flaws in the first-past-the-post system, how does it exaggerate regional differences, at least according to Fair Vote Canada?

There are some regional differences in Canada, but the voting system has dramatically blown them out of proportion. If you look at an electoral map, you could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that everybody west of Ontario votes Alliance. In every MP's office you'll see this electoral map that has the country coloured by what party controls what riding. There are these great big blocks of colour across the country, showing that everybody in the West is an Alliance supporter, that everybody in Ontario is a Liberal, everybody in Quebec votes Bloc. But in the last election, and I was surprised at this because I kind of fell into this myth also, half as many people voted Liberal as Alliance in the four Western provinces. But the Alliance got five times as many seats, so you can see the distortion there. In my home province here in Ontario, 50% of Ontarians voted for the Liberals, but the Liberals got virtually every seat. People like Preston Manning and Stephen Harper have been lambasted for no breakthrough in Ontario--well, a million people in the last election in Ontario voted for the Canadian Alliance. A million people. They should have about 20 - 25 Alliance MPs. So in a fair voting system, the Alliance wouldn't be a western party. In a fair voting system, the Liberals would not be the party of Ontario.

I've read the argument that proportional representation would supplant small, regionally supported parties and that would eliminate the representation they now have in the House of Commons, the argument being that PR would thus actually exacerbate regional conflicts.

Proportional representation would allow regional parties to exist. Proportional representation will essentially allow whatever political viewpoints the public has to be fairly and appropriately represented in parliament. If there's a critical mass of people supporting a particular regional party, proportional representation wouldn't hinder or help. It would just allow it to be represented as it deserves to be represented. The current voting system does allow regional parties to exist if they reach critical mass. However, it doesn't allow the other type of small party to get established, which is the smaller party which represents a scattered constituency across a wide region of Canada. The Greens are the classic case. Under our current voting system, it's a wasted vote to vote for a Green anywhere in this country. But, if you had a fair voting system where every vote counted equally, I suspect there would be 15-30 Green MPs in parliament. In most European countries with proportional voting systems, five to ten percent of the seats are often won by the Greens. In Canada, if the voting system allowed that viewpoint to be represented, I suspect that although the party may never hit critical mass in a particular winner-take-all riding, it would represent a reasonable and significant minority in this country. So proportional representation wouldn't stop regional parties from being formed or represented, but it would open up political space for other parties that right now cannot participate in the voting system because their support is scattered across the country.

But isn't that one of the arguments against fair voting, that the parties could actually get so small that very few would have a national scope and then that would somehow damage our political process.

Critics of proportional voting systems will often point to a place like Israel where there are 30 or 40 parties and all of them represent 5% and 2% of the country and so on. Proportional representation does allow more parties to be formed, and essentially allows whatever political viewpoints there are to be represented. So if you had a very diverse, fragmented society that could be represented in the political system. Now, why don't more countries go down that path? Why don't you have Germany in utter chaos? Why is Switzerland not in chaos?

Yes, and I think the question is, how do we make sure that Canada doesn't become a worst-case scenario?

Well there's a certain common sense logic to a political system. Voters and citizens are not, on the whole, stupid. Unfortunately, because we have bad voting systems and sometimes archaic political institutions and people have become disgruntled, there's a kind of blame voters attitude. The argument becomes "Oh My God, what would happen if everyone had a free and equal vote. Imagine the chaos it would raise." And that's an argument that has been used against allowing people without property to vote; it was an argument used against giving women the vote; it was an argument against lowering the voting ages to let younger people vote. And sometimes people use that argument against PR. But as history has shown, give people a good voting system, and a good society where there is education and dialogue and so on, and you will usually end up with a society where there are good decisions. I don't fear a system where everybody has an equal vote. I fear continuing with a system that is so obviously anti-democratic and contrary to the values Canadians believe in.

Do you think it's mainly that kind of conflict between maintaining the status quo and trying something new, i.e. the fear of change, that's prevented proportional representation from taking hold in Canada thus far?

There are two dilemmas that you face with this sort of change. One is that often the people who have gotten into power through the current voting system don't see a problem with it. The second dilemma is that citizens are not aware of just how fundamentally important the voting system is, or that there are choices. In Europe it's easy to look across the border and see that there are other countries doing things different ways, but in Canada you look across the border and you see the U.S. Although they have a different political system, they're using the same voting system as us. So many Canadians are simply unaware that there are other ways to organize the system.

But doesn't that raise the question of whether it's realistic to expect change? If the Liberals for example, are in power, and benefit from the current system because they're in power, what are the chances of building a new system?

I would say that the situation has never been better in Canada's history for reform to happen in the very near future. As a matter of fact it is definitely going to happen, that's already clear. It's just amazing what's going on right now. In Quebec [Jacques Dupuis, the Minister responsible for Reform of Democratic Institutions] (and this is reaffirming what Charest said in his initial speech to the national assembly) has said that the next election in Quebec is going to be with a more proportional voting system.

And that's a move supported by all three of the parties there as well.

Exactly. And in British Columbia there's the formation of the citizen's assembly which will look at bringing forward a recommendation to a referendum to be held at the next provincial election, on bringing a new voting system into B.C. Here in Ontario we're about to have a provincial election, and both of the opposition parties, the Liberals and the NDP support a voting system reform process. Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are now leading in the polls in Ontario and he is committed to having a binding referendum on voting system reform in our province. It's also being examined in P.E.I. and New Brunswick. It really is only a matter of time now. As soon as one province changes it's going to be like dominoes.

What about at the federal level?

It will be interesting to see how the federal level develops because quite often in Canada the provinces are laboratories for political change. A reform is brought forward first at the provincial level then it's adopted at the federal level. That's certainly one scenario. There might be more of a parallel movement for reform happening at the federal level. The Law Commission of Canada, which is an independent federal agency, just wrapped up a one and a half year public consultation and research project on whether Canada needs a new voting system and they're going to be tabling a report with parliament sometime next year with their recommendations. It's unsure how far they'll go but they've certainly got a tremendous amount of input both from experts and the public about the need for a new voting system. Also, the NDP is bringing forward a votable motion this fall, which I'm pretty sure will get voted on, calling for a referendum on proportional representation. That'll be the first time since 1923 that the parliament has voted on the issue of proportional representation. Jack Layton has also announced that if there is a minority government in the future that calls on the NDP for support, one of the conditions of support would be a national referendum on proportional representation.

And you have a petition which is online now calling for public process on this issue.

Yes, we have a petition that's basically stating that we [need to] have a national deliberation where Canadians can learn about the problems with the current system and the alternatives and have that process culminate with a binding referendum on a more proportional voting system.

By the way, we just didn't pull the process we're talking about out of the air. It's exactly what happened in New Zealand in the early 1990s. There was essentially a public uproar about the voting system and the political system and finally all the political parties got backed into a corner, which essentially allowed the process to happen. First it was a Royal Commission that looked into alternatives. Then they appointed a national body which provided objective information to voters. Then they had two referenda which allowed New Zealanders to choose a new voting system, and they did choose a mixed proportional representation system.

So Canada could pursue a mixed system like New Zealand.

Yes, and frankly most of the experts and people active in this issue think that some sort of mixed system would probably be the best fit with Canadian political culture. You can design the system based on any number of variations. You can get into all sorts of particulars depending on how much power you want to put into voters hands, how much power you want to put into the hands of parties and so on.

So according to you then, most of the arguments against proportional representation can be answered by creating a specific system which prevents some of the potential problems?

Yeah. One thing that just makes me want to scream is when I read an article in the newspaper which is bashing proportional representation using an illustration of a particular way of setting up a system that would be repugnant to Canadians. And not presenting either out of ignorance or political manipulation the fact that it's a choice. It's one way of doing it and it's a choice that you wouldn't make.

Isn't one of the best examples of that the argument that under a fair voting system MPs would end up more beholden to party leaders than to voters because party leaders would have the power to put them on the party list?

Exactly. I think that this is often presented very cynically by critics of proportional representation, because I think they know better, but they say "Oh that's a system that hands all the power to the party bosses." My first cynical reaction to that is "and how does the system work right now?" but that's just an emotional reaction. In proportional systems parties do generally bring out a list of candidates but those lists can be generated in any number of ways. [For example] you can set it up so that parties have primaries, where party members vote on the order of those lists. There are any number of ways to design the system. When somebody brings up that argument it's just an absurd and ill-informed attack on proportional representation.

What sort of support has your organization received so far?

Our national advisory board is just an illustration of the breadth and depth of support for [fair voting]. This is not about left versus right or east versus west or urban versus rural Canadians. This about the fundamentals of democracy. This is about one citizen, one vote, one value. And it's about a level playing field in the political arena. We're all a part of this.

For more information on Fair Vote Canada, or to sign the petition, visit: fairvotecanada.org

Or contact Fair Vote Canada by email at info@fairvotecanada.org, by phone at 416-410-4034, by fax at 416-686-4929, or by mail at Fair Vote Canada, 26 Maryland Blvd., Toronto, ON M4C 5C9.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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