Our largest political parties' self-interest may at last be reconcilable with the public interest when it comes to electoral reform says Michael Byers and Jay Zimmerman
Canada's electoral system is floundering. The first-past-the-post system selects MPs on the basis of their having received a larger number of votes than their next-nearest rival in their constituencies - usually much less than 50 per cent of the overall vote. In doing so, it renders millions of voters irrelevant, tempts others into hold-your-nose strategic voting, and exacerbates regional tensions as Tom Kent argued in his op-ed piece on Friday. It survives only because it has tended to reward the two largest parties with parliamentary majorities, invariably based on a minority of the popular vote. The winners who benefit from the inherent unfairness of the system have had little incentive to modernize it. From now on, however, there will be no easy majorities. Not for the Conservatives, who have been shut out of Canada's three largest cities and will have difficulty winning more seats in a predominantly social-democratic Quebec. Not for the Liberals, now that the right is united, the centre-left split, and the Bloc Québécois virtually guaranteed one-third of the vote in Quebec. Canadian parliamentarians will simply have to learn the art of effective coalition governance, as their counterparts in so many other countries have done. Yet the current situation presents a great opportunity. The largest parties' self-interest may at last be reconcilable with the public interest when it comes to electoral reform. The first step should be the introduction of an element of proportional representation. We propose that 154 new MPs be added to the House of Commons. The new MPs would be elected from party lists using a separate ballot, based on the proportion of the vote that each party received. The existing 308 MPs would continue to be elected from single-member constituencies. For example, today Alberta sends 28 MPs to Ottawa from constituencies. Under this proposed system, an additional 14 Alberta MPs would be sent to Ottawa from party lists. If the Conservative Party received 65 per cent of the party preference ballot votes, nine of these 14 MPs would be Conservatives. The other five would be members of other parties, with the distribution of those seats likewise determined by the parties' respective shares of the popular vote. A statutory minimum cut-off of 5 per cent would prevent Parliament from splintering into a multitude of tiny parties. The cost of the new MPs could be partially offset by downsizing or even eliminating the Senate. The process by which a party ranks its candidates would determine the priority in which they would be elected, and so a revised Canada Elections Act would ideally specify clear, transparent and accountable procedures to ensure the party list prioritization is arrived at openly and democratically through a process involving all of each party's members. The Elections Act could also specify recall measures so that grassroots party members were able to dismiss list-elected MPs who seriously betray their trust. Proportional representation is already used in many countries, including most of Europe and South America as well as Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Israel and South Korea, not to mention Scotland and Wales. It is advantageous for one overriding reason: It makes nearly every vote count, thus doing away with a major cause of voter dissatisfaction and apathy. It also tends to favour truly national parties, rather than parties that pander to a narrow geographic base. Provincial lists (or regional lists aggregated from less populous provinces with similar polities) would ensure that four of the existing parties - Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green - would have MPs from nearly every province. There would be no more Liberal governments with few or no Liberal caucus members from Alberta, thus eliminating one historic cause of western alienation. In addition to introducing proportional representation, we should also eliminate incentives for strategic voting - by introducing instant runoff voting (IRV) for the existing 308 constituency-based MPs. With IRV, the voter ranks her favourite candidates in order of preference. For example, if the ballot shows seven candidates, she may like three of them enough to want to give them some support. She simply ranks them in order of preference. Votes are then counted in several rounds to determine a winner. In the first round, each candidate's share of first-ranked votes is totalled. If one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the first-ranked votes, that candidate is immediately declared elected. Otherwise, whichever candidate received the fewest first-ranked votes is eliminated from further consideration, and all the ballots that showed that candidate as the first choice are re-examined. All the second-ranked votes marked on those ballots are now counted as first-ranked votes and assigned to their respective candidates. The remaining candidates' new totals of first-ranked votes are compared in a second round of counting and so on, through as many rounds as necessary until only one candidate remains. In addition to eliminating strategic voting, IRV ensures that the winning candidate enjoys broad support from the majority of his or her constituents. There is no fairer system for single-member constituency elections than this. That's why the Liberals use the IRV system in their own internal nomination contests when three or more people are vying to become a constituency candidate for a general election. Stephen Harper's Conservatives know that electoral reform is needed. In October, 2004, they sponsored an amendment to the Speech from the Throne that charged the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs with recommending "a process that engages citizens and parliamentarians in an examination of our electoral system with a review of all options." In June, 2005, the committee recommended that the government "launch a process of democratic and electoral reform to begin no later than October 1, 2005 and to be completed by February 28, 2006." The Conservative members of the committee supported this recommendation, adding only that the process should include a National Citizens Assembly - along the lines of the one used to recommend electoral reforms in British Columbia - to promote public support and avoid distortions caused by partisanship and special interests. These recommendations were ignored by the Martin government as it staggered toward defeat. The Liberals, having learned their lesson, should now join the push for electoral reform. A National Citizens Assembly should be formed to study electoral systems and make a recommendation that should then be put to a national referendum. The referendum should be held no later than the next federal election. Let's stop dithering about electoral reform. It makes sense, and the time is ripe. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia; Jay Zimmermann is a Vancouver-based public policy researcher.
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