JustNews Editor Philip Symon’s note: I was asked by a Board Member of Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice to include an article on proportional representation (PR) in this Autumn 2015 Discussion Paper which is appearing shortly before the October federal election. Upon searching the internet for such an article, I was surprised to find most articles referred to the U.S. or U.K. situations, and included a lot of mis- information. After a non-exhaustive search, I found the article below, written for Canadian Parliamen- tarians in 2004. I am indebted to Wendy Bergerud, a past and present Board Member of Fair Vote Canada, past member of the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, and current President of the Victoria Chapter of FVC, for a few corrections and additions to this article, and for suggesting where it needed updating.
What Is Proportional Representation?
Proportional representation (PR) is a system of parliamentary representation in which the number of seats each party has in the House of Commons is in proportion to its share of the popular vote. There are several types of proportional representation voting systems (Table 1). Currently, Canada has a “first- past-the-post” (FPTP) system, also known as a “single-member plurality” system. To win a seat in the House of Commons, a candidate must receive the most votes in an electoral district, but he or she does not need to get more than 50% of the vote (an absolute majority). Indeed, in the 2011 general election, less than half of the 145 candidates (47%), received an absolute majority of votes in their ridings.
What Are the Problems With the Current System?
The main criticism of Canada’s FPTP system is that a party’s share of the national vote is not necessarily reflected in its share of parliamentary seats. Some parties receive a greater share of seats than their share of the vote, while some receive a lesser share. As shown in Table 2, in five of the six general elections between 1988 and 2011, the governing party received a majority of the seats in the House of Commons while receiving less than half the popular vote. At the same time, opposition parties with support that was widely spread across the country—such as the NDP from 1998 to 2004, and the Progressive Conservative Party from 1993 to 2000, among other examples—were under-represented in Parliament. (The most extreme example was in 1993, when the Progressive Conservatives received 16% of the vote, but only 2 seats (0.7% of the total).) On the other hand, the percentage of seats won by regionally based parties—such as the Bloc Québécois—was closer to its percentage of the popular vote. Although the 2004 election produced results that were somewhat more proportional than earlier elections, parties such as the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois were rewarded by the FPTP system, while the NDP was penalized.
Critics of the current system also argue that, in addition to producing disproportionate results, it results in the under-representation of women, minority groups and Aboriginal peoples, and that there is less diversity in the House of Commons than in Canadian society at large.
Furthermore, many argue that the FPTP system “disregards” a large number of votes—about half of those who vote don’t elect anyone. These voters may feel as though their votes did not matter and may be discouraged from voting.
What Forms of Proportional Representation Have Been Proposed for Canada?
In 2004, the Law Commission of Canada issued a report entitled Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, in which it proposed a mixed member proportional electoral system based on the Scottish system. Under this proposal, two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons would be elected in constituency races using the first-past-the-post method, and the remaining one-third would be elected from provincial or territorial party lists. In addition, one list seat each would be allotted to Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon. To distribute the seats, the total number of votes cast for a party list in a province would be divided by the number of constituencies won by that party, plus one. The “plus one” would ensure that parties that did not win a constituency seat would still be eligible for a list seat. For further explanation of mixed member proportional systems, see the Law Commission of Canada, Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, Ottawa, 2004, pp. 90-99.
Meanwhile, a number of provinces have reviewed their electoral systems and are considering proportional representation as an option for reform. In addition, several public interest groups promote proportional representation. They include Fair Vote Canada, Mouvement pour une démocratie nouvelle, Equal Voice, and Fair Voting BC.
In 1979, the Task Force on Canadian Unity (the Pepin-Robarts Task Force) proposed a mixed member proportional system based on the German model. It proposed adding 60 seats to the House of Commons (then 282 seats), with the additional seats allocated to parties on the basis of their national vote, and then distributed among the provinces.
The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada (the Macdonald Commission), on the other hand, was skeptical about the introduction of proportional representation for the House of Commons. In its 1985 report, it judged that a mixed member proportional (MMP) system would be too expensive and complicated, and raised questions about creating two classes of MPs. The 1991 report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (the Lortie Commission) did not recommend changing the current system.
Proportional representation systems have also been proposed by academics. (An overview of these proposals is included in a paper by F. Leslie Seidle entitled Electoral System Reform in Canada: Objectives, Advocacy and Implications for Governance. In addition to variants of the mixed member proportional system, there have been proposals for a single transferable vote system and a mixed system under which 20% of seats would be allocated to parties according to their regional vote shares for the first-past-the-post seats. There have also been proposals for an “alternative vote” (AV) system. Voters rank candidates, and the lowest-ranked candidates are dropped and their votes redistributed until one candidate has a majority. This, however, is not a proportional system, but a plurality-majority system that is only slightly different from Canada’s current system.
What Would Be the Impact on Parliament?
Adding an element of proportionality to Canada’s electoral system would have significant implications for Parliament. Some of these might be:
- A more representative Parliament. The number of seats won by political parties would more closely match their electoral support.
- More, smaller parties. Because the threshold for admission for new parties would be lower, movements such as the Greens might have a better chance at winning seats. Indeed, more parties are represented in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales under proportional repre- sentation than there were under their previous first-past-the-post systems. [In Canada, only the Greens would likely get more seats.]
- Fewer, larger constituencies. Under the proposed mixed member proportional sys- tems, there would be fewer constituency MPs. Constituencies would therefore be larger.
- Changed roles for MPs. Some observers are concerned that, if there were two “classes” of MPs—constituency MPs and list MPs—list MPs would have a lower status. The list MPs would likely have a lighter constituency workload and be able to devote more time to policy issues. However, the experience in Germany and New Zealand suggests that there would be little tension between the two types of MPs.
- Less regional polarization. Party caucuses would be more likely to include representa- tives from most major provinces.
- More coalition cabinets. Single-party ma- jority governments would likely become the exception. If the experience of proportional representation in other countries is anything to go by, coalition cabinets would be more frequent than minority governments. At the same time, cabinets would tend to be less durable. In New Zealand, the Cabinet has also been strengthened vis-á-vis the PM because almost all Cabinets since 1996 have been composed of members from two or more parties, eliminating the ability of the PM to simply demand greater party discipline. (Paraphrased from Democratizing the Constitution, p. 148, by Peter Au- coin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull.)
- Weaker prime ministers. Coalition cabinets would likely limit the ability of the prime minister to act independently.
- More powerful committees. In both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, committees have played a greater role, both in scrutiny and policy formation. They have been no less partisan, however.
- Longer term stability from one govern- ment to the next and a more consensual form of government. Because a coalition government better represents the voters’ different views, there is less tendency to make radical changes from one ruling party to the next in subsequent elections. (This paragraph added to original article.)
What Would Be the Effect on the Representation of Women and Minorities?
Although proportional representation voting systems tend to improve the chances of women and members of minority groups being elected, the electoral system is not the only factor involved. Their level of representation also depends on the policies of political parties, because the parties would continue to nominate the candidates for both the constituency and list seats.
The Law Commission of Canada addressed this problem by recommending that Parliament require political parties to develop initiatives and policies to promote equal representation of women and greater representation of minority group members and Aboriginal people. In addition, it recommended that the federal government, in consultation with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, explore the possibility of introducing Aboriginal Electoral Districts.
What Could Be the Effect on Voter Turnout?
Proponents of proportional representation argue that it would lead to higher voter turnout. It remains unclear whether this would be the case, however. A study of the experience with proportional representation in Scotland and Wales found the impact of new electoral systems upon turnout was unproven. In addition, it should be noted that according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), voter turnout around the world has been in decline since the mid-1980s. It is likely that other factors—such as attitudes towards the parliamentary process (particularly among younger voters) or the closeness of the electoral race—contribute to turnout rates.
What Are Some of the Concerns About Proportional Representation?
One of the main criticisms of proportional representation systems is that they tend to produce minority and coalition governments. These govern- ments are … less durable than majority governments because they rely on consensus to pass legislation, [but because PR leads to consensual government, these governments’ policies have longer-term stability even if the governments themselves aren’t able to “stay in power” as long.]
Under certain proportional representation systems, such as MMP systems, the size of constituencies would likely increase substantially. Larger ridings would not only have larger populations but also, in many cases, cover more territory. Members of the House of Commons repeatedly emphasize the budgetary and time con- straints they face, and larger ridings, even with the possibility of an additional list MP, might not be a welcome change.