COLUMN: Changing electoral system will fix Canada’s problem

Danette Moulé, a Nelson native, analyses the proportional representation movement in Canada.

By Danette Moulé

This fall, we will all head to the polls for yet another federal election. And as you decide who you’re going to vote for, you will inevitably consider voting strategically. Why vote strategically? Because if you vote for a party who’s sure not to win in your riding, you’ll be wasting your vote. Because that’s the way our electoral system is set up. It’s designed to allow a party with a minority of voter support to win a majority government.

Let’s take the 2011 federal election as an example. In that election, the Conservatives formed a majority government by winning 53.9 per cent (166) of the seats in the House of Commons. The NDP formed the official opposition by gaining 33.4 per cent (103) of the House’s seats, and the Liberals received only 11 per cent (34) of the House’s seats. The Bloc Québécois received four seats, and the Green Party got one.

Now let’s take a look at the percentage of votes each party got across the country — i.e. the popular vote. Nation-wide, the Conservatives got 39.6 per cent of the popular vote. In other words, a minority of Canadians wanted them to form government, yet they won a majority. The NDP won 30.6 per cent of the popular vote, the Liberals won 18.9 per cent, the Bloc six per cent, and the Greens 3.9 per cent.

In the 2008 federal election, the Conservative party took 46.4 per cent of the House’s seats with 37.7 per cent of the popular vote, yet the NDP under Jack Layton, having received 18.1 per cent of the popular vote, received only 12 per cent of the House’s seats. However, the Liberals received 25 per cent of the House’s seats with 26.3 per cent of the popular vote.

In a more recent example, the NDP recently won a majority government in Alberta with 40 per cent of the popular vote and 54 seats. The Progressive Conservatives suffered a massive defeat, winning only 10 seats, yet they received 28 per cent of the popular vote, while the Wildrose Alliance Party took 21 seats with only 25 per cent of the popular vote (i.e. less of the popular vote than the PCs).

These numbers demonstrate that our current electoral system does not give us what Canadians ask for at the polls. Not even close. Moreover, the system we currently operate under promotes corruption and lack of accountability.

An alternative to our first-past-the-post system exists. It is called proportional representation. PR would give each party the exact percentage of seats in the House as Canadians who voted for them. So, if the Conservatives got 39 per cent of the popular vote, they’d get 39 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. If the NDP also got 39 per cent of the popular vote, they would get the same number of seats as the Conservatives.

In New Zealand and many European countries such as Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria, proportional representation has led to a) effectively functioning governments, b) better representation of visible minorities, women, and minority parties, c) fewer policy surprises, and d) greater accountability and transparency. It also increases voter turn-out as folks no longer feel that they are wasting their time voting.

In countries where PR has been adopted, calls for electoral change have been born out of government corruption and lack of accountability. Typically the governing party will not support a proportional representation system, because it would not allow them to unfairly gain a majority. Rather, PR evens the playing field, giving strength to minority parties. In Canada, the NDP and the Green Party have taken firm stances on the issue of electoral reform, both promising to support a change to PR.

I recently interviewed the NDP, Green, and PC candidates in the riding of Kootenay-Columbia on their views on proportional representation (the Liberals do not so far have a candidate in this riding).

According to Wayne Stetski, NDP candidate for Kootenay-Columbia, “diversity is a good thing.” He emphasizes that our current system does not represent the public’s votes, and that PR would introduce variety into parliament.

Bill Green, Green Party candidate for Kootenay-Columbia, says that “Repairing our democratic institutions, including through proportional representation, is quite simply my highest priority.” He believes that PR will help restore our democracy, and is a firm supporter of and activist for PR.

Alternatively, David Wilks, PC candidate for Kootenay-Columbia, does not support PR, stating “I respect the decision of the electorate not only in British Columbia, but also the provinces of Prince Edward Island and Ontario who also voted down referendums on proportional representation.”

It should be noted that BC’s 2005 referendum on changing our electoral system to PR was not defeated. In fact, 58 per cent of BCers voted in support, yet the government decided not to follow suit.

As for the 2009 referendum, a study was sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC after the defeat, in which voters were surveyed about their opinions on majority government versus a more balanced make-up of different parties. The study showed that BC voters generally favoured coalition government over majority governments, in addition to showing that most BC voters didn’t actually know very much about PR.

This ignorance was enhanced by the incredible public spending on TV, radio, billboards, and newspaper ads for the “No” side, something that the “Yes” side did not do. Moreover, the wording of the question was different in 2009 and likely influenced voter opinion, and the campaign and referendum were held while the Canucks were going for the cup, therefore reducing public interest.

Non-Conservative voters were outraged when the Harper government changed the boundaries of many of Canada’s electoral ridings in 2012. The new re-drawn ridings will give the Conservative Party a much greater advantage in the upcoming election due to our electoral system, including here in Kootenay-Columbia.

If we changed our electoral system to PR, these re-drawn ridings wouldn’t matter. You could vote for who you truly wanted to vote for. Strategic voting, once ruling many on voting day, would cease to exist.

Our government would be forced to become more transparent and follow through on their promises. Moreover, a single party wouldn’t be able to make all the decisions unless the majority of Canadians voted for them. The concept of a majority government elected by a minority of Canadians would cease to exist. Let’s make our electoral system the election issue that it should be. You can do this by supporting only those candidates who support proportional representation.

Danette Moulé is a Kootenay kid, born in Nelson, and raised in Blewett and Calgary. She holds a masters of resource management, and a bachelors of applied policy studies. She is happy to be working with Fair Vote Canada to push the issue of proportional representation.

(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column contained incorrect figures regarding the 2008 election.)

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