Making It Count

By Bruce Campion-Smith
Published July 10th 2004 in The Toronto Star

OTTAWA—Lorne Nystrom has long advocated a new voting system in Canada, one that ensures the makeup of the House of Commons better reflects how Canadians actually vote.

On election night, he became Exhibit "A" in the push or electoral reform.

On June 28, the NDP garnered more than 300,000 votes in Saskatchewan — almost a quarter of the vote — yet won none of the province's 14 seats, costing Nystrom and fellow NDP incumbent Dick Proctor their jobs.

For the NDP — and many others — the results of the latest election offer
fresh evidence of the need for Canada to adopt proportional representation, a voting system that awards seats according to the percentage of votes received in an election.

It would replace the first-past-the-post system now used, a system that
typically produces majority governments with a minority of the votes, while
denying smaller parties a place in the Commons.

Nystrom stressed it's not a partisan issue. The Green Party garnered 4 per
cent of the votes nationwide, but no seats. In Quebec, the 300,000 people
who voted Conservative — 9 per cent of the vote — have nothing to show for their vote.

At the other end of the scale, the Liberals got 45 per cent of the vote in
Ontario, yet collected 70 per cent of the seats — 75 seats in all.

"The composition of our Parliament does not reflect how people voted,"
Nystrom said.

In the case of Saskatchewan, he said there's been "lots of angst" among
people who voted for the NDP.

"You're leaving roughly a quarter of the province's voters disenfranchised.
There should be at least three New Democrat MPs (from Saskatchewan) if we had any kind of reflection in Parliament as to how people actually choose their candidates," Nystrom said.

"The time has come to take a serious look at electoral reform. I hope
that's something Paul Martin can get together with other parties."

It's no surprise that NDP Leader Jack Layton is an ardent proponent of
overhauling the election system. Like all small parties, his has been hurt
by the vagaries of the current system. In this election, the NDP garnered
15.7 per cent of the popular vote but only 6 per cent of the seats, with
just 19 MPs elected.

But Layton was pushing hard for changes before the June vote. During the
campaign, he said he wanted a national referendum on proportional
representation within a year.

This week, he reaffirmed his commitment to use his party's influence in the
minority Parliament to put the issue on the agenda — and to a public vote.

"It produces the kind of Parliaments that actually have to work to achieve
results, as opposed to the kind that can become arrogant and casual.
Because if you only require 36 or 37 per cent of the vote, then it doesn't
matter if more than 60 per cent of Canadians don't like you," he said.

His party isn't alone in talking about proportional representation.

Earlier this year, the Law Commission of Canada, after two years of study
and consultation, concluded that proportional representation was a
"necessary and vital" step in improving democracy in Canada.

"Because of the many potential benefits to reforming the current electoral
system, it should be a priority item on the political agenda," the
commission said in a report tabled in Parliament in March.

Five provinces are seriously looking at sweeping reforms to the way
politicians are elected. One of them is Ontario, which this fall will
launch a reform process aimed at "kick-starting a tired democracy," said
Michael Bryant, the province's attorney-general, who also oversees the
democratic renewal initiative.

Queen's Park plans to create a panel of citizens, similar to one now at
work in British Columbia, to recommend changes to the province's electoral system. Those changes could be put to a referendum vote in the next election, he said.

Bryant said proportional representation is high on the list of possible
changes, calling it an "antidote to the wasted-vote syndrome."

"(Proportional representation) in some form does make one's vote more
meaningful. You get a more accurate picture in Parliament of people's
wishes," Bryant said.

`I think the current system has served us well. We have political
stability, we have a thriving economy ...'

Nelson Wiseman, University of Toronto


To its boosters, proportional representation is a cure for much of what
ails Canada's democracy, a way to bring more minorities and women into
politics, to boost the country's flagging voter turnout and give smaller
parties a toehold in the Commons.

To its skeptical detractors though, the benefits of proportional
representation are overstated. They warn that it would condemn Canada to a string of minority Parliaments and unstable governments.

But to people like Larry Gordon, it's an idea whose time has come. As
executive director of Fair Vote Canada, Gordon has been an outspoken
advocate of proportional representation. He now predicts the federal
government is on the cusp of "unprecedented" electoral reform.

But does proportional representation promise too much?

"It almost does sounds too good to be true, but when you put it up against
the world's worst voting system it can't help but make things better," he

That "worst" voting system is the one that Canada has now, Gordon says.

"It was a great system in its time because it was replacing absolute
monarchy and despotism. It was the first attempt to give voice to the
people," he said.

Today though, he says, it shortchanges voters, discriminates against
smaller parties and rewards established parties with inflated majorities
with only a minority of the votes.

In a report titled "Dubious Democracy," his group highlighted what it
called the "distorted" results of past elections, citing the example of MPs
elected with a minority of votes, of majority governments swept to power
with less than 50 per cent of popular support.

Boosters like Gordon like to point out that most nations have adopted some form of proportional representation, leaving only Great Britain, India,
United States and Canada as nations still using the first-past-the-post

The current voting system — inherited from Britain more than 200 years ago, at a time when women, aboriginals and minorities were disenfranchised — is out of date, concluded the Law Commission of Canada, which advises Parliament on legal matters.

"Canada's political, cultural and economic reality has vastly changed; the
current electoral system no longer responds to 21st century Canadian
democratic values," it said.

"For an increasing number of Canadians, the imbalances in our system are
unacceptable," the report says.

The report cited declining voter turnout, increasing cynicism towards
politicians and declining political participation of young people as proof
that Canada is the "grip of a democratic malaise.

"While there is no single magic bullet that will instantaneously stimulate
Canadians' involvement in the political system ... that electoral system
reform is a good starting point for energizing and strengthening Canadian
democracy," the report said.

The commission recommended that two-thirds of the 308 Commons seats be elected in constituency races using the first-past-the-post method. The
remaining one-third would be elected from a list of candidates submitted by the parties within each province and territory to reflect their share of
the popular vote.

"It would promote fairness and encourage the entry of new voices in the
legislature, which in turn would invigorate the country's parliamentary
democracy. And finally, it has the potential to revitalize voter turnout,"
the report said.

Henry Milner, an expert on the topic, says the claim that proportional
representation produces unstable minority governments doesn't hold water.

"I don't think the arguments are very convincing, because minority
governments in Canada haven't been that bad and in the majority of Western democracies, they've worked well, said Milner, author of Steps Towards Making Every Vote Count, a look at proportional representation in Canada and other countries to be published later this month.

"People look back on the (prime minister Lester) Pearson period very
positively even though he never had a majority," said Milner, who is also a
fellow at the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

That's backed up by the law commission report, which cites the examples of Scandinavia, New Zealand and Scotland. All use proportional representation and have "have exhibited quite satisfactory levels of political stability."

But Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto,
counts himself as one of the skeptics and cautions voters against buying a
"pig in a poke."

"I think the current system has served us well. What's my evidence? We have political stability, we have a thriving economy, we have millions of people who would love to emigrate to our country," he said.

"What's the criteria that it's broken? Because somebody uses the phrase
`democratic deficit'? What does democratic deficit mean?"