Putting a New Face on Voting

By Debra Black
Published June 30th 2004 in Toronto Star
If Canada had voted on Monday under some form of proportional representation, the face of the new House of Commons might be different, though likely just as fractious.With 37 per cent of the popular vote, the Liberals, who won 135 seats Monday night, would still form a minority government, but hold about 114 seats, says Larry Gordon, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, a lobby group that's campaigning for voting system reform.

Fair Vote Canada has calculated these results based on a formula that takes the percentage of the popular vote cast for each party, then calculates a similar percentage of seats.

For its part, the Conservative Party of Canada, with 30 per cent of the popular vote on Monday and 99 seats, would have 92 seats. The Bloc Québécois, with 12 per cent of the popular vote and 54 seats, would have about 40. The NDP, with 16 per cent of the popular vote and 19 seats, would have some 46 seats, and the no-seat Green party, with 4 per cent support, would have about 12 seats, leaving four seats for independents and the like.

For many, those kinds of numbers might spell trouble and an imminent fall from power, but Gordon doesn't see it that way. Rather than a recipe for a quick election call, he sees that kind of representation as a map for good government in the form of a coalition.

"The current system we have ... is by far the most primitive and probably the worst system you can use in a modern democracy," says Gordon.

"First past the post was a big step forward when it was invented centuries ago because it was replacing no voting at all. Compared to absolute monarchy and despotism, it was a big step forward in letting the people speak.

"What you tend to find in fair voting systems," says Gordon, "is you don't get any parties getting an unfair proportion of seats beyond what they actually deserve. Typically, we are ruled in Canada by phoney majority governments, where a party might get 40 per cent of the votes but ends up with 60 per cent of the seats.

"Under proportional representation you tend to have coalition governments," says Gordon. And that can only mean a good thing for the electorate.

"That's the way most democracies have been operating for the past century," he says. "Most of all of Europe uses proportional representation.... Policy making in coalitions is more reflective of public thinking."

Here in Ontario, the face of political representation would also have been very different under proportional representation.

The province would not be such a sea of Liberal red, but more like a rainbow of red, blue, and orange. The Liberals would have ended up with about 47 seats, rather than 75; the Conservatives would have 33 seats rather than the 24 they now hold, and the NDP would have 19 seats rather than seven.

Fair Vote and other groups, including the NDP, have been pushing for a change in the Canadian electoral system.

Some provinces — B.C., Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island — are looking at proportional representation. And the Law Reform Commission of Canada recently recommended a mixed form.