Proportional Representation Aids Democracy Proportional Representation Aids Democracy

By Jeff Sallot
Published June 24th 2004 in The Globe and Mail

OTTAWA -- The statement: "I think we are sending a strong message to the Canadian people that Canadian democracy needs to be fixed." -- NDP Leader Jack Layton, Charlottetown, June 23.

The message: The NDP wants a national referendum on proportional representation, or PR.

The reality: Mr. Layton may be on to something.

In the last election, the NDP won about 8.5 per cent of the popular vote nationally, yet took only about 4 per cent of the seats in the Commons.

Meanwhile, the Liberals won about 41 per cent of the popular vote yet took a majority of 57 per cent of the seats in the Commons.

Mr. Layton sees an opportunity on the horizon. The NDP is showing stronger support in the opinion polls than its numbers in the 2000 election. And a minority government is a real possibility.

Thus Mr. Layton mused aloud yesterday about what the NDP's price might be for propping up a minority government. His bottom line, it seems, is getting a government promise to hold a referendum on PR.

In fact, Parliament itself can make some changes in the way we elect MPs without amending the Constitution, says Peter Russell, an expert on constitutional matters.

The Constitution requires that whatever system is adopted, representation must be determined by population -- the one-person one-vote principle. (There are a couple of minor wrinkles in the Constitution to make sure provinces don't lose seats and there are MPs from the three sparsely populated northern territories.)

There might be a problem with certain types of PR systems, such as electing MPs on the basis of party lists of candidates. This could run afoul of the Constitution if it prevents the election of independents with no party affiliation.

Advocates of electoral change, like Larry Gordon, the executive director of Fair Vote Canada, say some models of proportional representation systems would not squeeze out independents.

The Law Commission of Canada completed a study of proportional representation this year, saying a change might break the "grip of a democratic malaise" in Canada.

Look for a lot more talk about PR if a minority government is elected on Monday.