NDP front-runner promises referendum
Vote on proportional representation would be condition to joining minority government

By Peter O'Neil
Published January 6th 2003 in The Vancouver Sun

Canadians will decide in a referendum whether to dramatically alter the nation's electoral system if the New Democratic Party wields influence in a future minority Parliament, vows NDP leadership front-runner Jack Layton.

The Toronto city councillor, expected by many to replace Alexa McDonough at the party's leadership convention later this month, said he would make the referendum a condition of his support for a governing coalition. Canada's first-past-the-post system would be replaced by a form of proportional representation that is used in the vast majority of democratic countries around the world. That system ensures parties have a representation in legislatures roughly equal to their share of the national vote.

"It's time to change. It's not a democratic system," Mr. Layton said. "It allows a party that generally speaking does not have a majority of people voting for it to become the government. Well, that doesn't make sense."

Mr. Layton said he'd be prepared to work with other opposition party leaders to convince Canadians the system must be reformed.

The NDP, the Canadian Alliance and especially the Progressive Conservative party would all benefit enormously from the change, and all three parties have passed policy statements calling for a serious examination of that alternative.

The Alliance, for instance, took 24 per cent of the vote in Ontario in the 2000 election and would have won two dozen seats rather than two under a proportional-representation system.

The federal Liberal party, which opposes proportional representation, would have ended up with roughly 123 seats rather than 172, forcing Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to make concessions with other parties to run a minority government.

The NDP and the Tories, which both suffer from having support scattered across the country, would have less fear of losing their official-party status.

The minimum number of seats needed to qualify is 12.

Experts who have studied the matter argue proportional representation could reduce regional tensions in the country because a western party such as the Alliance would suddenly have a significant number of MPs in Ontario, while the governing Liberals would quickly enhance their representation in western Canada.

However, critics also argue the system could create permanent instability by causing the election of a series of minority governments that could frequently collapse. Proportional representation would greatly enhance the ability of single-issue groups such as the Green Party to win seats, though it would also allow extremist parties to suddenly get representation in Parliament and therefore gain an important platform.

In the 1972-74 federal government, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau had to make concessions to the NDP to stay in power.

Mr. Layton said one deal with the late NDP leader David Lewis resulted in the construction of 650,000 housing units that currently house 2.2 million people.

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Overhauling the electoral system

The results of the Nov. 27, 2000 general election, and the impact proportional representation would have had on the results.


Seats won

Percentage of popular vote

Seats under proportional representation

























Note: While there are currently 301 seats in Parliament, the seats under proportional representation add up to 302 due to rounding. (Figures are from the Parliamentary Guide, Canadian Global Almanac and Southam News files)