Is proportional representation really on the agenda?

By Paddy Moore
Published April 1st 2003 in CBC News Online

Is this the last election in which Quebec voters check a box beside a candidate in a particular riding?

Some people certainly hope so. They live in the Outaouais, the strongly federalist and definitely Liberal region across the river from Ottawa, and are making it an election issue.

They are hoping the idea of proportional representation takes hold, because it would provide better representation for a region that has been, in a way, ghettoized by its continual coronation of Liberal candidates.

The feeling in the Outaouais is that this unflagging Liberal dominance has cost the region politically.

"The Liberals might win again, but it won't change anything again, and the Outaouais region will still feel [left] out of Quebec. It's a feeling," says Gatineau city councillor Louise Poirier.

Because the Parti Québécois knows it has no chance of getting elected in the highly federalist region, the sense is that the party won't spend any serious time or money trying to woo voters there.

And it's a situation repeated in pockets around the province, including the West Island of Montreal.

Currently, under the first-past-the-post system:

A citizen votes for a candidate in his or her riding; the candidate is usually affiliated with a party. The candidate with the most votes is elected to represent that riding. The party with the most candidates elected to the National Assembly forms the government. Under the form of proportional representation being discussed now, ridings would disappear but a sense of the regional is maintained.

For example, the Liberals wouldn't hold all the seats in the Outaouais, as they usually do. Instead, based on voter support, there would likely be three Liberals, one PQ candidate and perhaps one ADQ candidate elected.

So, under proportional representation an area like the Outaouais would always have a voice from the area sitting at the government table to speak for the region's needs.

It would work the other way too, providing better regional representation in opposition parties.

As well, proportional representation would ensure that the party that wins the popular vote will be the government.

Now this is not a pure form of proportional representation being discussed. Only the Netherlands and Israel use such a system. In its purest form, if a party gets 36% of the popular vote, it gets 36% of the seats in the legislative assembly.

The problem with a purely proportional system is it usually leads to coalition governments, rarely a majority government, which can reduce political stability.

So why is it being discussed at all in the Outaouais?

Premier Bernard Landry has been quoted saying he believes this will be the last election under the current rules, although whether that means a move to proportional representation is up in the air. He has been vague about how much proportionality his party would allow.

However, the PQ government has embarked on a reform of the province's democratic institutions, considering such things as holding elections on fixed dates, lowering the voting age, and moving away from the British parliamentary system—with proportional representation provided as one alternative.

The PQ acknowledges that the British system has provided a stable democracy, but says that doesn't mean it can't be improved.

One of the reasons there's discontent with the current system can be found in the province's 1998 election results. The Liberals won the popular vote but lost the election, and are facing the same predicament this time around.

Even so, the Liberals are tepid about proportional representation, wary of the potential of a parliamentary free-for-all if it's applied in its pure form. The Liberals favour a mixed system that allows one-quarter of the MNAs to be chosen proportionally.

Liberal candidate Benoit Pelletier contends that the Liberal plan for a mixed system is the most credible, partly because his party has failed to form a government three times despite winning the popular vote.

But Pelletier says his party would have to make sure any changes are good for Quebec, not just the Liberals. The danger for them is, if they don't follow Pelletier's caution, the changes could be seen as a power grab by his party and might provoke a backlash.

For ADQ candidate Brian Gibb proportional representation is a pet issue. He's convinced this movement is at the point of no return.

"This time there seems to be some staying power," he says. "There's a consensus amongst the academics, the political scientists.

"There's also a consensus amongst the political parties. All three political parties have it as part of their platform. But, unfortunately … power in our system is heavily concentrated in the office of the … premier at the provincial level. So it becomes the caprice of the premier, whether or not the change will actually see the light of day."

That the ADQ is in favour of this system is not surprising. Of the main parties, it would have the most to gain, because 20 per cent of the popular vote would translate into roughly 25 seats. That's a result they can't dream of under the current system.

While the Liberals and the PQ have not committed to proportional representation in a detailed fashion, they do say they like the idea. And the fact that all three parties are contemplating the matter means it may happen, even though it's not grabbing headlines during the election.

But keep in mind, the big job of changing the system is left to a party coming to power under the current system. Once elected, it remains to be seen whether that party feels a great need to overhaul Quebec's electoral system