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The Globe and Mail

February 2, 2004

Panel to recommend proportional voting
By John Ibbitson

OTTAWA An independent legal commission will recommend to the House of Commons that Canada abolish the first-past-the-post method of electing members of Parliament, moving instead to a form of proportional representation.

"We're going to recommend that an element of proportionality be added to the system," Nathalie Des Rosiers, president of the Law Commission of Canada, confirmed yesterday in an interview.

Change is needed, Ms. Des Rosiers said. It is necessary because the country's existing electoral system "no longer responds well to a society that wants more consultation, that wants to participate more in decisions, that is not as interested in an authoritarian form of government as much as seeing Parliament express the diversity of ideas in Canada."

If implemented, the reforms would virtually eliminate the possibility of majority governments at the federal level, forcing political parties to form coalitions in order to govern.

The commission advises Parliament on issues of law and governance. It reports to the Commons through the minister of justice, who must respond to its recommendations. The report will be submitted to Parliament in early March.

Critics fear that moving to proportional representation will lead to chronic instability and political paralysis that afflicts some countries, such as Italy and Israel, which use the system. Advocates say it forces governments to seek con-sensus, and point out that most developed nations, such as Germany and Australia, have moved to voting systems that are alternatives to first-past-the-post without descending into chaos.

The existing federal and provincial electoral system, derived from the British Westminster model, elects members to legislatures based on whichever candidate earns the most votes in a particular riding, resulting in majority governments that usually fail to win 50 per cent of the popular vote, along with minority parties that have much smaller representation than is warranted by their share of the popular vote.

The inequity of the system has been blamed by some observers for a steady decline over the past several decades in voter turnout at federal and provincial elections. Countries that elect their legislatures through some form of proportional representation generally have higher voter turnouts than countries that rely on first-past-the-post, although voter turnout is declining everywhere.

Several provinces are already well advanced in studying voting alternatives. British Columbia has convened a citizens' assembly to consider changes to the province's voting system, while Quebec plans to introduce electoral-reform legislation this spring. Ontario, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are also studying reforms.

Ms. Des Rosier declined to reveal the details of the law commission's report, saying that Justice Minister Irwin Cotler deserves to see it first. But she did confirm the report would probably recommend the electoral rules be revised so that two-thirds of the 308 seats in the House of Commons would be elected through the first-past-the-post constituency system. The remaining 103 would be selected based on the proportion of votes each political party received in an election.

The political parties would select their PR representatives from a published list, allowing them to increase the representation of women and minorities in caucus. If a party received, say, 10 per cent of the popular vote, but held only 5 per cent of the riding-based seats in the House, it would be given enough PR seats to ensure its overall representation in the House was as close as possible to 10 per cent.

Such revisions would not require a constitutional amendment, but there would have to be guarantees of minimum representation for smaller provinces, to honour statutory guarantees.

Many observers of the Canadian political system remain unconvinced that proportional representation is a panacea. John Courtney, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in electoral systems, is one of them.

"The great strength of the Canadian party system is the demonstrated capacity of parties to try to accommodate various interests, to broker those interests and to minimize cleavages," he said.

A move to proportional representation, he fears, could lead political parties "to appeal to sectional or religious or regional cleavages."

Others are more optimistic. The commission consulted with Fair Vote Canada, a special-interest group advocating electoral reform, while preparing its report.

Larry Gordon, the organization's executive director, said he was astonished to learn that the commission will recommend a move to proportional representation. "I was afraid it was going to go in the traditional direction . . . with a recommendation coming out that we should study it further, or set up a commission. I was stunned and very heartened to see a straight, no-holds-barred statement that first-past-the-post has to go."

"When you have every vote count -- and that's what proportional representation does -- it changes everything," he added. "It changes politics, it changes parties, it changes the nature of government, all for the better."

A spokesperson for the Justice Minister said Mr. Cotler would have no comment on the report until it had been submitted to him.

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