The Globe and Mail
February 2, 2004
Panel to recommend proportional voting
By John Ibbitson
’Äî 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
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
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
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
"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
A spokesperson for the Justice Minister said Mr. Cotler would have no comment
on the report until it had been submitted to him.