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The Globe and Mail

January 2, 2004

PR would have saved the PCs
By Doris Anderson

Many members of the Progressive Conservative Party are, quite rightly, concerned at the thought that the grand old party of Sir John A. Macdonald has been swallowed by its upstart, western cousin, the Alliance. Before the merger was agreed, some so-called Red Tories stoutly declared they would fight it to their last vote, and, if they failed, join the Liberals. On the other hand, some members of the Alliance remain convinced that many of their most dearly held convictions, and the very reason for their party's existence, will be scuttled in the name of unity. Many Canadians have become so disillusioned with our present political system that they don't bother to vote.

There is a better solution: Canada today, with its flawed, unfair and antiquated first-past-the-post system is a country crying out for electoral reform.

For decades, most modern, industrial democracies in Europe and other parts of the world have been using proportional representation. The only holdouts still using a first-past-the-post system are Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. In recent years, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales have all made the change.

Now, British Columbia is in the process of choosing a citizens assembly charged with bringing in a plan to change to a possible form of proportional representation, to be voted on in 2005. Quebec Premier Jean Charest has pledged to table legislation on proportional representation in 2004. In Prince Edward Island, after holding hearings, former chief justice Norman Carruthers is about to make his recommendation, while Premier Bernard Lord in New Brunswick announced last week he has asked a nine-person commission to spend the next year studying electoral reform options including proportional representation. Dalton McGuinty in Ontario, having included electoral reform in his recent election campaign, is now considering it, too.

Such a system could have saved the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance a lot of trouble. Under proportional representation, both parties could have kept their own distinct identities and stood a much better chance of actually forming a government.

This is the reason: Our old system only really worked well when there were just two parties. But in Canada today we have, including the Greens, six parties.

A first-past-the-post system favours regional parties such as the Bloc and Alliance because their votes are regionally concentrated. More widespread national parties, such as the former PCs , are particularly disadvantaged.

The most glaring example was in 1993, when the PCs got the second-highest number of votes in the country, but ended up with two seats. The Bloc, concentrated in Quebec, became the Official Opposition. In the last election, the PCs also took the biggest beating. It took four times as many votes to win a Tory seat in the Commons as it did a Liberal seat; twice as many as it took to win an Alliance seat.

That happens because our system allots seats in Parliament on the number of ridings each party wins, rather than the number of votes it receives. The effect is to disenfranchise thousands of voters who reside in a riding where their candidate lost and their vote doesn't count at all.

Under proportional representation, every vote counts equally and seats are allotted exactly according to the total vote. If a party gets 40 per cent of the vote it gets 40 per cent of the seats. Rarely, under first-past-the-post do governments actually win a majority of votes. Yet they can be awarded huge majorities of seats with as little as 40 per cent of the vote.

There are several versions of proportional representation, but even in systems where members represent individual ridings, the party's total number of seats is topped up from lists of candidates put forward by the party. That helps democratize the system in another way. No party dare put up a list made up entirely of white, male lawyers. Striving to look open minded, the party is forced to include more women and minorities.

Proportional representation often results in coalition governments involving two or even three parties. In Canada, that would probably mean the Alliance and the Tories would often work together, as would the Liberals and the NDP. Such governments are not unworkable or unstable. Europe has been using the system for most of the 20th century.

And there's another advantage. The system keeps politicians on their toes. No sitting back for four years with a safe majority doing only what they are pushed to do. Historically, our most dynamic, workable Canadian governments -- the ones that brought in medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and unemployment insurance -- were all minority governments.

Doris Anderson is president of Fair Vote Canada, a multipartisan group seeking to change Canada's electoral system.


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