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June 29, 2004

Summary: Many different groups in Canada want to make the switch to proportional voting in an effort to have a more representative government.  Several provinces in Canada are currently considering election reforms.

Three Parties Squeezed in First-Past-the-Post System Have Chance to Change It
By Amy Carmichael
June 29, 2004

VANCOUVER (CP) - Not every Albertan is a Tory - 40 per cent of them voted for another party - yet the Conservatives took almost all the province's 30 seats in the House of Commons.

People who think that's unfair can blame Canada's first-past-the-post system and join the growing verbal lynch mob vowing to get rid of it. NDP leader Jack Layton wants a referendum on it and refuses to co-operate with the Liberal minority government if it puts up a fight.

Layton has fallen in line with the likes of the Green party, the Marijuana party and fringe groups asking for a system of proportional representation where parties are awarded seats based on their percentage of popular votes.

Such rules would have made room for as many as 15 Green candidates in Ottawa, said Bruce Hallsor, vice-president of Fair Vote Canada.

"There's no question about it, the Green party got a significant number of votes. One in 25 Canadians cast a ballot for them and we don't think those votes should be entirely shut out of the political debate between now and the next election," he said.

The Conservative party is even sympathetic, calling in its platform for a study on the issue to be followed by a referendum depending on the results. The Bloc has also spoken out about electoral reform in the past.

"Now we've got a minority government with three parties expressing interest in changing our system and there's only one that hasn't," said Hallsor.

"The Liberals happen to have more seats, but the others combined have a lot more seats than the Liberals and we are certainly going to be pressing them to live up to their campaign promises."

Momentum is being propelled by the provinces too, with four governments pursuing reform.

British Columbia could have a referendum on it as early as next May.

Most parts of the world have some form of proportional representation. University of British Columbia political scientist Allan Tupper said that doesn't mean Canada is doing things the wrong way.

In this election, none of the major parties were seriously burned by the system.

The Bloc won 17 per cent of the seats on roughly 12 per cent of the vote. The Tories get 32 per cent of the seats on 29 per cent of the vote. The Liberals get 44 per cent of the seats on the basis of 37 per cent of the votes.

That said, it looks a lot different when you analyse the results province by province.

In B.C. for example, the Conservatives earned 61 per cent of the seats from 36 per cent of the vote.

The NDP's gains in the province won't be reflected in the House of Commons. The party won 27 per cent of the vote which only translated into five seats.

The issue is a hot one that plays into the democratic deficit that voters complained about in this election and that Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to address.

Tupper said that means it's likely Parliament will take a serious look at alternate systems, which he thinks is warranted.

"The first-past-the-post system makes Parliament look very different from the population. In some ways, it intensifies the lines of cleavage between people and exaggerates them.

"But there's a larger debate. The big issue has always been authority. You need to have capacity to make judgments. The critics say this will impair the country's capacity to proceed and to make effective policy."

In British Columbia, the government has given a group of citizens appointed through a lottery a mandate to examine different electoral systems and recommend one that works best.

There are a variety of options.

In Italy, each party presents a list of candidates and if one wins, say, 30 per cent of the vote it gets 30 per cent of the seats. The representatives are chosen from the party's national list - there are no ridings.

Things are more mixed in New Zealand elections where some MPs are elected off a list and some are elected by riding.

A third option is to draw up large, multiple member ridings that are represented by four to six MPs. People would vote by preferential ballot so the top four or six candidates would get elected.

"In countries that have that kind of system you get much broader proportionality. Those ridings won't typically all go one way, you'll have people picking and choosing from different parties," Hallsor said. A ruling by the Citizen's Assembly on which of these methods is most fair and effective is expected to influence governments across the country.


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