Saturday, June 2, 2007

Coming soon to a province near you



Image: Ontario's Legislative Assembly, Queen's Park, Toronto, 1996


The longtime dream of many a political activist has been the movement away from our First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system to one based on Proportional Representation (PR).


Though it tends to be a non-starter as an issue in Manitoba, PR lust has taken off in other provinces. So far, BC and PEI have had province-wide public referendums -- albeit unsuccessful ones -- on changing their political systems. Ontario is next: its citizens' assembly recently released report recommending as new electoral system for Ontario. Ontarians will have a chance to vote on the proposal on October 10, 2007.

For those who aren't familiar with voting system acronyms like FPTP and PR, you can find a good discussion
here. In essence, FPTP tends to produce one-party majority governments with as little as 36% of the vote, while PR systems are designed to award each party a share of seats that corresponds to their share of the popular vote in an election.

I'm somewhat in favour of PR, though I don't see it as the panacea for all political ills that some do. In fact, I have some strong reservations about some aspects of PR systems.


Some PR systems, such as pure party list systems, remove or water down the relationship of a representative to one geographic area. With such systems, I worry about the fate of communities and ordinary citizens who often rely on their representatives for support, assistance, and funding for community services. Would rural, northern, and inner city regions be ignored upon finding themselves without advocates in our Legislature or House of Commons?


Other PR systems -- namely, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Ireland and recently proposed in BC -- require very large, multi-member constituencies with complex ranked ballot schemes to make them work. I have serious reservations about STV's ability to actually guarantee a more equitable distribution of seats. Furthermore, I have doubts about the ability of elected representatives to properly serve and represent constituencies that cover huge swaths of a city.


  • Can you reasonably serve a community in which you have little or no hope of knocking on a large percentage of the doors in a campaign? Does such a system not then force serious candidates to rely on slick TV ad campaigns to win? If so, what's the point of having such a PR system, which is supposedly about more equitable voting?


  • Can ya representative easily serve constituencies that are so large as to cover wealthy neighbourhoods as well as slums? Is there any question about whose needs would win out in such a constituency?


  • Is it reasonable to have constituencies so large that the only people that stand a reasonable chance of running and winning are well-heeled "star" candidates, as opposed to community activists who might only be known throughout a much smaller region?

  • Is it useful to create a ranked candidate system that will likely benefit centrist parties the most (it's likely that the second choice of both Conservatives and New Democrats will be Liberals), thereby electing a Liberal government from here to infinity? It seems that's what a FPTP system tends to do. One of the things that appeals to me about PR is the potential to create more diversity in Parliament, not less -- imagine the ideas that would flow through an assembly in which ten political parties were represented?

For these reasons, I thought the STV system proposed for BC several years ago was atrocious and I was frankly glad to see it defeated (though the formula required for the referendum to pass was more convoluted than the STV system being debated). I even ended my tentative membership in (Fair Vote Canada), a national organization founded to promote improvement in electoral systems, over the issue. Advocacy for fairer voting systems should not involve jumping blindly on any and every electoral reform bandwagon that carries with it a whiff of PR.

Ontario's proposal, by comparison, is a shining beacon of what's possible in electoral reform proposals. Here's the scoop: Ontario would move to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system similar to the one used in New Zealand. Ontarians would get two votes in each provincial election: one for the local candidate and one for the party (click
here for a sample ballot, provided on Greg Morrow's superb Democratic Space blog, which also has a great ongoing discussion of the proposal).

Under the Ontario proposal, local riding candidates are elected the normal way. An additional group of seats are allotted to each party so as to bring their overall share of the seats closer to their share of the vote. For local riding representatives, there's an incentive to work well at representing your community, since you may not be able to simply rely on your party's colours to carry the day. For parties, who get additional representatives awarded based on party list system, there is an incentive to ensure that the pre-set list includes strong representation from women, minorities, and regions in which the party typically fares poorly.

It seems to me to be the best of both worlds and I hope it passes this fall in Ontario's referendum. Many respected political leaders from across the political spectrum have already lined up to offer their support. They include former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, former Preston Manning advisor Rick Anderson, Liberal Deputy Premier George Smitherman, and a good number of past and present MPs and MPPs.

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Writing this reminded me of the Manitoba PC government's dirty escapade when they attempted in the early 90s to introduce a system of pie-shaped wards for City of Winnipeg municipal elections. The pie-shaped wards were to be shaped and sized so that each large constituency would include a narrow slice of inner city and a wide slice of suburb. This would dramatically reduce the chance of inner city voters ever electing progressive councillors to stand for their interests.

While the pie-shaped ward idea was ultimately abandoned, the Tories did reduce the number of city council seats from 29 to 15, making each city ward ridiculously large and more than twice the size of a provincial constituency. Then, as is often the case, the right called for fewer wards (read larger wards) on the pretext of improving efficiency. The real reason is to make elections won and lost not on local representation or door-to-door campaigning, but through media advertising, which requires considerable funding to sustain and, by extension, makes it more likely that well-off and pro-business candidates will get elected.

Watering down the electoral leanings of Winnipeg's Inner City and North End, which is famous for having elected labour activists, social democrats, communists, and radical preachers to various levels of government, has long been the dream of Manitoba's right-wing business establishment.

1 comment:

Law School Blog said...

One thing that MMPR does not address is vote dilution, which results in unbalanced parity for urban populations.

More importantly, it severely hinders the proportional representation of minority groups that are often centered in urban areas.

See: http://lawiscool.com/2007/07/29/vote-dilution-means-minorities-have-less-voice/