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Yves de Roussan

Pour Un Mode De Scrutin Équitable: La Proportionelle Territoriale, Commission de la représentation électorale, Quebec City, 1984,199 p.

The idea to reform Quebec's electoral system did not come from a particular political party: it has roots in the very history of Quebec's political system. The origins of these reports go back to a resolution of the National Assembly requesting the Commission de la représentation électorale to study the existing electoral system and make recommendations if necessary. The Commission tabled its report on March 28, 1984, entitled Pour un mode de scrutin equitable (For a fair electoral system).

Although not the first report to be written on this issue it may be the one that makes the greatest contribution to a reform of Quebec's electoral system. It does not, however, contain any new or startling views. Since 1982, in fact, the Parti québécois government has been proposing reforms embodying the principles on which the Commission based its recommendations. The government proposed a moderate form of regional proportional representation (RPRM), which provoked widespread protest and was in effect abandoned, leaving the Commission, a neutral body, to take over.

The Commission opted for what it calls "territorial" proportional representation. This formula would make it possible to conserve, to a great extent, the links between voters and MNAs through the creation of 22 large electoral territories based on municipal boundaries or groups of municipalities. At the same time, the proposed plan would introduce proportional representation within these territories.

The Commission proposed two possible electoral maps. Both would maintain the number of seats in the Assembly at just above the existing level (122 seats). The proposed constituencies cover very different surface areas. Under the first hypothesis some of them, like the Saguenay/Lac Saint Jean territory, would return only three Members (the minimum permitted), while others, like Montréal Est, would return as many as 19. The creation of such electoral territories reflects a desire to make MNAs act on a regional basis, to more accurately reflect political reality in Quebec. The Commission considers this major change as one of the key points in its proposal, since it would result in better political representation for Quebecers.

Voters would mark on the ballot their preference for one of the parties. This would determine, on the basis of a predetermined mathematically calculated method of distribution, the number of seats given each of the parties within that territory.

Parties would have to submit a list of candidates for each constituency. There could not be more candidates than the total number of seats allotted to that constituency.

This type of system may involve either a closed or an open list. In most systems the list is closed: that is, voters do not generally have the option of marking the candidates in order of preference. The lists are drawn up in advance according to whatever method is used by each party. A vote for a party implies acceptance of its proposed order of candidates.

To safeguard the existing links between a member and the residents of his/ her riding, the Commission indicated its preference for an open list, a system it describes as "mixed". This means that voters would first have to mark their preferred party and then be given the opportunity to choose their preferred candidates from among all those listed regardless of party.

Changing to a list system (either open or closed) would inevitably transform the role of the parliamentarian in a very radical manner. The closed list or slate means that the order of importance of the candidates has been determined by their party, so that the chances of an individual's being elected depend more on internal party struggles or on the good will of the party executive than on the candidate's roots in his or her riding. There is thus a very real danger of increasing still further the already extensive power of the political parties. The stress currently laid on purely local issues could only diminish.

The open list also raises a number of questions. If voters can choose the candidates they prefer, then the fight for first place in a region would be out in the open and candidates from the same party would be competing with each other as well as with candidates from other parties. Parties would probably present a much less united front during election campaigns.

Furthermore, it should be stressed that individuals who were known throughout the electoral territory would be the most likely to win. With an open list, candidates would have to discard local issues and their role as ombudsmen. To the extent they did so they would be more and more cut off from the needs of their population. Unless, that is, the parties were to divide up each territory among their members, who would then have to "manage" them politically. At this time, however, both hypotheses would require a number of unwarranted assumptions about what political parties would do if this kind of system were adopted.

The perspective that led the Commission to propose its mixed system certainly does it credit. However, let us try and picture hypothetical situation: following instructions from their party at the local 'level, a certain number of Party Xs supporters decide to swing their votes behind a candidate for Party Y, (which would not be especially surprising given the current context of North American electoral behaviour) 'Their votes might well decide the victory or defeat of that particular Party Y candidate, but not necessarily in the way that Party Y's supporters would have liked.

We must also ask how, under a system of proportional representation by territory would electoral campaigns be financed? Would each candidate be reimbursed for electoral expenses, or would the territorial organization be reimbursed? In either event it is virtually certain that election expenses would go up. How would candidates be nominated At immense public meetings, or by order of party executives? Many questions remain unanswered, especially since all parties would have virtually to rewrite their bylaws.

In the solution proposed by the Commission, independent candidates would find themselves second class citizens. Since each independent would be considered to constitute a party, it would be impossible for voters who had indicated other parties as their party preference to include an independent on the list of candidates they wished to have represent them in the National Assembly This would lead to a decrease in the number of votes potentially available for independent candidates.

The Commission also proposed that a seat be reserved for the Inuit, Cree and Naskapi communities of Northern Quebec. Admirable though the thinking behind such an idea may be, we must consider whether the creation of an electoral territory on purely racial grounds would not contravene the Canadian and Quebec charters of human rights. Would the proposal not mean treating native and non native Quebecers differently? And what of the other native communities scattered throughout Quebec? They might very well resent this special treatment for the 6,848 native voters living in Northern Quebec. The idea came from the Northern communities themselves, which is surprising in that their direct participation, with special status, in Quebec's electoral system would mean that their minority position in white society would be enshrined in law.

The Commission's report maintains that the chief merit of territorial representation is that it would decrease significantly the proportional discrepancy between the number of votes cast for a party and the number of seats it actually wins. This is undeniable, at least as regards the two main political parties now represented in the Assembly. Distortions would persist, however. The winning party would in effect still receive a bonus, and outside the major urban centres, parties that obtained less than 15 per cent of the votes would not be represented.

In a constituency like Montréal Est, for example, a party would need to obtain only 5 per cent of the votes cast to win a seat, whereas in most other constituencies a party would have to obtain as much as 33 per cent of the votes cast to win that one seat. But the Commission's proposal was not made thoughtlessly In its report it says explicitly that the larger number of members it would like to see in certain densely populated ridings is due to its wish to allow Quebec's pluralism to find expression by making it easier for new ideas to be represented in the National Assembly, without causing governmental instability.

To manage to stay afloat in a system based on territorial proportionalism, a new or third party would have to concentrate all its support in a single region, probably one characterized by strong cultural, social or linguistic homogeneity, like West Montreal. The Commission failed to propose any means of taking into account, on a province-wide scale, the residual votes garnered by a political party. The result Would be that only regional parties would benefit, to the detriment of parties seeking support throughout Quebec. Proportional representation on a territorial basis thus would not really eliminate the distortions generated by single ballot uninominal balloting; it would only dilute them.

The Commission also opposes the right of MNAs to decide to become independents during the course of their term. It suggests that in such a case the member would have to resign and be automatically replaced by the non elected candidate on his party's constituency list who had received the most votes. The same procedure would be invoked each time a seat came vacant. By-elections would be a thing of the past.

The Commission justifies this due to the need to preserve a certain stability in government. Because party representation would be more accurate, government majorities would be much smaller, and the defection of a handful of members could be enough to bring down the government. Nowhere in the report, however, does the Commission assess the consequences of this change on political and parliamentary life.

On the issue of independents the Commission is not really consistent with its own recommendations. By opting for an open list system it would allow the electorate to choose their representatives themselves, but at the same time it denies members the right to change allegiance, We cannot have it both ways: either the voters simply choose a political party, and MNAs are forbidden to switch sides during their term; or the voters pick from an open list, at which point a vote for an individual candidate is no longer equivalent to a vote for a party, and each MNA is entitled to a large measure of autonomy.

The Commission's proposal with respect to changes of allegiance would also appear to contravene article 43 of the National Assembly Act, which stipulates that "every member is vested with full independence for the carrying out of his duties'. Marcel Adam summed it up when he wrote in La Presse of December 3, 1983, "What good will it do people to be more accurately represented in the National Assembly if the parliamentary system is going to go on being kept in handcuffs by a partisan solidarity whose quasi dictatorial rigidity is virtually unparalleled among parliamentary democracies?"

The parliamentary committee empowered to consider the report of the Commission de la représentation é1ectorale is scheduled to meet during the second week in October and will certainly have to examine all these points. We can only hope that it will succeed in clarifying the debate and answering some of the questions.

Yves de Roussan,  Research Officer for Guy Bisaillon, MNA Quebec National Assembly

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Last Updated: 2020-09-14