Nick Loenen was am Member of the
British Columbia Legislative Assembly from 1986 to 1991. At the time he wrote
this article he was completing a MA thesis at the University of British
Public discontent with
government and politicians has increased over the last two decades, is greater
in Canada than in the US, and greater than most places world-wide. Canadians
think government is not responsive to them, or their needs. We are supposed to
be a representative democracy. Elected members are supposed to speak and act
for their constituents. What then is wrong? This article argues that
institutional change to render government more responsive should start with the
The past decade has seen many
proposals for reform. For example, the 1985 McGrath Report suggested many
parliamentary reforms. The purpose was to give elected members an effective
legislative function. The Report raised great expectations. In 1992 a group of
parliamentarians, and academics studied the Report's impact and sadly concluded
nothing has changed. Party discipline was strong as ever, and private members
still had no legislative function. Other popular proposals include direct
democracy measures, such as, Referendum, Recall, and Initiative. These aim at
participatory democracy, and increased government responsiveness to the people.
All such attempts to shape a more
democratic system are futile. Parliamentary reforms fail, because in spite of
reforms, power remains with the cabinet, and elected members lack the power to
hold cabinet accountable. Direct democracy fails, because it is ill-suited for
the parliamentary system.
A proportional system delivers
votes of equal effectiveness. Most modern democracies use it.
Our British Single Member Plurality
(SMP) electoral system pre-dates universal suffrage and large
extra-parliamentary political parties. It is not designed to serve the needs of
modern, participatory democracies. Typically, SMP allows a minority to elect
government. In BC, the New Democrats formed a majority government with 40% of
the popular vote. Sixty percent of the people did not support Mr. Harcourt, his
platform, or his party. In Ontario, Bob Rae did the same with even less popular
support. SMP over-rewards the party with the most votes and under-rewards
parties with fewer votes. For example, in the 1991 BC election, Social Credit
won 24% of the popular vote, but just 7 seats; even worse, in 1993 the federal
Progressive Conservatives received only 2 seats for their 16% of the popular
vote. Under a proportional electoral system, Social Credit would have obtained
18 seats, the Progressive Conservatives 47 seats, and both would still have a
substantial parliamentary presence.
Changing to proportional
representation is not only fairer to political parties, it also provides more
democracy for voters. For example, the unfairness of the last federal election
is directed not only at the Progressive Conservative party, but also at the 2.1
million Canadians whose votes were rewarded with just 2 seats. That is over 1
million Conservative votes per seat. In contrast, the Liberals needed only
31,909 votes per seat. The vote of Liberal supporters was 34 times more
powerful than the vote of Conservative supporters. The unfairness of our system
has become particularly obvious since the courts ruled that section 3 of the
Charter guarantees not only the principle of one person one vote, but also that
votes should be equally effective.
People deserve maximum choice, and
their participation must be meaningful. Change must lead to greater civility in
the legislature, decisions by consensus and cooperation.
Our system does not allow the
people's will to be represented in government. On election night most voters
get a representative they did not vote for. No wonder most people complain
government is not responsive. It is not representative of them. In Quebec a
separatist minority came to power, ignited a national unity crisis, and is the
cause of economic uncertainty for all Canadians. Such extremism in public
policy caused by a minority would not happen under proportional representation.
Electoral systems should accurately reproduce in the legislature, the will of
the majority, and thus meet the requirements of democracy. That is why New
Zealand recently cast off the British system in favour of proportional
representation — the people's system.
Our present electoral system, gives
such limited choice that many voters do not vote for their first preference.
But the few voters whose first preference is elected, still have no
representation. They elected someone whose first loyalty is to the party. SMP
artificially manufactures legislative majorities where no such majorities exist
among the voters. It is this feature of our electoral system which give
political parties power over the people's representatives. Legislators cannot
get elected as independents. Many of them are trained seals, entirely beholden
to their party. Edmund Burke could meaningfully debate whether to follow his
own conscience and judgment, or that of his constituents. Today's practitioners
have no such choice. They take direction neither from their own beliefs or the
wishes of those they are reputed to represent. They are party partisans
We are said to have responsible
government, which in theory means that ultimate control lies with the people's
representatives in the legislature. Today, when political parties rob elected
representatives of their independence, such control, is a myth. In practice,
under majority governments, all government bills pass, as do all ministerial
estimates, and every budget. Voters should not think their representative goes
to the legislature to participate in law-making, even if only negatively
through a veto. All decisions of importance are made outside the legislature.
Minds are made up before anyone enters the legislature. The proper power of the
legislature, to amend and/or refuse legislation, has been forfeited through
party discipline . The legislature is impotent to restrain cabinet. When a
voter's representative is impotent, that voter is impotent. The Lortie Royal
Commission reports a survey in which 78% of respondents agreed with the
statement: "We would have better laws if Members of Parliament were allowed
to vote freely rather than having to follow party lines".1
Clearly, we need an electoral
system that translates votes into seats such that few votes are wasted, and all
politically significant diversities and interests that exist in society are
proportionally represented in the legislature. Government responsiveness to
people must start by ensuring that the composition of government accurately
reflects society. Our problems start on election day.
We need substantial change, yet not
a total departure from what we have. The basic components must remain, but
changes have to be more than tinkering. Change must satisfy the popular
conceptions of democracy held by an increasingly better informed and educated
populace. Politically significant diversities must be represented.
Electoral changes must also,
respect our vast geography, and especially our history. It is a history deeply
shaped by, yet not wholly comfortable with classical liberalism, which
understood human rights as rights of individuals, and which conceived the role
of government as limited to the protection of private property. Both our
sparsely populated geography, and unique history have cultivated governments
that are more communitarian and interventionist than those south of the border.
This needs to be considered. Fortunately, PR comes in many forms; we must
select one suitable to our needs.
Proportional representation differs
from SMP most strikingly in how it treats minority values, opinions, and
interests. SMP aims to create a two-party system, which presupposes that all
public policy issues, and their answers allow no more than two possibilities.
Such an assumption does not correspond to reality. Out on the street, within
society, there exists a rich diversity of principles, values, ideals, and ideas
that people live by and pursue. PR provides a structure to capture that
diversity, to bring it into the legislature, and to allow minority opinions to
Single Transferable Vote
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) is
a form of proportional representation that unlike list-PR systems, personalizes
voting and representation.2 Under STV parties have no formal role; similar to
SMP systems, votes are cast for candidates, not for parties. But unlike SMP,
STV gives voters significant choice. STV functions with multi-member districts,
usually five or more members. Voters are given a ballot paper listing all
candidates for that district, but instead of selecting one candidate with an X,
voters rank candidates in order of preference by placing 1, 2, 3 etc. behind
one or more names. Ballot papers are counted, and assigned to ensure that
candidates are elected according to the expressed preferences of the
electorate. If a voter's higher preferences are not needed because those candidates
have a surplus of votes, or those candidates are eliminated for having
insufficient votes, that voter's ballot paper will be used to lend support to
that voter's lower preference candidates. Few votes are wasted. Also, lower
preferences cannot hurt a voter's higher preferences, since the lower ones do
not take effect until the higher preferences have either been elected or
eliminated. There is no incentive to "plump" one's vote.
STV is unique among PR systems in the
amount of choice it gives to voters. Voters need not restrict their preferences
to candidates of one party, and in addition, voters rank the candidates within
the parties. STV provides a built-in primary election. Questions about whether
elections should produce representation of geography, personal interest, or a
mandate for a particular political program is left up to the voters to decide.
Proportional systems respond
quickly to social changes. In Europe, the Greens have been inside the doors of
the legislature for over 20 years. In BC, they crash the doors of the
legislature, clog the courts at legal-aid expense, and eventually are trundled
off to jail.
Because STV permits choice between
candidates within the same party, it allows the voter to not only decide which
party will govern, but also to influence the policies that party will follow.
Parties are often coalitions aggregating under one umbrella a segment of the
political spectrum. Voters decide which part of that segment will be
represented in the legislature. It is not uncommon for incumbents to be
defeated by a candidate of their own party. In the 1977 Irish election, 13 of
the 32 defeated incumbents suffered defeat at the hands of their running mates.
Voters participate in a party's nomination and candidate selection process.
Particularly popular candidates might escape their party's poor performance at
the polls during a down-swing. Party machines need not come between voter and
candidates. All voters, not just paid up party members, get to select
successful candidates. This feature encourages candidates to take positions of
greater independence relative to their party, which in turn lessens the need
for more parties. STV prevents party proliferation more successfully than
list-PR systems. Taylor and Johnson conclude their study with these words,
"If you want maximum choice for voters, then go for STV".3
Our treatment of environmentalists
compared to that of PR systems, vividly illustrates SMP's structural incapacity
to deliver government that is responsive to the people. STV is transparent, it
reflects accurately the current concerns of the people, and responds quickly to
changing social trends. People get what they want. If, as is the case in
Ireland, voters expect their member to primarily deliver local and personal
benefits, than the system will respond to that need. If the focus shifts to
law-making, and public policy issues, STV will force the system to respond.
It may appear that STV is designed
to give special status and undue prominence to minorities and special interest
groups. In fact, the opposite is true; it will give them clout, but only in
proportion to their numbers. The current system allows special interests access
to the levers of power out of proportion to their numbers. STV would give
minorities legislative representation, but not more than their percentage of
the population warrants. Special interests would have less access to backroom
deal-making than they do now. During the 10 years of constitutional debates
following the patriation of 1982, both Aboriginals and representatives of women
issues sat at the constitutional table, along with Premiers and the Prime
Minister as equals. The Harcourt government has come under severe criticism for
negotiating land-claim settlements behind closed doors. Minorities, special
interests, and fringe parties, such as Natural Law, Christian Heritage, and
Libertarians should be given their rightful, proportionate place. If not, they
are either suppressed, or given favoured treatment. Both are unhealthy.
Suppose STV was adopted. What
effect would this have on the composition and functioning of the legislature?
The details depend on particular circumstances, but comparative studies, based
on long experience with PR in countries not much different from ours, suggest
some general changes can be predicted with considerable confidence.
For example, the composition of the
legislature will be more representative. Aboriginals, women, ethnics, racial
minorities, and small political parties will be represented to the extent
society wants them to be represented. It will happen without the coercion which
taints affirmative gerrymandering when imposed on society by politicians, the
courts, or Boundary Commissions. A wider range of ideas, interests and policy
proposals will make it to the floor of the legislature. Power will be shared,
as in Europe, coalitions that last must be formed, the Premier must consult.
Not every bill, budget, and ministerial estimates will be automatically
approved. The legislature would have the power to meaningfully hold cabinet
responsible. The legislature would shape public policy, and MLAs would have a
greater law-making function. As European experience bears out, cabinets with
continuity, and MLAs that last beyond their training period, will render public
policy less open to short-term, politically driven goals, and more receptive to
the long-term public interest. The adversarial, confrontational process would
be replaced by a more cooperative, consultative, consensual style. Good manners
would start as early as the campaign trail. The need to attract second-place
support from voters whose first preference is for an opponent, is a powerful
incentive to show considerable civility to that opponent.
Changing the electoral system will
not guarantee such results, but it does provide opportunity for new patterns of
behaviour. The essential ingredient is choice for voters. That alone is capable
of delivering government in a manner responsive to the voters. The
oligopolistic patterns of power must give way to the self-correcting mechanism
of an open market, free of constraints. Society must assert its preeminence
over government. The structure must allow voters wishes to be heard. A low
threshold for legislative representation, and a dynamic society with a
diversity of issues, will either make existing parties more responsive and
diverse, or lead to more parties. In either case, the legislature will
fundamentally change in composition, distribution of power, and in its
operation. Government will belong to the people, citizens will become
participants, and democratic theorists from Aristotle to J.S. Mill, will smile
their approval. The need for direct democracy measures and parliamentary
reforms will be considerably diminished.
Would Turkeys Vote for an Early
William Irvine, a proponent of
electoral reform, wrote in 1985, "Election results in Canada are usually
accepted, if only because few Canadians bother to think that the results could
have been other than what they were."4 Technically, changing the system is
entirely within the legislature's jurisdiction. The Constitution Act, is
regularly amended by the legislature. The difficulty is not jurisdictional, but
political. Under majority governments, the legislature is impotent to act except
on instruction of the government. No majority government is likely to destroy
the mechanism by which they obtained their majority. The only persons who can
change the electoral system are those who benefit from not changing it. Even
the smaller, and Opposition parties do not want the system changed. While in
opposition, political leaders sometimes express a fondness for electoral
reform, but such enthusiasm is quickly dampened when in power. For most smaller
parties, the unfairness that works against them while out of power, is a
guarantee that someday they will have power. Our system has been carefully
cultivated over many years to serve the interests of parties, and no party will
easily introduce fundamental change. Minority governments open the possibility
for change, but SMP provides an incentive to end coalitions quickly for
political gain; thus the possibility for change is seldom seriously explored.
Change must come from the people,
it will not come from parties.
There are some glimmers of hope. For
example, demands for employment equity are based on the principle that a
typical workplace should reflect the demographic diversity of society. If, by
force of law, the workplace is made more representative, can the Legislature be
left unrepresentative? Also, society is increasingly more multicultural; the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms has induced Canadians to think of themselves as
citizens who possess rights; the Meech Lake process convinced Canadians that
political leaders and parties do not represent them, while the 1992
Charlottetown Accord Referendum gave the people a taste of the sovereignty they
possess. Some observers see post-materialism as a rejection of the politics of
confrontation. Perhaps these social trends, together with the desire for gender
equity, inclusion for Aboriginals, and the greater diversity of interests in
evidence among all citizens, are harbingers of public attitudes more open to
electoral reform. The Lortie Commission reports: "Our attitudinal survey
showed that many Canadians want the electoral process to be made more
accessible to the non-traditional parties, so that voters have a broader choice
in the selection of their elected representatives."5 Sociologist, Reginald
Bibby, remarks in the conclusion of his influential book on current social
trends in Canada: "The confrontational politics that have characterized
our federal and provincial governments are increasingly out of touch with where
the world is going. Tired by wars and tension that yield few winners, more and
more people in this country and elsewhere are recognizing the need to choose
peace and cooperation, then work to bring them about..."6
Such positive trends would receive
enormous stimulus from some form of PR. If we wish to be a country that
encourages political participation from the ground up, that regards diversity
as an asset, where differences are respected, and the mosaic of cultures is
encouraged, our governmental structures must be more flexible and responsive.
Changing the electoral system is a must.
1. Canada, Report of the Royal
Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Vol. 1, 1991 Ottawa,
Minister of Supply and Services, pp. 226.
2. STV is used in Ireland, Malta,
Tasmania and in Australia for Senate elections only.
3. P.J. Taylor and R.J Johnston,
Geography of Elections, New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers Inc., 1979 p.
4. W. Irvine, "A Review and
Evaluation of Electoral Reform Proposals", in Aucoin P. Institutional
Reforms for Representative Government, Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1986 p. 102.
5. Supra note 1, p. 228.
6. R. Bibby, Mosaic Madness,
Toronto: Stoddart, 1990, pp. 200-01.