Led by New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec, several provinces
are considering a change from plurality elections to mixed member proportionality
(MMP). With New Zealands nine years of experience with MMP in its Westminster-style
Parliament in mind, this article identifies how these provinces are addressing
the many variations that MMP might take in Canada. It further uses New
Zealands transition to MMP to consider how well the operation of MMP in
Canadas provinces and the House of Commons might meet its proponents
Momentum for electoral reform may be building in several provinces. Most
Canadians have little knowledge of electoral systems other than first-past-the-post
(FPP) plurality. But, British Columbias quixotic flirtation with alternate
voting aside, Canadians may soon face several options for proportional
representation (PR). Three provincesNew Brunswick, Prince Edward Island,
and Quebec, with Ontario possibly close behind are considering a version
of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system in which some MPs
are elected in individual ridings while others gain office from party lists.
We address three provinces situations in the context of New Zealands
nine-year, experience with an MMP variant adapted from Germanys successful
half century-old model.
Factors to Consider in Devising a MMP System
The first factor to consider is one of democratic legitimacy. How does
each province propose to devise and implement its new electoral system?
Will it hold public consultations and a referendum that may supply the
legitimacy any new arrangement will need to survive early crises? British
Columbias recent experience shows how a super majority threshold can make
it much harder to pass any electoral reform in a referendum.
New Zealand set up a Royal Commission that proposed MMP. Then it staged
two referenda, the second a runoff between MMP and FPP requiring only a
simple majority to pass. MMP received 54% support and took effect in 1996.
New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island used arms-length appointed commissions
to make proposals with limited public input. PEI now has a second commission
carrying out a public information campaign and working out some MMP details.
In Quebec, the Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions presented
its plan in a bill to the National Assembly. New Brunswick and PEI have
pledged to hold referenda, presumably up-or-down on a specific scheme.
They have not indicated whether they will require a support threshold above
50% to implement MMP. Quebec has made no referendum promise, but a legislative
committee will hold consultations on the government proposal.
A second factor in considering MMP proposals relates to the distribution
of seats between those elected in single member ridings and those filled
from a list. How many list seats are proposed compared to riding seats,
and how are they distributed across the province?
New Zealand uses a single national constituency for list MPs. At present
there are 69 riding MPs, while 51 are elected on lists. As in Canada,
the number of riding MPs increases periodically to accommodate population
shifts. The total stays at 120. New Brunswick proposes 36 riding MLAs
supplemented by 20 MLAs elected from party lists in four regions, providing
9 riding and 5 list MLAs per region. PEIs first commission recommended
21 riding and 10 list MLAs, the latter preferably chosen from single province-wide
lists. Quebec proposes 75 riding and 50 list MNAs from perhaps 27 regions.
Most regions would elect 3 riding MNAs and 2 list MNAs.
Another issue relates to the selection of party list candidates from open
or closed lists. May voters select party list candidates in a primary?
In the election, may they choose between each partys list candidates,
or must they accept the order in which they appear on the ballot? New
Zealand uses closed lists drawn up by party-appointed list committees.
There are no primaries. All three provinces endorse this arrangement.
The question of a minimum percentage each party needs in its party vote
to win proportional seats also needs to be considered. New Zealand awards
MPs to parties that poll 5% of the party vote or elect one riding MP across
the country. New Brunswick proposes a minimum vote of 6% per region and
also 5% across the province to elect list MLAs. PEI may impose a 7% threshold.
Quebecs threshold in each region may range as high as 15%.
How many votes do voters get? Do they get two votes, one for their riding
candidate and one for a party list, or may they choose only a riding candidate?
New Zealand provides a two-vote ballot. New Brunswick and PEI suggest
two-vote ballots as well. Quebec is offering the one-vote option.
May candidates run for riding and party list seats simultaneously? New
Zealand permits dual candidacies. New Brunswick opposes dual candidacies,
Quebec supports them, and PEI has left this subject open.
Will apportionment of PR seats correct riding votes representational deficiencies,
or will it allocate party list seats on a strict proportional basis? New
Zealand uses corrective MMP. All three provincial formulas also aspire
to redress parties over- or under-representation in riding seats.
How close to full proportionality for each party can these models achieve?
New Zealands narrow 69:51 riding-list seat ratio allows considerable
proportionality. The New Brunswick and especially Quebec proposals under-represent
small parties with their high vote thresholds and few list MLAs and MNAs
per region. PEI can best achieve proportionality with a single province-wide
district for PR.
Fact and Fiction about MMP
Proponents of proportional representation make certain claims about the
existing political system, and about how they expect PR to operate. As
PRs champions endorse proportionality in Parliament as well as in provincial
legislatures, and as they wish to entrench provincial PR in part to build
momentum for its introduction in Ottawa, our discussion considers both
federal and provincial politics.1
Pro-PR claims and the current status of New Zealands FPP-to-MMP transition
in its Westminster Parliament follows.
Claim: Plurality elections and majority governments preclude fairness to
parties and restraints on power. All parties deserve parliamentary representation
matching their public support in each region as closely as possible. FPP
unfairly distorts parties regional strength. By skewing party caucuses,
plurality elections make it hard, sometimes impossible, for governments
to construct regionally representative cabinets.2 Besides, strong checks
on executives are needed to impose accountability, ensure transparency,
and avert arbitrary and corrupt government. Canadas prime ministers have
too much power. They and their carefully selected courtiers marginalize
MPs and cabinet ministers alike.3 Premiers operate similarly. PR will restrain
premiers and prime ministers by forcing them to share power with their
cabinets, their caucuses, and at least one smaller party.
New Zealands 5%-or-one-riding threshold provides about seven parties in
each Parliament. None enjoys close to a majority of MPs. Even so, the
public and media continue to focus their attention on the prime minister.
Because MMPs second vote for mostly anonymous party lists relies on voters
impressions of the party leaders, all parties enforce follow the leader
solidarity. Besides, prime ministers and their minority or coalition cabinets
still get basically what they want. It only takes them longer to get their
legislation through Parliament. Regionalism is not yet a serious concern
in New Zealand.
Claim: Minority and coalition governments operate better and impose more
parliamentary accountability and transparency than single-party majority
governments. PR does not necessitate unstable coalitions or more frequent
elections, nor does it keep minority or coalition governments from acting
decisively. Moreover, the absence of a single-party majority promotes
a change in Parliaments culture that persuades governments to replace
adversarial confrontation with cross-party collegiality and consensus in
the policy process.4 Backbenchers can impose accountability only when there
is no majority party.5
absence of a majority permits parliamentary committees to operate collegially
and to participate in policy making. Well publicized semi-public inter-party
bargaining facilitates transparency.
In New Zealand, MMP has forced no early elections. Westminster-style party
solidarity and partisanship endure. The political culture, including a
bipolar mindset reflected in media coverage and expectations, has not changed.
There is no evidence of German or Scandinavian-style inter-party collegiality
outside coalitions. The prime minister and his or her party have dominated
coalitions that place small parties in hostage situations. When small
coalition partners oppose their large partners policies, they risk taking
blame for instability or a snap election. If they prove agreeable, they
look irrelevant and superfluous. Accordingly, small parties now choose
to retain their identity and remain outside co-opting coalitions. Prime
Minister Helen Clark manages her minority by negotiating with small parties
on an issue-by-issue basis. Even then, if the larger party accedes to
a small partys demands, the media and opposition attack both of themas
they do in Canada.6 All small parties risk co-optation and marginality
when large parties appropriate their most popular policies and take credit
for them. Some New Zealanders object to the official opposition partys
continued exclusion from policy making when smaller parties play a policy
role. With no majority party, parliamentary committees operate more collegially.
They often influence legislation through substantive amendments and sometimes
almost substitute for an elected second look review chamber. They also
provide a forum for open inter-party bargaining.
Claim: Minority and coalition governments provide enhanced responsiveness
and accountability to the public. These governments respect the peoples
wishes better than majorities. This is as it should be, as policy makers
should respect public opinion continuously and not only near elections.
In New Zealand, governments can still implement their platforms without
risking an early election. Clarks Labour government has assumed a flexibility-conferring
centre pivot role that lets it move left towards the Greens or right to
United Future to gain needed support for its proposals and to conform to
public opinion. Clark prefers this approach to the two-bloc alternative
that would strand her farther left, too far from the desirable middle ground.
Their semi-detached nexus may benefit Labour and small parties alike.
Also, the media and public can better monitor New Zealands newly transparent
lobbying activity now that several parties participate in the policy process.
Claim: PR encourages greater voter turnout by convincing supporters of
all parties that their vote matters. Parties of the left will benefit
most from increased participation at elections.7 Voters who may vote twice
and split their ballot have added incentive to vote. MMP can help to
advance a reform agenda that reduces the observed efficacy gap and democratic
In New Zealand, turnout has fallen in recent elections. Still, at 77%
in 2002 it remains well above Canadian rates. PR apparently has increased
votes for left parties, perhaps by convincing left-inclined voters that
they finally enjoy efficacy.9 Some 35% of New Zealanders split their ballots.
In 2002s third MMP election, 38% awarded their all-important party vote
to a small party. New Zealanders often use their riding vote to select
a government by choosing between the two large parties. Two-fifths of
them also build their own coalition by selecting a small party to influence
their preferred large party. They sometimes vote strategically for a small
party to prevent a different small party from gaining leverage over policy.
Hence, if we apply an MMP model to Canadas recent elections, we may inaccurately
predict the inter-party distribution of MPs. New Zealands experience
suggests that in corrective two-vote MMP, Canadas two largest parties
might elect fewer MPs than their past or future share of riding votes implies.10
Claim: PR will enhance Canadian MPs and MLAs representational diversity.
The political system and the country will benefit if legislatures better
represent women and Canadas rapidly growing visible minorities, and if
they afford parties representation in regions where they cannot win many
ridings. Female MPs and MLAs may have reached a glass ceiling under
FPP; their 21% share of MPs has barely changed in a decade. Besides, PR
will end Canadian legislatures old boys club atmosphere and spare women
the raucous candidate selection process that dissuades many of them from
seeking elective office.11 More women will improve the conduct of politics
in Canada; note their conspicuous absence from the sponsorship scandal.12
Further, PR will end Canadas damaging and deceptive regional polarization
by electing MPs and MLAs who can reflect their parties support in all
regions and alleviate regional alienation by conspicuously advancing regional
interests in policy making.
New Zealands women and minorities enjoy greater representation and more
visible roles in Parliament than under FPP, mostly because parties take
care to place them in winnable list positions. New Zealand elected 28%
women in 2002. However, there is no evidence that its governmentled by
a female prime minister as adversarial as Margaret Thatcher or as her New
Zealand male counterpartspursues a more female-oriented agenda than her
male predecessors promoted under FPP. A gay MP did observe that his female
colleagues find him more acceptable (less threatening?) than male MPs.
Some New Zealanders also believe that MPs offer women and minorities more
attention and respect when there are more of them in Parliament.
Claim: The public eventually will accept riding and party list MPs and
MLAs as equally legitimate. The presence of list MPs and MLAs who need
not contest a riding will benefit the government and the province or country
by permitting people who make better administrators than politicians to
hold cabinet positions free from riding responsibilities.13
list MPs and MLAs may eventually embrace and legitimate a non-territorial
In New Zealand, list MPs continue to endure public disdain as second class
and lacking in democratic legitimacy because they are accountable only
to their party leaders, not to the people. Riding MPs gradually are accepting
them as equals, as list deputies have been treated in Germany for decades.
New Zealands dual candidacy list MPs who lose their ridings but are elected
anyway suffer particular disdain. Many New Zealanders continue to resent
their presence in Parliament, still more so in cabinet. Yet respected
list MPs occupy senior cabinet posts, including Finance Minister Michael
Cullen. List MPs need public respect and representational legitimacy,
particularly when New Zealands female, minority, and small party MPs serve
disproportionately from party lists. Parties have not yet devised legitimacy-conferring
roles for list MPs in general. Most are assigned constituency casework
duties, often in ridings their party deems winnable in a future election.
Others service their own ethnic minorities. Some New Zealanders hopeand
others fearthat MMP is facilitating a culture where all MPs, influenced
by those elected on party lists, define representation in non-territorial
as well as territorial terms. In such a culture, female, gay, and ethnic
minority MPs may embody and champion alternative constituencies even when
they also service traditional constituents in ridings.
New Zealands early experience suggests that adoption of a similar MMP
system would not revolutionize politics in Canada, at least in the short
term. Canadian politics embedded adversarial culture likely can survive
any electoral reform. MMPs overall impact and its long-term implications
are hard to predict, but they may differ from what its champions and detractors
expect. Canada would replicate New Zealands transition in some respects
and not in others. Introduction of MMP in some provinces, especially if
different versions are implemented, might clarify all of this and help
Canadians decide whether MMPs features, or which of them, would benefit
federal politics. We may reasonably expect PR to inspire new parties,
at least federally, including a Western-based socially and economically
conservative vehicle to the Conservatives right as a counterpart of sorts
to the New Democrats. Greens likely would elect MLAs and MPs and increase
their visibility and public attention to their causes. New Zealand implies
that the federal Liberals, and possibly the Conservatives as well, might
play a centre pivot role under MMP. Also, visible minority and some other
MPs might come to define their representational responsibilities in a novel
way. Instability from too few large party MPs or MLAs could result if
enough Canadians took advantage of corrective two-vote MMPs do-it-yourself
coalition building opportunity. But New Zealands experience thus far
suggests that Canadians need not fear dire consequences from an FPP to
1. For a succinct argument endorsing PR over FPP in federal and provincial
politics, see The Case for PR: If Its Broken, Fix It. Globe and Mail,
May 2, 2005, p. A12. (editorial) For PRs Canadian champion, visit Fair
Vote Canadas website at www.fairvotecanada.org.
2. Louis Massicotte, Changing the Canadian Electoral System. Choices
7:1, February 2001, pp. 3-4. Published by the Institute for Research on
3. Donald Savoie, The Rise of Court Government in Canada. Canadian Journal
of Political Science XXXII:4, December 1999, pp. 635-664.
4. Henry Milner, The Case for Proportional Representation in Canada.
Henry Milner, editor, Making Every Vote Count: Reassessing Canadas Electoral
System. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1999, pp. 37-49.
5. For a discussion of the new opportunities offered to backbenchers by
the election of a minority government in 2004, see J. Patrick Boyer, Can
Parliamentarians Become Real Players? Canadian Parliamentary Review 27:3,
Autumn 2004, pp. 4-8.
6. Note the reaction when Prime Minister Paul Martin and New Democratic
party leader Jack Layton reached such an agreement in spring 2005. Their
deal was a typical outcome of minority and coalition negotiations. See,
for example, Paul Martins Wasted Opportunity. Globe and Mail, April
30, 2005, p. A20. (editorial)
7. Arend Lijphart cites cross-national studies finding that a shift to
PR increases turnout by nine to twelve percent. Greater turnout advantages
parties of the left, which gain almost one-third of a percentage point
for every percentage point increase in turnout. Arend Lijphart, Unequal
Participation: Democracys Unresolved Dilemma. American Political Science
Review 91:1, March 1997, pp. 5-7.
8. For a broad view of the potential reform agenda, see F. Leslie Seidle,
Expanding the Federal Democratic Reform Agenda. Policy Options 25:9,
October 2004, pp. 48-53.
9. Jonathan Boston, Institutional Change in a Small Democracy: New Zealands
Experience of Electoral Reform. Presented to the Canadian Study of Parliament
Group, Ottawa, June 10, 2000, p. 16.
10. Two possibly misleading exercises that apply recent riding results
to show how Canadas parties might fare under MMP are Ian Gray and James
Gray, Proportional RepresentationThe Scottish Model Applied to the 2004
Canadian Election. Canadian Parliamentary Review 27:3, Autumn 2004, pp.
19-22; and The Case for PR (4): What Might Have Been. Globe and Mail,
May 5, 2005, p. A20. (editorial).
11. Carol Goar, Political Culture Puts off Women. Toronto Star, May
12. Susan Delacourt, Women Conspicuously Absent from Scandal. Toronto
Star, April 14, 2005. This article appears on pro-PR Equal Voice Canadas
13. While a private citizen, Stephen Harper proposed that Canada open its
cabinets to specialist non-MPs on the American model. Stephen Harper,
One Crucial Flaw in Canadian Government is the Ineptitude of Federal Cabinets.
Report Newsmagazine, May 28, 2001, p. 13.