Traditionally, political representation
has been based on territory. A member of Parliament is elected from a specific
constituency and once elected he or she represents all of the interests of all
of the constituents. In recent years various groups have been arguing for an
understanding of representation not based solely on territory but which takes
into account other factors including sex and ethnicity. Parliament, it is
argued, does not reflect well enough the composition of the whole of society.
This issue was discussed at the 35th Conference of the Canadian Region of the
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held in Winnipeg. The lead speakers were
John MacKay, MLA of New Brunswick and Dennis Richards, MLA of Nova Scotia. The
following extracts are based upon the proceedings prepared by Manitoba Hansard.
The complete transcript is available from the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly
John McKay, MLA (New Brunswick): The electoral system as it now exists in Canada
returns one member of Parliament for each constituency. Parties nominate one
candidate; the voter indicates his preference by marking opposite one name on
the ballot and the candidate with the highest number of votes wins. The Charter
of Rights and Freedoms guarantees every Canadian citizen a right to vote and to
be considered equal under the law. But does the Charter require each person’s
vote to be of equal weight? This issue was at the heart of discussions around
the ideal average population for ridings and the amount of deviation allowed
from the average during the representation and electoral boundaries commission in
recent hearings in New Brunswick.
The first past the post system allows an
elected member to win his seat or her seat without an absolute majority in his
district. All they need is to receive more votes than the nearest runner up.
This means it is possible and indeed most often the case that the political
party with the majority of seats in the House of Commons will not have received
the majority of the popular vote. In other words, with very few exceptions our
national government has had more votes cast against it than it has in favour.
In the 1980 federal election, there were over a half million Liberal votes in
Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C., but the party was wiped out in the West because
all of these votes did not produce a single member in the caucus of a majority
Opponents of the first past the post system
feel that this under-representation exaggerates the regionalization of the
country. By giving the Liberals no seats in Alberta and occasionally the Progressive
Conservatives virtually no seats in Quebec, this system appears to confer an
image of unanimity on provinces. The traditional voting system reflects the
philosophy of unlimited majority rule, gives the voters representatives they
did not vote for, reduces the opportunities for minorities to be represented
and gives political parties undue power over all citizens. This system can
distort the translation of popular vote shares into legislative seat shares
leading to overrepresentation of the party that wins the largest share of the
vote, underrepresentation of the second place party and even nonrepresentation
of smaller parties.
Supporters of our present electoral system
feel that measured against other countries, Canada does well nationally. Our system
does less well in ensuring proportionality in the level of regions and
provinces. Supporters of the classical theory of election by plurality from
single member constituencies feel that it concentrates politics almost
completely in two parties enabling the people to exercise a clear choice of
government and opposition. Since the party that gets the plurality of the
popular vote will almost certainly get a clear majority of elected members it
produces strong and stable governments.
This system has basically been in effect for
some 600 years in Britain and more than two centuries in the United States and
Canada. There have been calls for changes that in the view of the proponents
would result in more equitable representation through proportional representation
or some variant of that. The calls tend to come from the losers under the
In 1987, the New Brunswick Liberals won 100
percent of the seats in the Legislature. The Progressive Conservative Party
received 28 percent of the vote but did not receive one seat. The NDP party
received 10.5 percent of the vote but did not get a single seat. With
proportional representation, the Progressive Conservative Party would have had
16 seats in the New Brunswick Legislature at that time and the New Democratic
Party would have had six.
In the 1993 Prince Edward Island provincial
election, the P.C.s with 39 percent of the vote, won only 3 percent of the
seats while the Liberals with 54 percent of the vote ended up with 97 percent
of the seats. It can work the other way as well. In 1974 in New Brunswick, the
Liberals received more than 2,000 more votes than the P.C.s, but the P.C.s
formed the government. The same thing happened in the 1970 provincial election
in which Louis Robichaud’s government was defeated. He received the most votes
in the province but Mr. Hatfield’s party formed the government.
In the 1990 Ontario provincial election, 37
percent of the popular vote gave Mr. Rae’s New Democratic Party a large
majority, 57 percent of the seats, while the Liberals with 32 percent of the
vote, ended up with just 27 percent of the seats. We have seen a similar
situation recently in British Columbia.
In the last federal election the Progressive
Conservative Party received well over two million votes and ended up with two
seats. Their 16 percent of the vote produced only .7 percent of the total seats
in the House of Commons. The Bloc Québécois receiving 340,000 votes fewer than
the P.C.s ended up with 18 percent of the seats. The Reform Party was matched
closest. They received 18 percent of the vote and ended up with 17 percent of
the seats. The Liberals, believe it or not, in what was seen as quite a massive
mandate received only 41 percent of the popular vote and took 60 percent of the
seats. The results would have been quite different under proportional
representation. In the last federal election the Liberals would have ended up
with 122 seats, the P.C.s would have had 47 seats, the Bloc Québécois 40 seats,
the Reform Party would have been the Official Opposition with 55 seats and
there would have been 11 other seats and, of course, a minority government.
Such was the state of the first past the post syndrome where the winner takes
all in a seat so long as he has the highest number of votes.
Some form of proportional representation is
now used in many countries including Australia and New Zealand. In the
Australian House of Representatives voters list candidates in order of
preference and if no one candidate wins an overall majority the lowest place
drops out and his or her votes are transferred. This continues until a
candidate has an overall majority. Other examples of proportional
France, election to the National Assembly is by the second-ballot system.
Candidates, who initially winning 50 percent or more of the vote, are
considered elected. Those with less than 12.5 percent of the vote are dropped
off and then everybody votes again.
Germany, half the members of the Bundestag are directly elected by a
constituency and the other half by proportional representation from party
lists. To obtain seats in the Bundestag by proportional representation a party
must receive more than 5 percent of the vote.
Italy, there is a combination of first past the post and proportional
representation. There are 630 seats in the Italian Parliament, 472 elected on
the first past the post system and 158 on the basis of proportional
representation. Italy did have a system of preferred voting for four candidates
in a riding by their listed number but abandoned that system in 1991.
which is an interesting one, involves proportional representation by voting for
the party list in a multimember constituency. Any party receiving over 1.5
percent of the overall vote can gain representation in the Knesset and the
results can be a very fractured Legislature.
Ireland, there is a single transfer of a vote in constituencies of three or
four or five members.
All systems of representation have both
their advantages and disadvantages. I would suggest that proportional
representation tends to produce less cohesive government than the first past
the post system. Furthermore there are real problems down the road for
proportional representation if it goes beyond trying to reflect the overall
vote of the electorate and tries to place emphasis on gender or cultural
diversity. Minorities may insist on more representation in the equation.
Dennis Richards, MLA (Nova Scotia): The subject of electoral systems ought to be of
interest to anyone concerned with the operation of democratic systems of
government. In representative democracies elections perform two fundamental
tasks. They confer authorization upon those chosen to represent the electors
and hold representatives accountable for their actions while in office. Strictly
defined, electoral systems are the mechanisms by which the preferences of
citizens are translated into seats in their respective institutions. As a
result, the behaviour of political parties and candidates for elected office
will in large part be conditioned by the shape of its electoral system.
Canada’s electoral system is weighted in
favour of regional preferences so that parties are often encouraged to
emphasize regional rather than national concerns during election campaigns.
What is more important, the way in which an electoral system translates votes
into seats may influence the degree of public support for the very system
itself. For example, if citizens do not perceive that their preferences are
adequately reflected in the Legislature following an election, support for the
system is generally likely to decline. Voter turnout during elections will drop
off, respect for politicians will fall and the laws enacted by that government
will not seem to be fully legitimate. Also, for many citizens an election marks
the only occasion of any form of political participation. It is therefore very
important that electoral systems be seen as fair and capable of fulfilling
public expectations. If not, democracy itself is at risk.
Proportional representation seeks to achieve
representation by proportion of votes received. This system demands more than
one person be elected from a constituency so that it contains several seats.
These seats are filled in proportion to the way the electorate votes. This
system was quite in vogue in Canada about 40 years ago when cities like
Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver adopted it. It is still popular in
many countries however, there are about as many different systems of
proportional representation as there are ideas about government. One of the
best known is the Hare system where electors go to the polls to cast a vote for
every listed candidate in order of their preference. Given that there are often
many candidates, a quota of votes is to be determined. The quota system for
election is determined by dividing the number of people voting by the number of
seats to be filled plus one, the one being allowed for spoiled ballots.
Next is the count. First choices are counted
for each candidate and anyone who meets the quota is declared elected. Of
course, there follows a host of dilemmas. If he or she is elected with more
than quota, the surplus is transferred to second choices. If none of the
hopefuls has a quota or if too few have it, then the person with the least
choices is eliminated and the second preferences on his or her ballots are
distributed as marked. If this is not enough, the next lowest candidate is put
out and the second choices are allocated. This system goes on until the number
of candidates reach quota. One of the main criticisms of this system is that it
is far too complicated.
Electoral systems are not perfect. In our
efforts to assess each system we should ask ourselves whether or not electoral
systems are effective in achieving certain desired outcomes. These may be
summarized in two statements. First, any election at the national or provincial
level should result in a strong and stable government which reflects the main
trends of public opinion; and, second, governments should govern according to
the wishes of the majority of the electorate while respecting different points
of view in finding ways of including the opinions of minorities and other
significant groups in society.
I have identified five strengths of our
present first past the post system.
shows that first past the post electoral systems more likely result in a
single-party government, often a majority government. Voters know that when
they vote for a candidate or party they are choosing a government.
the first past the post system results in a more stable government. Coalitions
of various parties, groups forming governments, are much less likely. This form
of government is not subject to defeat if the votes of non confidence occur.
This enables government freedom to complete its full legislative mandate.
Government is better able to effectively carry out its legislative agenda on
which they campaigned.
there is a relative simplicity to the election process. The voting process is
not complicated, rather it is straightforward. Simply put, the candidate who
gets the most votes wins.
the first past the post electoral system supports the development of a strong
party system with a strong sense of loyalty among its members. This results in
government working as a team. The voter both votes for an individual to
represent them and an individual who is a member of a party with a defined
legislative agenda. This is critical, because parties develop positions and
policies which voters can identify and choose to support or reject.
the first past the post system together with a single member being elected from
a constituency ensures a direct link in connection between the elected
representatives and the electors.
I will now point out what I consider to be
some of the weaknesses of proportional representation. A proportional
representational system does not necessarily achieve the goal it claims to
achieve. A 1991 study of electoral systems in 25 countries showed that it is
possible for the first past the post system to produce a more proportional
result than a proportional representation system. There are many other factors
involved, such as the number of parties involved in the election, which may
influence the personality of electoral outcomes. There is a potential in the
proportional representation system to foster fringe voices and more extreme
views within society because it has the potential to give such opinions a
legislative platform from which to champion their cause. This can result in
unduly magnifying the concern.
Since proportional representation generally
produces a coalition government, it would be rare for a party to get a
majority. This completely changes and undermines the basis of our system of
cabinet government. Our form of democratic government depends on the party in
power having enough people elected to enable it to carry out its legislative
program. A party without a majority would be forced to battle every proposal or
enter into a coalition with some other party or parties. This results in less
stable government. With proportional representation system, voters do not
actually elect a government. The basis of proportional representation system
requires that more than one person be elected from a constituency. The
electorate therefore has no say in voting for whom actually will fill and form
In addition, responsible connection between
the elected officials and the electorate is muddied and unclear. And finally,
in a country as large and as relatively sparsely populated as Canada, which
already has very strong regional feelings and interests, a proportional
representation system could easily foster a greater number of regional parties
at the federal level. This would only compound the problem of regional versus
national interests. This is also true within certain provinces as many have
strong regional tendencies within their jurisdictions.
Glenn Hagel, MLA (Saskatchewan): I think a combination of direct representation has
relevance not only at the national level but also at the provincial level as well.
We are inclined, those of us who have won
first past the post systems, to place a high value on the significance of solid
government and party representation, and I think that is consistent with values
that Canadians hold in all of our jurisdictions. But I think we also have to
recognize that in recent times the system of election that we have does
generate cynicism regarding the value of the vote being cast by someone who
wants to support their party. We can all quote in recent times examples where parties
have literally gotten more than 20 percent of the popular vote in an election.
We have had some examples where in fact they had more than 20 percent vote and
zero representation. We can point to even more examples where the parties had
more than 20 percent popular support and did not hold official party status in
the House after the election. What I suggest is that if a party receives a
certain percent of the popular vote it should be assured that it will end up
with party status in the Legislature. Presumably, it would be represented at
least by the leader of that party who would be a strong spokesperson for the
ideology and the values and the priorities that were enunciated by that party
up to and during an election time. I think that if we do not move or if we do
not seriously consider moving in that direction, we risk jeopardizing the
respect that people have for the role of political parties in our system. I
suggest to you, if that continues to decline, then our citizens will begin to
look at other democratic models which are not consistent with the system of
parliamentary democracy that we have and to see them more attractive than they
Lloyd Johnson, MLA (Saskatchewan): The Canadian political system is based on the
principle of responsible government. That basically requires a system that is
first past the post because it means that people have to have learned the
skills and demonstrated the willingness to compromise. You do not become an
elected person and then compromise in the Assembly. You compromise before you
get there. And those individuals, parties and people with ideas who are not
prepared to compromise never get there. They become the fringe that does not
win. So what happens under our system, and it is unwritten but it is basic to
what takes place, is that an educational process starts before you run for
office. That process starts with the electorate. People understand that, when
they vote, they are compromising to get the best possible government they can,
or at least a strong and effective opposition to that government.
So I think that it is a mistake for anyone
to move towards proportional representation anticipating that that solves
problems. I will say to you that it is my belief that it does not solve any
problems. What it does is it delays the point of reckoning with those problems
to the point where they present major difficulties for the system of
The need to compromise will always be a part
of politics. Compromise is best done by the electorate, at the beginning of the
process so that members are free to act on the mandate they have received from
the people, and not be forced to compromise the principles upon which they were
elected to act, after they are already in the legislature.
Don Boudria, MP (House of Commons): The proportional system is never really proportional
anyway; most of them have thresholds that you have to achieve before the
proportional system actually kicks in—5 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent,
depending on some jurisdictions. I know we have had the case of Israel where I
think we heard that it was only one and a half percent, but still it is not a
truly, so-called proportional. Now I am not sure why it has to be to begin
with, but that would be I believe one argument.
The proportional system, unfortunately I
think, allows single-issue extremism, to have too wide a place on the public
If I think of countries like France, I think
small, extremists groups have managed to have voices in their national
parliament because of the proportional system that was there. Incidently, there
were two forms of proportional representation in France, one of them of the
kind that was described earlier and the second one being the second round of
voting. The combination of the two gave smaller fringe groups lots of
opportunity to be heard and, some would argue, and I would, too much
opportunity to be heard.
Also, I think that, and it is fashionable,
at least now, to argue that political parties are already powerful enough, if
not too powerful, if we develop lists and where lists only as opposed to the
single member become important or lists become more important by whatever form,
you are in fact increasing even more the importance of political parties as
opposed to individual parliamentarians.
There is I think another argument there why
we would not want to go in that direction. The fact that the system is
complicated, as has been expressed earlier, I think is another factor to bear
in mind. We are familiar with the system under which we operate as
parliamentarians. Even it, and I think our system is relatively simple, but
even it, in the minds of some of our constituents, is already plenty
complicated. People have some difficulty, too many of them, in understanding
the intricacies of what is responsible government. How does it work? How come
you do not really vote for the Prime Minister? His name is not on the ballot
but you get one anyway. What is the difference between federal and provincial
Some jurisdictions even have two different
levels of municipal government, each one elected separately. That is the case
where I live, in the province of Ontario, at least in the part of Ontario where
I live. So there are all those factors.
Dan D’Autremont, MLA (Saskatchewan): I agree with those who say responsible government
is one of the key points when we look at proportional representation versus
first past the post.
Who am I responsible to if I am elected by
proportional representation? Am I responsible to those voters or am I
responsible to the party elite that placed my name up high enough on the list
that I get to become a member of whatever Legislature or House that I may be
seeking. I think that becomes very, very important.
When a constituent has a concern, who do
they go to? They may not know me personally. I may be from the other end of the
province, but yet I was elected because they happened to put a checkmark on the
party which I belong to. Is their person elected close to them responsible for
them or am I, who was the representative of that party, responsible?
I think we get away from the idea of
responsible government when we go to proportional representation because we
lose contact with the voter who is most immediate to us. When I am elected as a
member for my constituency, I am elected to represent not just those that voted
for me and, in my case, first past the post works real well, I did not get 50
percent. But I represent all of the voters there. They all have the opportunity
to come to me with concerns and expect me, rightfully so, to deal with those
concerns. It is my belief that first past the post represents the needs, the
desires and the history of Canada and our provinces.