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Electoral Reform In Canada

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The issue of electoral reform has become more important than ever in Canada in recent years as the general public has come to realize that our current first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system, formally known as single-member plurality (SMP) has produced majority governments of questionable legitimacy. Of the major democracies in the world, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom are the only countries that still have SMP systems in place. Interestingly enough, there has been enormous political tension and division in the last few years in these countries, culminating with the election results in Canada and the USA this year that polarized both countries. In the last year we have seen unprecedented progress towards electoral reform, with PEI establishing an electoral reform commissioner and New Brunswick appointing a nine-member Commission on Legislative Democracy in December 2003 to the groundbreaking decision by the British Columbia Citizen's Assembly on October 24, 2004 that the province will have a referendum on May 17, 2005 to decide whether or not they will switch to a system of proportional representation. This kind of reform is only expected to continue, as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty decided to take BC's lead and form an independent Citizen's Assembly with the power to determine whether or not Ontario will have a referendum regarding a change to a more proportional system. There is still much work to do however, and we will examine the inherent problems with Canada's first-past-the-post system and why we should move into the 21st century and switch to a form of proportional representation.

First, some background on the subject. Canada is divided into 308 ridings, and each riding elects one person to represent all the citizens in that riding. The party that wins the most ridings forms the government, and if that party has gained more than half the seats, as is usually the case, they form a majority and have the ability to pass any bill in the House of Commons that they wish, regardless of the opinions that other representatives have. This SMP system has remained unchanged in Canada since Confederation in 1867. On the other hand there is proportional representation, which is broken down into two main forms: Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP) and Single Transferable Vote (STV). MMP was first put into use in West Germany after World War II, but now it can also be found in New Zealand, Hungary, and the newly formed parliaments of Scotland and Wales. Basically, voters select one candidate from their riding, just like in an SMP system, but they also place a vote for which party they would like to form the government. This second vote determines the amount of seats that each party gains proportional to the amount of votes they collected in the countries. The representatives from each party are then made up of the elected representatives from each riding (if that party was able to elect any) and other members selected by the leader1. An STV system, which is what the Citizen's Assembly recommended to the people of BC, can be found in Ireland, Malta, and in some levels of government in Australia. Voters rank candidates according to their priorities, choosing as many as they wish. For example, a certain voter could select a Conservative as his or her first choice, a Liberal as the second, a New Democrat as third, and then cast no votes for the Green Party. When each a candidate reaches a certain quota of first place votes, they are elected, and the extra first place votes that they did not need are distributed to the other parties according to their overall ranking. If a second candidate is then elected, his or her extra votes are then distributed to the remaining parties, and so on . This system is rather complicated, especially when compared to our current system, but computerized voting systems have generally alleviated any problems.

Supporters of an SMP system believe that the status quo is acceptable in Canada for many reasons. Generally, an SMP system gives all (or most) of the political power to one party, which is usually the case in Canada, where most recently we were governed by Liberal majorities with 100% of the power in the House of Commons from 1993 to 2004. Supporters of SMP believe that this is a good thing because when there is a single party in power they have the ability to make the tough, important decisions and set a course for the country that is only influenced by one ideology, which they say typically means better government. Another reason is that SMP is stronger on accountability to individual members of a political party2. In Canada, each MP or MLA is directly responsible to the members of his or her constituency, and if the incumbent is no longer popular with his or her constituency, voters have the ability to replace them with someone they like better, effectively removing that person from the government. In some cases, SMP systems also tend to ensure a better geographical representation by granting a certain region more seats than their population says they should have. Another argument that usually arises is that a system of proportional representation allows for fringe parties to gain too much power and have undue influence over the larger parties.

The main reason to do away with Canada's SMP system is the unbelievably distorted election outcomes that our system produces every election. In fact, the 1993 federal election has the distinction of being the second most distorted of all elections in the eleven major democracies in the world since 19683. Jean Chretien's Liberals were able to win 177 out of a possible 301 seats (58.8%) with only 41.3% of the popular vote and a total of 5.65 million votes4. Interestingly enough, 6.04 million registered voters chose not to vote, and this election had a relatively high turnout, 69.4%, compared with a 60.5% turnout in 20045. This means that only 28.4% of registered voters chose the Liberals, yet they were able to form a majority government that could pass any bill they wanted. The Liberal Party's gains were primarily made on the back of the PC party, which gained a measly total of 2 seats with 16% of the popular vote and a total of 2.19 million votes4. In other words, the Liberals gained one seat in the Legislature for every 31 909 votes, while the PCs gained one seat for every 1 093 211 votes. Therefore, each Liberal voter had 34 times the electoral power that each PC voter possessed. The real kick in the teeth for the average Canadian was that the newly formed Bloc Quebecois, a separatist party which only ran candidates in Quebec, was able to form the Official Opposition even though they finished fourth in the popular vote, receiving 54 (17.9%) of the seats in the House with



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