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How you gonna get ’em 
back to the polls?

Provincial initiatives on electoral reform

 by Henry Milner

Low voter turnout, backed up by polling data, is sending an unmistakable message: Canadians are not satisfied with their electoral institutions. Federally, our electoral system allows the Green Party to win hundreds of thousands of votes and receive no seats, the NDP to get half the seats its votes entitle it to, the Bloc to get two thirds of the seats in Quebec with 42 per cent of the vote, the Liberals to be frozen out of Alberta and the Conservatives to be frozen out of the three largest cities in the country. Most people do not think that is right.

But Stephen Harper has other fish to fry besides changing the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system – though, to his credit, following the lead of British Columbia, Ontario, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, he has established a fixed date for the next federal election: October 19, 2009. On electoral reform, it is definitely the provinces – five, to be exact – that are taking the lead.

British Columbia started the ball rolling. Its Citizens’ Assembly produced a detailed plan for a Single Transferable Vote system (like that used in Ireland), which was endorsed by 58 per cent of the province’s voters in a referendum – just below the required 60 per cent threshold. It will be resubmitted to the electors at the time of the next scheduled election (May 12, 2009). Prince Edward Island held a referendum on a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system, based on the Scottish model and proposed by an appointed commission. In contrast to B.C., the political leaders took part and succeeded in having it turned down in November 2005 by an almost two-to-one margin. The government not only set a 60 per cent threshold, but also provided few polling stations and suggested it would ignore the result if turnout was low.

New Brunswick also set up a commission, but with a wide mandate: “To identify options for an enhanced citizen-centred democracy in New Brunswick building on the values, heritage, culture, and communities of our province.” On the question of the electoral system, it too proposed a version of the Scottish MMP model. In June 2006, Premier Bernard Lord announced that this proposal would be put to a referendum on May 12, 2008 (thus coinciding with municipal elections), to be decided by simple majority. Ironically, as if to underline the need for electoral reform, the Lord government lost power on September 18 despite winning 1,500 more votes than the victorious Liberals. And it appears that the new Premier, Shawn Graham, has no intention of proceeding with the planned referendum.

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About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.


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