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Now is it time for proportional representation?

by Finn Poschmann and Henry Milner

In the 2001 election that routed the British Columbia NDP government, the Liberals, with slightly over half the popular vote, won fully 77 seats in a 79-seat legislature; the NDP retained a little over a fifth of the vote, but won only two seats; and the Greens, who earned nearly a seventh of the vote, won no seats. It was a classic example of the tendency of our first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system to overreward the frontrunner. In response to general dissatisfaction with the lopsided outcome, Premier Gordon Campbell invited Gordon Gibson (whose comments on the last federal election can be found on page 70 of this issue) to recommend a process whereby the province could consider alternative electoral systems. He recommended what became the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Just as we went to press, it reached a conclusion. Members of the Assembly recommended scrapping FPP in favour of the single transferable vote, or STV (see accompanying box). In the next provincial election, B.C. voters will decide between the assembly’s recommendation and FPP. To change systems requires a supermajority of 60 per cent in favour of STV.

We invited two members of the Inroads editorial board to debate the pros and cons of change.

— The Editors


That darned democratic deficit

by Finn Poschmann

Many countries around the world have turned away from first-past-the-post election systems toward some flavour of proportional representation (PR). Is it time for Canada to take the leap, or is our status quo, the system that has selected Canada’s federal members of Parliament since August 1867, muddling on well enough?

The June 2004 election starts the case for the status quo. Two parties were in the running to form a government: the Conservative challengers received a share of seats in the House of Commons all but indistinguishable from their share of the national popular vote, while the incumbent Liberals, owing to some regional concentration of voters among the minor parties, received a seat share higher than their popular vote. And owing to FPP, the minor parties (the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party) did well enough in their strongholds to hold the balance of power in a minority parliament anchored by the Liberals. A deeply divided electorate selected a deeply divided lower chamber, in which every vote counts and every region will vigorously assert its interests. The result was a minority government that nonetheless has a mandate to govern.

And that is where a discussion of the merits of FPP, versus any particular implementation of PR, must be focused. An electoral system must stand or fall on the basis of its systemic merits or demerits. In choosing an electoral system, the art is to produce results that facilitate governing, while not deviating too far from the distribution of voter preferences. Too large a deviation in too many elections will cost a democratic government first its legitimacy and ultimately its ability to govern.

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About the Author

Finn Poschmann
Finn Poschmann is Vice President, Research, of the C.D. Howe Institute and an Inroads columnist and editorial board member.


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