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The evidence is clear. Canada needs electoral reform

Aside from the ascendance of newer political parties at the expense of those more established, one of the most significant aspects of Monday’s election in Quebec is what it may mean for electoral reform across the country.

Three of the four parties now represented in the National Assembly, including François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, who will now form a majority government, have signed an agreement declaring that they will support changing the province’s voting system from the first-past-the-post model to a proportional system before the next election, and do so without a referendum. Mr. Legault now has the clearest of mandates to implement this commitment.

Meanwhile, in Prince Edward Island, the birthplace of Confederation, the legislature has decided to conduct a referendum on the question of proportional representation in concert with the next provincial election, which needs to be held in the next year. As a possible foreshadowing of the result, in 2016 a majority of Islanders voted in favour of a proportional voting system in a non-binding plebiscite.

This month and next, British Columbians will be voting in a provincewide, mail-in ballot referendum as to whether to move to a proportional voting system in time for the next election.

Within the next year, therefore, we may see proportional representation take root in three provinces.

Both of us, despite very different partisan perspectives, have been long-standing supporters of a proportional voting system for Canada – one in which the number of seats a party gets in the legislature corresponds with its popular vote. Indeed, the vast majority of industrialized countries have long used this system. The fact that Canada still uses an archaic first-past-the-post system, dating from before Confederation, is increasingly anomalous in the world. Even Britain, whose system is the basis of our own, now uses proportional representation for elections in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The imperative of moving to proportional representation is neither a right-wing nor a left-wing point of view. It’s simply democratic common sense. And recent Canadian election results underline the urgency of getting a move-on.

In first-past-the-post elections, the candidate with the most votes in a riding wins. This worked fine when we had a two-party system. But in most cases, provincially and federally, we now have a multitude of parties running candidates. This means with first-past-the-post it’s possible for a party to capture a riding with less than a third of the votes cast. The votes of the majority who supported other parties will count for nothing. This is a key contributor to people not voting. In a proportional system, every vote will be taken into account equally.

Increasingly – as in Quebec on Monday and in Ontario earlier this year – parties with less than 40 per cent of the vote are forming governments with a majority of the seats. In British Columbia, the governing party even won with fewer votes than the Opposition.

In a particularly perverse example, in last month’s New Brunswick election, the Liberal Party won 37.8 per cent of the vote in a five-party race, but took one less seat than the Progressive Conservative Party, who won only 31.9 per cent of the vote.

What used to be unusual occurrences in our system – minority governments – are fast becoming the norm both provincially and federally. Three of the past five federal elections have produced minority governments. With a first-past-the-post electoral system, this can be a recipe for increasing instability.

The reason for this is that such a system exaggerates the effects of even tiny swings in voting: Just a few votes in a single riding can be the difference between a majority and a minority government. As a consequence, parties that find themselves in a minority situation often engage in a constant game of “chicken,” continually jockeying for advantage with an eye to a snap election. In proportional systems, such gamesmanship is rare. A small change in the vote for a party only results in a small change in the number of seats. There’s no point in triggering a snap election. So people get on with governing. And, knowing a number of parties are likely to be elected causes leaders to be more collaborative and less confrontational with each other. This makes for better government.

The evidence of the past few months is clear. Given the realities of Canadian voting trends, converting our provincial and federal electoral systems to proportional ones needs to be an immediate priority. We hope that Quebec, B.C. and PEI get the ball rolling and we look forward to seeing other Canadian provinces and the federal level following their example as soon as possible.


Ed Broadbent is chair of the Broadbent Institute. Hugh Segal is an author, former senator, and principal of Massey College

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Photo by LouisRoyQc, used under a creative commons licence.