Even though it was pioneered in the 19th Century, Canada still hasn’t got Proportional Representation. Luminaries like Sir Sandford Fleming tried to bring about meaningful electoral reform in Canada in 1892. Just as the best efforts of Charles L. Dodgson (more familiarly known as Lewis Carroll) tried to modernize The Principles of Parliamentary Representation in 1884 England.
“It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this Assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should have equal interest in it.“
But we can see how that turned out. Although 85% of OECD countries use Proportional Representation, we don’t.
But the act of the matter is that Canadians have been trying to bring about meaningful electoral reform since the 19th Century. So why hasn’t it happened?
Defenders of the Status Quo
Although Canadian electoral reformers have been recommending the adoption of some form of Proportional Representation for well over a century, there has never been a shortage of special interests that want to retain the preferential treatment they get under the winner-take-all status quo. For the most part, the main stream media has failed to properly inform Canadians about the available options, and the reality is most of the articles I’ve seen are simply not doing the job of informing Canadians about this oh so important topic.
Even so, over the the main stream media can no longer safely ignore the topic of electoral reform. I’ve seen more articles dealing with electoral reform and proportional representation in the first 3 months of 2016 than I have in my entire life. So right about now I should be celebrating because I can get back to finishing my second novel, right?
I wish that were true.
Canadians have little or no experience of anything other than the winner-take-all electoral system we use in elections. Our closest ties are to the United States and the United Kingdom who use winner-take-all systems too. It is incredibly easy to be misled when you don’t have the facts. One of the most effective tactics in preventing meaningful electoral reform is through the spread of misinformation.
Instead of providing fair and balanced information, what I’ve read has been incomplete, misleading, or wrong. Opinion is often passed off as fact. And if that wasn’t enough, there is a growing mass of misinformation to be found in the comments or such articles. And then there is social media. At this point there is a lot of misinformation floating around.
No doubt the defenders of the status quo have been working overtime spreading misinformation, because this has always proven to be an effective technique.
Because Proportional Representation (sometimes shortened to “PR” or “proprep”) is a principle that describes an electoral outcome, any electoral system that provides a proportional outcome (where 39% of the vote = 39% of the seats) is Proportional Representation. There are an incredible number of ways to achieve proportionality. And so there are different families of Proportional Representation. And within the families, there are a great many ways to go about it. To date more than 90 countries around the world use Proportional Representation, and the ways in which it is achieved are many. As well, there are an extraordinary number of variations of each that have been thought of but not yet put in practice. Any country (or province, or municipality, or organization) can mix and match the electoral system elements and design their own custom version… and they have.
What this means is there are many voting systems that provide Proportional Representation that no one would ever consider for Canada. But because there are voting systems that would never appeal to Canadians, defenders of the status quo make us think that Proportional Representation is one thing, and that one thing contains everything we would never want in an electoral system. I’ve noticed many of the same wrong or misleading arguments popping up over and over again, in comments on articles and across the social media spectrum. This series will include several articles designed to clear up this misinformation.
It is important to keep in mind that not all those dispensing misinformation are doing so deliberately. I have no doubt many have been misled, so it is always best to assume a person sharing erroneous information is sincere. So I try to gently correct misinformation and back it up with credible links. Sometimes it works, but if it doesn’t, it is always best to walk away, because if facts don’t convince, nothing will (especially if they are doing it deliberately).
The reality is that Proportional Representation offers us real choices.
The thing to remember is that the meaningful electoral reform is reform that will result in a voting system that is fair.
The ideal to strive for is that all votes should be equal… equal and effective. Some votes should not count more than others and all votes should count. The fact is, people aren’t perfect, and so far no one has designed a perfect universal voting system. In a representative democracy, it simply isn’t practical to promise every vote will count — the reason we vote for representatives is practicality. Parliament isn’t big enough to fit us all. And when many of us select a representative who will actually represent our interests in Parliament, we should be able to rely on our MP to spend the time examining the evidence and learning enough about the the issues before Parliament so they can help make the laws that will protect all of our our interests
So the process we need is one that would take into account the the things that are important to Canadians — good and bad — in deciding what features are important to have and which things we want to avoid when deciding on our new electoral system. Most Canadians have little or no experience of Proportional Representation, and the same is true of our MPs. Which is why an all-party Parliamentary Committee will need to listen and learn, both from ordinary Canadians and from Canadian electoral reform experts, in deciding on our made in Canada solution.
My own preference would be for the system very much like the one a clear majority of BC voters chose in their 1st referendum, Single Transferable Vote (STV) system (with Robson Rotation), but it is important to have enough MPs (9-11) in each of the newly (combined) ridings to provide voters with reasonable proportionality. I like this system because it offers small parties and independents a fair shake, because I think more voices at the table will mean better policy. But that’s me.
Bur although I am not myself an electoral reform expert, I can’t say for certain which would be the best system for us all. What I can say with certainty is that what we all need is a fair system… a system where we strive to make every vote count, like Fair Vote Canada says. And that’s something no winner-take-all system will do. A fair system needs to provide equal and effective votes, and you only get that with some form of Proportional Representation.
And I have no doubt a majority of Canadians would agree that fairness is what we need if we are to have the Canada we want for us, and for our children.
I’ll leave you with John Cleese on Proportional Representation:
I’d hoped to have my electoral reform glossary ready today, but it’s a very big job. Soon. Also coming soon: articles on electoral systems and to clear up misinformation. Fair Vote has just begun a series of Myth Busters.