The question of reforming Canada's electoral system presents both a first-order and second-order problem for party politicians, political analysts, interest groups, and the Canada polity as a whole.
The first-order problem, assessing the pros and cons of the current first-past-the-post system and its main alternatives, has essentially been solved to the satisfaction of most knowledgeable observers engaged in the study of comparative electoral politics and voting behaviour. It has been extensively investigated, documented, and analyzed by academic scholars, specials commissions, and citizens' assemblies. Indeed, at the provincial level, there have been a number of royal commissions and citizens' assemblies that have identified and recommended to their respective legislatures and public, a best alternative to first past the post.
I think it is fair to say that the results are in. As is often repeated, the concerns about alternative electoral systems to first past the post will never be to everyone's complete satisfaction since there are no perfect systems on offer, but by and large, there is an emerging consensus that the serious democratic deficits of first past the post are damaging to the overall quality and long-term functionality of Canada's version of representative democracy.
Further delay in reforming the system seems increasingly difficult to justify. As well, it seems to me that the fundamental principles that should guide the choice of any alternative voting system for Canada are fairly clear and agreed upon. The motion establishing this committee, with its five principles for electoral reform, is a case in point.
Finally, there are the vexing technical questions of how best to incorporate these principles into a viable alternative voting system that would meet Canada's specific needs. As they say, the devil is in the details. However, these technical questions have been addressed fairly successfully elsewhere, through a range of innovations and modifications to standard voting systems. These include hybrid systems such as MMP that seek to combine the benefits of first past the post and PR, the use of seat thresholds to reduce the fragmentation of the vote and eliminate fringe parties, open lists that give more power to voters and allow them to choose between party candidates, ranked ballots that ensure that winning candidates in single member constituencies are supported by a majority of voters, and differential treatment for very large or remote ridings.
I think there are ready solutions available to the first-order problem of electoral system reform.
No similar consensus, however, has emerged on the second-order problem of how and when Canada's politicians might bring about this needed reform of the electoral system. The second-order problem starts with getting sufficiently broad agreement across the political class on both the need for electoral reform and the timeliness of pursuing it now as opposed to in some indefinite future; on which of the many alternatives to the current system is preferable; and finally, on the mechanics of managing the process of moving to a new system, the steps that should be taken, the institutions and individuals involved, the timeframe for implementation, and so on.
It is the second-order problem, it seems to me, that has really bedevilled the electoral reform question in Canada. The distortions in regional representation created by first past the post, the negative long-term political impacts of these representational distortions, and the perverse partisan incentives to double down on political behaviours and strategies that reinforce and perpetuate them were first subjected to intensive scholarly analysis by Professor Alan Cairns in a seminal 1968 article in the Canadian Journal of Political Science. Cairns identified the institutional defects of the first-past-the-post system and their deleterious effect on the character and tenor of national politics and on the quality of representative democracy in Canada. These same defects have been identified time and again in subsequent studies of electoral processes and outcomes.
To briefly summarize, as I'm sure you've been made aware repeatedly in your hearings, these defects are the disproportionality of election results, often severe; the regional amplification effect, so clearly evident in the 2015 result here in Atlantic Canada; the suppression of diverse voices in parliaments and legislatures; the suppression of voter turnout; the detrimental long-term impact on democratic engagement and system legitimacy; and finally, its facilitation, if not exaggeration, of the systemic bias within the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy toward executive dominance.
In 2005 Professor Roger Gibbins, another respected senior political scientist in Canada, revisited the Cairns analysis and updated it to include all the federal election outcomes in the intervening years. He found that not only had the pathological patterns identified by Cairns continued, but arguably they had worsened. This left Gibbins lamenting the fate of hard-working academics whose best efforts to reveal the truths about the inner workings of political institutions have often been met with either stony silence or haughty dismissal by those who temporarily wield power within these institutions. Gibbins concluded his study, which confirmed Cairns' findings and reaffirmed the need for electoral system change, by stating, “Electoral reform with respect to the House of Commons is not going to happen. Not now. Not soon. Not ever.”
This skepticism about the prospect of institutional change is echoed by the cynicism of the media in their coverage of the process with which we are now engaged. Despite the clear pledge of the current , the creation of this parliamentary committee, and the consultations that are currently under way, the jaundiced eye of political journalists and media pundits continues to produce expressions of disbelief that the prospects of change will ever be realized, or that the end result could be anything other than the preferred outcome of the current government, which would be the one, of course, that would redound to their electoral advantage. The skepticism and the cynicism continue, not unjustifiably, it should be said, given the long history of this issue.
After the passage of so much time, why the urgency for electoral reform now? There are a number of possible answers to this question, but I would suggest two.
First, there is the problem of systemic legitimacy, often referred to as a democratic deficit, that is becoming worse given the changing expectations of an increasingly diverse and highly educated population that is less disposed to a shrugging acceptance of “politics as usual”. These citizens want a political system and a parliament that is more responsive to their views, that more closely aligns with their partisan preferences, and that more closely mirrors the composition of the society it purports to represent.
Second, there has emerged in Canada a relatively recent problem, at least in terms of its severity, that has been referred to as “policy lurch”. I say it is relatively recent, because for decades prior to the 1990s Canadian governance was shaped by centrist, brokerage-style politics that moderated the policy shifts that are the normal expectation of a change in government. However, the more ideologically polarized environment that has emerged in Canada since that time has given rise to concerns about more severe instances of policy lurch that are evident in other first-past-the-post jurisdictions with more ideologically polarized party systems. Indeed, it has been cited as one of the main reasons for New Zealand's decision to change its electoral system.
To illustrate the problem, the current government has spent much of its first year in office, and will no doubt do the same for a good part of its second year, undoing many of the changes introduced by the previous government, at which point in time they will begin taking steps to prepare the way for the next federal election campaign. Yet a relatively minor shift in votes of five or six percentage points in that election could result in a new government that engages in another round of policy lurch, undoing much of the undoing that this government has been doing. This kind of roundabout “now it's our turn” policy-making can hardly be thought of as beneficial for stable long-term governance that is built on a solid foundation of a reasonably broad societal consensus.
Though perhaps less dramatic in its processes, this mode of consensual governance is the demonstrably better course of action in terms of outcomes for economy and society, and frankly the most valuable contribution that can be made by politicians intent on practising the art of politics rather than engaging in the crass power game of one-upmanship and cyclical dominance.
Changing the voting system means changing the incentives that affect how people vote, that is, their decision-making in the realm of electoral politics. A more proportional system, by making every vote count, would remove fears of vote-splitting and reduce the pressure on voters to engage in strategic voting rather than choosing the candidate or party they most prefer. For party politicians, it would disincentivize knee-jerk adversarialism and reward more respectful cross-party relations and interparty co-operation.
This committee, this Parliament, and this government have a rare opportunity to create the conditions and institutional incentives to “do politics differently”, a frequently voiced intention of new governments and newly minted MPs that inevitably frays and dissolves with the passage of time. This has not been due to the frailties of human nature or a sudden failure of resolve. It is the normal political behaviour encouraged by the design and functioning of our institutions, and particularly the electoral system.
I urge the committee to quell the doubts of the skeptics, to confound the many cynics, and to deliver on its appointed task of recommending to Parliament a new electoral system that will satisfy the five principles set down in the motion creating the committee. I wish you well in your difficult and important deliberations.
Thank you to the members of the committee for inviting me to speak this afternoon. I'm honoured to be here.
My presentation is in two parts: first, a question, and second, in the written part of my submission, I've expanded on the brief I submitted earlier. In both parts I will find myself departing from the consensus to which Professor Bickerton referred.
My question is the following: What is the problem that electoral reform is designed to fix? It is a basic question that comes before questions of detail and implementation. I expect you've heard it asked before as you've moved day after day across the country. Judging by the critics of our current voting system and by the terms of reference of this committee, the problem lies with democracy. The current single member plurality system is undemocratic, or at least seriously deficient in its democratic qualities. I want to suggest that our problem in Canada is not with our democracy but with our politics.
“What is the difference”, you may ask, “aren't they related?” Yes, of course they are, and the origins of both can be traced to ancient Greece, but they are not the same thing. Democracy is a condition, a system, a state of things, whereas politics is an art, the “art of the possible”, to quote a famous book by Canadian political scientist James Eayrs. It is a thing in itself, not a subsidiary aspect of something else, such as democracy. This is also true of liberty and representative government. They too are things in themselves and are not necessarily aspects of democracy.
Politics is not practised in all systems. It is not practised in dictatorships, for example, or tyrannies, or absolute monarchies, or oligarchies, because the essence of politics is that it accepts the existence of different truths and therefore of the need for conciliation and deliberation. It's not the best means of achieving a pure ideal untouched by compromise, if that's what you're after, nor of pursuing one's own interests regardless of the interests of others. It's messy, even grubby. Politics in this sense is at the foundation of our public life. Really, it's a precondition of democracy.
Somehow we have managed to lose sight of this in recent years. Instead of seeing politics as one of the most honourable of human activities, many people regard it as a necessary evil, or even an unnecessary evil. On the one hand, many seem to think of politics purely in terms of partisanship. On the other hand, many regard politics, politicians, and government as problems in themselves. They turn to various forms of anti-politics. People speak of “mere politics”, implying that other activities, business being a prime example, are far more important. We see an extreme form of this in the current presidential election in the United States, where the rejection of politics and the civility it entails is made explicit at a high level in a way I've not seen on this continent in my lifetime.
Happily, civility has not disappeared from Canadian public life. I'm not sure why this is so. It may have something to do with culture. Canadians are so nice; when we are not apologizing to people, we are thanking them. It also has to do with our history. We never broke sharply with the mother country, as did the American colonies, creating something entirely new that thereafter could be used to justify various positions that claim to speak for the people. Instead, Canada evolved from colony to independent nationhood. Even this we did in so muddled a manner that even yet we continue to have ties in the form of a common monarch, whose children can evoke the kinds of sentiment that politicians could wish for, as we have seen in the past 10 days.
The continued existence of a monarch also means that in our democracy it is difficult to speak unreservedly of popular sovereignty. The crown is part of our Constitution. Arguably, in Canada, it would be more accurate to speak of parliamentary sovereignty rather than popular sovereignty, but this too has been limited since 1982 by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As Canadian historian William Kilbourn once wrote that Canadians are “a people of the law rather than the prophets.”
Whatever the explanation, civility continues to be highly regarded in our public life, but we should not think we are immune to the American disease. Occasional popular eruptions and overheated expressions of partisanship attest to this. I'm not sure I have any remedy to offer—and we might return to it in the question period—but I think cynicism about politics is a greater threat than cynicism about democracy.
There are other avenues than the electoral system to pursue in search of remedies for the political malaise. An example is the approach to Senate reform recently put forward by former senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal in a report for the Public Policy Forum. Kirby and Segal seek to give new life to the original conception of the Senate as an institution of sober second thought that constrains the actions of a majoritarian government. At the same time, they would place limits on the constraints since the Senate is an unelected body.
One way or another, it seems to me that we need to find ways of reviving a genuine politics, a politics that is primarily concerned with negotiation, persuasion, and accommodation, and less with partisanship. Political parties at their best serve as intermediaries between the public and government, a form of civil society, educating and leading their members and, in turn, communicating the preferences and concerns of their members to the legislature and the wider public. Far from being mere weapons of partisanship, they are critical instruments for bringing together men and women of varying views, with the end of arriving at policies and decisions that benefit society as a whole.
Another way of putting all this is to suggest that the committee direct its attention away from the practical consequences of various possible reforms of the electoral system and towards the ends which reform is intended to achieve. The committee's mandate is to study viable alternate voting systems, but the five principles set out in the resolution passed by Parliament could also be directed to a study of political practice. At the very least, I hope you will consider the wider context within which the electoral system operates.
In the second part of my presentation, which as I mentioned earlier is an expansion of the brief I sent in, I set out three ways in which I think proportional representation might make things worse than the way things are now. However, I have to stop there, because my time is up.
I'm a skeptic. I guess that's evident already. I'm both cautious and skeptical about electoral reform. At the centre of the debate about electoral reform are various kinds of proportional representation, particularly mixed member proportional representation.
First, it seems to me that proportional representation in whatever form encourages the proliferation of parties—not necessarily, but it makes it more likely than under the current system. Second, it makes of members of Parliament, at least certain members of Parliament, more representatives of their parties than of their constituents. Third, it reduces the tie which voters have to their district and which MPs have to their district.
It's commonly said, and my colleague has referred to it, that under the single plurality vote system, votes are wasted and votes don't count. I would just like to say that I've wasted my vote by this standard, that is, if my candidate hasn't won, for most of my adult life. I've never thought of it as wasted, because elections, in my view, are competitive struggles for power. That doesn't make them horse races, but it does mean that people compete with each other for the support of their electors in a particular community.
From my point of view, I'm not in favour of a referendum. I'm not really big on plebiscitarian forms of democracy, to be honest. I wasn't even in favour of the referendum on the Charlottetown accord, although I realize that's probably not a popular position now.
We have a representative democracy. I think most people, whether they always trust their representatives or not, realize these are very complex public policy issues and they can be quite highly technical, too. To expect that voters would be able to take the time to school themselves, educate themselves on these issues sufficiently to render judgment, is asking too much of them, I think.
It's not a question of changing the Constitution. As long as whatever system you come up with or recommend maintains representation by population, then I think it's incumbent on our representatives to do their best job, to try not just to maintain a representative democracy but to improve the quality of it to these kinds of measures that are being proposed.
I'm not in favour of a referendum on this issue. I think a referendum has been used and can be used to block change mainly because people, when they are unsure or when they feel they don't have sufficient knowledge to make a judgment, will lean toward voting no, and I think that's a reasonable position for them to take. But I don't think any campaign that would be launched to educate the broad public on these issues would be successful in the end.
I teach students about this. They are in my classroom. They are supposed to be interested in these issues, and their eyes start to glaze over after I start talking about it.
My eyes didn't glaze over once throughout the entire testimony, so we're doing well today.
I want to step into one thing, Professor Bickerton. You join a long list of very esteemed academics and experts on this, calling for change that improves the connection between what voters want and what they get. I don't want to oversimplify your testimony.
One of the things you talked about was that you illuminated us on the what, in answer to my colleague's question: a proportional system. In response to the how, as was just asked by my Conservative colleagues, you talked about a “sufficiently broad agreement”. I think those are the words you maybe used.
I'll reading a quote from Mr. Mayrand, who runs our elections right now, as to how we validate whatever this committee comes up with and recommends to the government. He said recently:
Not a single government, whatever the majority is, should be able to unilaterally change the rules of election. Changing the rules of that competition among them should require a broad consensus—the broadest possible.
By unilateral, I assume he means single party or majority party, and that one of the tests for what we get done is that it be accepted by more than one party, through the House, through the process we're going through right now. I don't want to put words in your mouth. Is that fair?
I'm fond of Mount Saint Vincent for many reasons, particularly for my friendship with Margaret Fulton.
I'm a big fan of consensus, as everyone around here knows. I'm like a broken record on how consensus decision-making could improve politics and democracy in Parliament. I'm wondering if I can't achieve consensus now, in my five minutes, between Professor Bickerton and Professor Dewar.
You said in your testimony, Professor Dewar, if I have this right, that politics is better with more accommodation and less partisanship. I'm firmly of the belief, as Professor Bickerton put forward from Alan Cairns' article, that first past the post encourages the worst form of behaviour from people in politics. I think all parliamentarians, or actually the ones just around this table, are essentially really good people, “people people”, and they want to work for our communities. But first past the post creates, as Professor Bickerton mentioned, “perverse partisan incentives to double down”.
Perhaps, Professor Bickerton, if you could attempt to persuade Professor Dewar that we're right—
Voices: Oh, oh!
Ms. Elizabeth May: —I will back off and cheer from the sidelines.
Partisan politics under first past the post is what creates the incentive for dog whistle politics, for wedge issues, instead of getting together and fixing things and working together, which is, I think, what Canadians want.
Over to you, Professor Bickerton. Give it your best shot.
Voices: Oh, oh!
I don't want to surprise you, but no.
I don't really want to talk about Senate reform, but there are other institutional reforms that could be made that would mitigate extreme partisanship. We won't get rid of partisanship no matter what system one has. That's what parties are about. They're about standing up for their own positions.
Tom Axworthy, who I believe testified before this committee, wrote a long paper about parliamentary reform for the Centre for the Study of Democracy and Diversity at Queen's University. It's about the House of Commons as well as the Senate. It's really an interesting document, because it extends beyond the walls of Parliament. He suggests, for example, that changes could be made in the committee system that perhaps would give greater power to chairs of committees—
Mr. Nathan Cullen: That's a terrible idea.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Kenneth Dewar: —and reduce the powers of vice-chairs.
I don't think the electoral system is the only way in to addressing problems of partisanship. I mean, it's interesting, isn't it? Really, my generation experienced a particular history, and there has been a very unsettled history in the last quarter century. It's very unsettled now. A famous political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, said that no politics is violence, or violence is no politics; it's not the extension of politics by other means.
I just lost my train of thought.
I think I see the unsettlement that is very apparent in different parts of the world in the last five to 10 years as being in a longer period of unsettlement. That is, from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s and into the 1990s, the traditional ideologies have become unstable, and there's a different discourse now. People might speak about class more than they did, but they don't speak about class. They speak about death, and they're concerned about gender and— There are all these other issues that have fed in that don't, as I understand them, fit into the kinds of boundaries of the politics of before, which defined the formation of government, and so on, in my time. If that means we are in a new era, and that's going to go on, then perhaps I should just give up and....
I think that's something that's actually going to settle out. Again, I think that with there being balances and trade-offs, coalition governments are the product of conciliation and accommodation, on the face of it. But coalition governments are also often sustained by a small party that represents relatively few voters, and it holds the balance of power. Then there's another election, and there's a slight adjustment of the numbers of votes, and so on, and who forms the government again maybe comes down to this small party. Maybe the government doesn't change very much.
There's a stability of politics. I know we're not talking about an Israeli system of voting, but Israel has had the same people in power for decades. I think the same can be said about Japan, though this borders on my knowledge. Also, all of that takes place behind closed doors.
It's true that, if you happen to vote for the Green Party, proportional representation will result in more than one member of Parliament being elected to the Greens. If we could be confident that every one of them would be as reasoned and balanced as Elizabeth May, that alone might be enough to switch my position. However, I don't think one can count on that. As I say, voters who vote for minority parties will be happier, but the end result of who forms the government and how it's maintained isn't necessarily going to be very clear to those voters.
First, I do empathize with Professor Bickerton that his students' eyes glazed over. When I taught the introduction to political science course at King's University College, my students' eyes also glazed over. The way I got around that was by ordering pizza based on an electoral system. The first-past-the-post system resulted in pepperoni pizza. We tried single transferable vote on the B.C. model, but we just ran out of class time to actually order the pizza.
I kid you not. It was a lot of fun.
A voice: Did you try MMP?
Mr. John Nater: We didn't try MMP. We just did the counting from it. We did have two days of pizza ordering based on an electoral system, so I do empathize with that.
I want to start with you, Professor Dewar, and some of the comments you made toward the end of your presentation on some of the drawbacks of an alternative system. You mentioned the proliferation of political parties, the challenge of MPs becoming representatives of parties rather than regional, and the reduction of ties to the riding.
We've had a fair bit of testimony on the reduction of ties. I'm not going to focus on that one. I'll focus on those two comments you made. On the proliferation of political parties, you were touching on that a little bit in response to Madam Sahota. I was wondering if you could expand on that, the proliferation of the party going beyond....
We know Duverger's law, how that typically says first past the post...small numbers...would see an increase.... How would that affect our political system? How would that affect our democracy, having a number of new parties? Some of them potentially might be fringe parties. I'm not talking about the Greens or the NDP, because I don't consider them fringe parties, but fringe parties beyond that would turn to the extreme. How would that affect that?
As a good Canadian, I will say thank you to everyone here today and apologize for my tardiness. With this many meetings in this many cities, I didn't realize which floor this meeting was on.
That being said, it was interesting to have two conflicting panellists today, and when I say “conflicting”, that's not in a bad way. We've heard a lot about various systems and the magical powers they have, that they will solve all evil on earth, and so on and so forth.
I'm also of the mindset that our electoral system is an ecosystem. There are many parts to it, and it's not necessarily the way we vote that is going to fix everything. There are tactics we can develop. There are things we can implement to address, say, the tone in the House.
We talked a little bit about how we can change the committee structure to include more different voices. We talked a little bit about mandatory voting. And we heard a little bit about cynicism. I'll premise this by saying that a lot of people are surprised to know that after these meetings, most of this committee—in fact all of the committee—usually sits down and has a debriefing, and we laugh and we joke around. We actually do get along.
One thing we did notice is that, if there is a political will to change something, it's not necessarily an electoral system that will address some of the problems. For instance, let's say we want to increase the engagement of women, of youth, of minorities in politics to run for office. I'm of the firm belief that people decide not to run for office not because of the fact they don't like the electoral system per se, but rather it is the job, the idea of the adversarial tone, the idea of your life being on the front page, the idea of the constant bickering.
I'll give you an example. There are 197 new MPs. I'm one of them. We decided, little backbenchers that we are, to change the tone of the House by one simple measure. We brought forward the idea to stop clapping during question period. We tried this in June. We decided we would not clap. We support our government, but we're not going to clap at the answer. On the first day everyone looked at us as if we were crazy. On the second day, they were all wondering what the Liberals were up to. On the third day, we saw that the tone in the House actually calmed down because the reaction on the other side was amplified because we weren't reacting, and it calmed the House down. There wasn't a change in the electoral system; it was a change in political will to do things differently.
My question is for the two of you. What can we be doing that is not necessarily a change in our electoral system but can address some of the issues we are facing, whether it be participation at the polls, running for office, changing the tone, or having a collaborative approach?
If you could elaborate, that would be great.
I applaud you for your efforts to change the tone in the House. I think I need to remind you that you are in the first year of an electoral cycle and you are a brand new MP.
There have been changes attempted since the 1970s—or 1960s, if I go back that far—in the procedures of the House in order to try to alter in some way the political behaviour of MPs in the House. They always break down in the end. There was a concerted effort by the Paul Martin government, in fact, to do away with confidence votes except on certain items, and he took other measures as well to try to change the tone in the House. There were similar kinds of attempts—the bells crisis, I can think back to, in the Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau days, and so on.
This is not something new. This has been around for decades and decades. I would think it's not just simply a matter that we can do better if only we have the will to do it. I'm sure that will be a factor, but unlike you, I believe that there is such a thing as institutional incentives to behaviour, and that institutions do ultimately shape behaviour. They don't determine it, but they shape it.
Minor reform to procedures in the House is not what's needed here. We need bigger change, and one of those bigger changes is electoral system reform. Unlike my colleague here, I actually think it will be easier to bring about than Senate reform, which was the alternative. He thought we should concentrate on Senate reform, but I think electoral system reform is actually within your power to change in a serious way. I'm not sure Senate reform is. We'll see how the current changes work out.
Based on many studies over a long period of time and a lot of experience that older parliamentarians could bring to this discussion too, we know it is always easier to get along in the early part of a new electoral cycle. As you go along the electoral cycle, things change fairly dramatically. I hope it doesn't happen, but I think it probably will.
For everyone's information, Denis and I are a bit of a double act. Between the two of us we'll only take five minutes, which I hope leaves more time for questions.
First of all, welcome to Halifax.
Thank you for agreeing to hear from us about single member district proportional representation, SMDPR, a made-for-Canada list PR system that changes as little as possible from first past the post.
The purpose of voting in Canada is to periodically transfer power from the people to their representatives, who then form the House of Commons and enact the laws under which we all must live. In this regard, the democratic equality of one person, one vote is a hollow phrase if it doesn't comprehend equal voice for votes in Parliament or equal transfers of power. Indeed, the lack of equal voice for votes constitutes a threat to the democratic principles of one person, one vote, majority rule, the rule of law, equality before the law, and the protection of minorities.
Although MPs advocate for all their constituents equally on local matters, each MP speaks with only one partisan voice in Parliament. Plurality rule at the riding level, which is inherent to first past the post, effectively silences any other partisan voices from their riding in Parliament. Across the country, more than half the partisan voices of the electorate are excluded in this way. This is the primary cause of our current system's acknowledged ills.
To take an example, in the 2015 federal election, about 30% of the electorate didn't vote, and 32% voted for losing candidates, all transferring no power. About 11% were surplus votes that winning candidates didn't require, transferring no useful power. The opposition was formed on a useful transfer of power from 9% of the electorate, and a strong majority government from 10%. In all, 81% of the electorate either did or could have stayed home, and the results would have been the same. Previous elections yielded comparable results.
Clearly, neither majority rule nor equal voice for equal votes exists in our current system. Since the plurality always wins now, and most votes don't count, one simple way to ensure that most votes count is for the plurality to not always win. After all, if plurality rule is the problem, then fixing it alone is at least an obvious solution to investigate. Recognizing that the only things that electoral reform can change are the ballot, the riding boundaries, the number and nature of MPs, and the way the vote is counted, SMDPR changes only the way the vote is counted.
To summarize briefly, SMDPR allots seats proportionally within predetermined regions and then ranks each party's local candidates to determine who will fill those seats, with each riding represented by one candidate who ran in that riding. To win, a candidate must rank highly in a party that was allotted seats and must be more popular than any other such candidate in the riding. Plurality rule remains one determinant of winning, but it is no longer the sole determinant.
By maintaining the same ballot, riding boundaries, number of MPs, and their local nature, SMDPR demonstrates that moving from first past the post toward treating everyone's vote fairly is not a binary choice between maintaining the status quo and completely overhauling the system.
In conclusion, equal voice for votes is critical to a modern definition of democracy. PR is the political face in Parliament of the right to equal voice for votes at the ballot box. One implies the other, but we needn't change all that much to achieve both.
Thank you for your kind attention, and we look forward to your questions.
Thank you very much for this opportunity.
I'm Christopher Majka, director of Democracy: Vox Populi, an advocacy group concerned with democratic and electoral issues. I have also been active for a decade with Fair Vote Canada, and its chapter here, Fair Vote Nova Scotia, as well as with Project Democracy, all of which are interested in issues of electoral and democratic reform.
I'd like to begin by saying that electoral reform is critically important for the future of Canadian democracy. The idea that citizens should determine the governance of a country was a radical one that originated in the 6th century BC, in Athens. For over two and a half millennia, it has spread throughout much of the world, and as it has dispersed it has evolved.
In Athens only land-owning men who were over 20 and were not slaves were permitted to vote. In Canada, the secret ballot was introduced in 1874, and women were enfranchised in 1918. There were once voting restrictions related to wealth, religion, race, and ethnicity in Canada. All these have now been eliminated and we recognize that they're incompatible with an inclusive, egalitarian and fair society.
One important obstacle that does remain is the first-past-the-post electoral system. It's understandable how it came into being. From 1867 to 1920—
There were effectively two political parties, Conservatives and Liberals. In a two party polity, first past the post produces acceptably democratic outcomes, and for the first third of our country's existence that was how things were done. However, in 1921, the Progressive Party and United Farmers Party came into being. Since then—almost a century—there has never been a period when less than three, and frequently four or five political parties, have been represented in Parliament.
The proliferation of parties characterizes the evolution of democracy in the 20th and 21st centuries and is a positive development that we need to attune our electoral system to. It doesn't require great mathematical acumen to understand why first past the post begins to break down when there are more than two parties. The greater the number, the more unrepresentative are electoral outcomes as a result of splits in the vote.
Because outcome is determined exclusively by which party's candidate is first, de facto every vote cast for every candidate other than the runner-up amounts to a vote for the winner. This leads to highly unrepresentative results in which the spectrum of elected candidates can depart dramatically from levels of support in the country. Thus, parties that have significant support, but rank numerically second in many ridings have a much diminished chance of parliamentary representation. Parties ranked third or fourth, even though they may include hundreds of thousands of Canadians, have only a miniscule chance of representation.
This is problematic for the democratic health of a country. First of all, on first principles, we ought to strive for a Parliament that fairly represents the spectrum of political belief in our country. Second, with a plurality of parties in the political field, outcomes under the first-past-the-post system give rise to the view that many ballots are wasted and that these political convictions result in no meaningful democratic expression. Such voters feel disenfranchised by the system. This, not unreasonably, gives rise to political cynicism, and nowhere more so than among young voters.
I'm not suggesting that first past the post is entirely responsible for a declining turnout, but there is evidence that unrepresented outcomes contribute to an alienation from electoral participation and political engagement. Canada has not been alone in this regard, and many mature, stable democracies in the developed world have adopted better electoral systems. Indeed, in the developed world, only Canada, Great Britain and the United States continue to employ first past the post. Systems of proportional representation are employed in 94 countries at last count. Voters in all these jurisdictions have been able to understand and employ PR, and there's no reason to suppose that Canadians would be any less adept.
There are a number of different approaches to proportional representation, including party list, mixed member and single transferable vote systems, and there are variations on how these are implemented. There's a large discourse around their respective advantages. However, I'm not going to encumber you with a pitch for one or the other since, in my view, the most salient issue is that we implement proportional representation and not, for example, a ranked ballot system. In my view, electoral systems that are based on pure proportionality, such as those in Israel or Italy, would not be suitable in the Canadian context.
It's also worth underscoring that although electoral reform is not a panacea for all political problems, it can play an important role in contributing to a more productive political climate. With minority or coalition governments a frequent outcome with proportional representation, there is a necessity for political parties to work together. With several parties around the table, everyone has a stake in reaching a mutually acceptable solution. With representatives of multiple parties involved in decision making, there's a sense of ownership of the decision, even if every party did not achieve all that was desired. Simply put, this results in better governance and an easier path for public acceptance of government decisions.
Finally, with respect to ranked ballot systems, which are used for federal elections only in Australia and Papua New Guinea, this approach produces more representative results than first past the post in a non-partisan context. It is, however, a winner-take-all majoritarian approach which, while suitable for selecting a single position, is completely unsuitable for selecting a representative body and does nothing to address proportional inequalities.
For all these reasons, our choice in Canada should be clear. For a vibrant democracy and representative fairness, we require the implementation of a system of proportional representation.
When a candidate with the most votes loses, we call it a losing plurality just to define terms, a plurality being the most votes, whether or not it's a majority—the most votes.
To explain losing pluralities, it's important to understand why they sometimes occur, but it's also important to consider their effects on the voters, parties, and candidates. SMDPR shifts focus away from individual candidate performance in ridings toward team performance by parties in regions, attempting to draft the best of each party for the proportionately allotted seats.
The only reason a person loses a plurality under SMDPR is that their party has already won so much that any more would be unfair. This is specifically because each vote is given equal voice in Parliament on a regional basis and not discarded among the wasted votes on a riding basis. Should Parliament be animated by the voices of the nation, or should those voices be silenced in ridings by the plurality rule? Would we rather accept that a candidate might sometimes lose with the most votes or that a majority government might rule with the fewest votes?
In exchange for a losing plurality under SMDPR, the voter gets a voice in Parliament, a local representative with a huge incentive to perform well, increased accountability of the MP in the next election, and an incentive to engage the system. Parties have incentives to contest every vote everywhere, are allotted appropriate partisan voice, and get mostly their best candidates elected. Candidates know that safe ridings and wasted votes can't preclude them from winning. It is possible to be elected in any riding, and they know their efforts help the party, whether they personally win or lose.
Plurality losses are not a defect of SMDPR. They correct the only defect of our current first-past-the-post system. First past the post is SMDPR with a region size of one, so there's very little change, in that sense.
To a losing plurality candidate I would say, “You did well, but other candidates in your party did better than you, and they took all the seats the people of this region wanted the party to have. The votes for you counted toward your party's success and, in fact, everyone's vote counted equally. That's democracy”.
I've heard the comments that there would be rioting in the streets and civil war. The only way to know if Canadians would accept some losing pluralities as the price for all the other things that you would get out of SMDPR is to ask them.
It might help, Mr. DeCourcey, that I have the same types of questions. Maybe we'll get to where you were looking to go.
I share some of those same concerns. I think it would be very difficult for voters to accept that the person they chose to be their representative would not necessarily be the representative in the riding. That's a significant drawback to the system you're proposing here.
That actually raises one of the questions I have for each of you today. One thing that's been made quite clear to us throughout our meetings across the country, and prior to that in Ottawa, is that there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system. I don't think one witness who's come before us has said, “Yes, I absolutely think I know the perfect system, and there's no drawback to this system.”
When we are designing a system, obviously we're looking at the different trade-offs that go with it, the positives and negatives. We're trying to come up with what we think is best in particularly the Canadian context, because our country is different from almost every other country in the world with regard to its size, its regional diversity, its sparseness in population, and a variety of other factors.
Mr. Risser and Mr. Falvey, you have come proposing your single member district PR system. What are the potential drawbacks, or what many people would see as drawbacks, to the system you're proposing? You've had a chance to explain some of the positives and what you would see as the rationale for wanting to go to that system. I wonder if you have any other comments you want to make with regard to some of the drawbacks you would see and the trade-offs that would come with your system.
When Blake Richards was asking the question, he said something about not having one witness who has said that there's a perfect system, and it hit me that we did. We had one witness who said that—if you remember too, Sherry. We had Sean Graham in the Edmonton hearings who invented dual member proportional, which Matt did a brilliant job of summarizing to the last panel. It was brilliant. I was impressed.
I don't know how many of you were here when Matt was describing the dual member proportional, because he did it just right, but he said the region would be Atlantic Canada. I did pursue it with him afterwards. Let me just summarize it again.
His system was that we pair ridings. You'd elect two MPs. The first person would be elected on the current system, and the second person in that riding would be elected, essentially, under your system. Then the proportionality was by region. What irked Matt a bit, I think, was that Atlantic Canada was a region. But I pursued it with Sean Graham afterwards, and he said that with his system, by clustering rather large regions, you get down to only 3% of votes not being effective votes. But if you were to create smaller regions, such as provincial boundaries, it only creates up to 10% not effective votes.
It's one of the ones that I'm interested in. I'm obviously interested in any proportional voting system that fits the Canadian context, that respects rural and remote ridings, and that as much as possible avoids clustering ridings or having to have massive redistribution efforts that are costly.
Keeping the system familiar is, I think, what you've both tried to do. I appreciate that Mr. Falvey is more involved with having created the system, perhaps, but can't speak to it as well today, but you're both a good team.
I want to ask you whether you would see that as being an interesting system, because it's quite similar to yours, but I think if people get their first-past-the-post choice as one MP within a cluster of two ridings, that's still really local and still quite proportionate, if you've looked at that.
I want to ask Christopher Majka if he's looked at that as well, because it has similarities to MMP, but without having to have the list part. It's a bit of a hybrid for Canada, but quite adaptable to our current reality.
First things first. I think we have to distinguish between what some people might call descriptive representation, meaning people like women and minorities and such in the House, and for lack of a better term, substantive representation, meaning that the views of minorities and women and such are better represented in policy and decision-making.
That also tends to get to this issue of fairness. When we talk about wasted votes, we should really distinguish between input fairness and output fairness. Canada has input fairness—nobody disputes that; every vote is counted fairly—but output fairness is that every vote counts fairly. I would say any system that provides equal voice for votes is going to provide greater diversity of substantive representation in our political system.
One comment we do get for SMDPR is whether there is a risk that it won't provide descriptive representation in that you're still running in the local ridings in the same way. I think there are two counter-arguments to that, which do seem a little counterintuitive. One is that by incentivizing parties to reach out at the local level no matter how well they've done in the past—you've always had an incentive to improve your voter percentage—you have to reach out to a broad range of groups, so you might want a candidate who is more diverse. I know Tony Hodgson used the male, pale, and stale line.
Mr. Nathan Cullen: [Inaudible—Editor]
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Matt Risser: Sorry.
The other thing is that, by not having to have every candidate obtain a plurality to win and by focusing more on parties as teams at the regional level, parties have a little more flexibility, I would argue, probably than they do under the current system, where the only thing that matters is the plurality vote at the riding level.
Denis, is there anything you want to say?
Mr. Denis Falvey: No, that was perfect.
Mr. Majka, you said in your presentation that if the voting system were replaced by some type of proportional system, there would perforce be an increase in voter turnout, which is one of the objectives of the committee, I believe.
That said, I would like to know the basis for that statement. I'll explain why.
Professor André Blais, from the Université de Montréal, gave a presentation at the House of Commons on the various voting systems. I believe he was accompanied by Ms. Antonia Maioni, from McGill University. For your information, in Quebec it is thought that Mr. Blais is probably the professor who has done the most research on proportional voting systems. We asked him if proportional voting systems led to a higher participation rate, and he answered that nothing pointed to that. He added that in the countries that used such systems, the increase or decrease in voter turnout was around 3%.
He stated that in fact, this type of system often increases the number of parties, which instead causes a decline in voter participation. The most striking example he gave was New Zealand. It is one of the few countries to have gone from a system like ours to a proportional system. It's a rather unusual case. And the voter turnout there has declined by 10% in 10 years.
I'd like to know the basis for your statement, or perception. The researchers could include that information in their report.
These are excellent questions. I can direct you to a document that's available on the Fair Vote Canada site. It's an extensive study, a meta study, as it were, done by Arend Lijphart, who looked at a whole series of metrics related to what happens when you introduce systems of proportional representation. One whole section of that is on voter turnout, in which he looks at a variety of states and a variety of time periods—elections—under which elections were conducted.
In any event, the summary of that is, with these controls in place, consensus democracies, in other words, ones that are running proportional representation systems, have approximately 7.5 percentage points higher turnout than majoritarian governments. That's a meta study of turnout in a number of jurisdictions.
The second part of the question about the small parties and the fragmentation of parties is also a very important one. In the previous panel there was some discussion about Israel being the classic illustration of that. In Israel, of course, there's a number of unique situations, including that even smaller parties are able to form coalitions, even though there is a threshold, I believe, of 3.25% in terms of representation. The coalitions then run. You can have a coalition of four or five different parties, and if the coalition receives more votes than the threshold, then each of those very, very small parties that might represent 1% or even less than that, end up having voices in the Knesset.
This leads to problematic outcomes, and I think that would not be a system that would be at all suitable in Canada.
Since we spoke about local representation several times, I am not going to go over that again. I am simply waiting for someone to convince me on proportionality.
One expert who spoke, not on the tour, but during the consultations in Ottawa, made a point I found interesting. I think he is the only one to have mentioned this. He cautioned us to be prudent when we talk about better representation of the votes, and to make a distinction between parliamentary representation and representation within government.
I'll explain what I mean. In various proportional models, when attempting to balance things with closed or open lists, the number of seats relates to the percentage of the national vote. For instance, the party that garnered the highest percentage of the vote, let's say 45%, and forms an alliance with a smaller party that obtained 7% or 8% of the vote, then has the majority of seats and takes power. However, a political party that obtained 35% of the vote might not be represented in the government, which ultimately makes the decisions.
I will summarize. That expert was making a distinction between parliamentary representation, that is the number of seats in Parliament, and representation within government. He advised us that if we are really aiming for representation within government, the vocabulary we use when we explain that is perhaps not adequate.
I'd like to hear your comments on that.
I'd like to thank our three panellists for being here today.
To the members of the audience, thank you so much for being here. It is my first time in Halifax, and it's a delight to be here.
I just want to get some clarity on your proposal. My colleague talked about the difficulty in recruiting candidates. How would your system impact people who possibly would want to run while knowing that, (a), you may win but you may lose, and (b), if you, heaven forbid, want to run where there is a stronghold, the likelihood of your getting elected is still very slim? For instance, if you are a Green Party candidate and you want to run in Alberta, the likelihood of you winning, even in your system, is very slim.
Trying to convince someone to run in a stronghold is hard enough without telling them, “You might actually win. You might get the most amount of votes, but because of the regionality of it, we'll take that win away.”
Could you elaborate on that?
Okay, but in your system....
For instance, we have strongholds. We all know there are certain strongholds in the country. Some have switched. For instance, Central Nova has historically been a Conservative riding, and in the last election it went to the Liberals. We heard from one citizen, I believe either in Vancouver or Victoria, who stood up and gave us testimony that her child is sad because their candidate never has a chance to win. Every time an election comes around, the child asks, “Mommy, did we win?” and she has to tell her child, no, Hedy Fry won, because she's been there....
Of course we love her to death, but how would you say to somebody who would want to run against an incumbent who has been there for years in a stronghold that they have a shot? Imagine the voters who are in that stronghold who have been hoping, saying this time their vote will count. Well, no, it actually won't count, because the likelihood of your candidate getting elected is still slim at the end of the day.
My flip point to this is with regard to the people who are in that riding who will vote for somebody who is not the stronghold incumbent. If you were to put it against the same current system, they still won't count. Then in fact you're actually strengthening parties, which is what we've heard as a complaint from some people who say the parties have too much power.
In your model, you're actually giving more power to the party and less to the individual candidate. The individual candidate may actually lose, but whatever votes they got went to the central party. If I wanted somebody in my riding to win who had no chance of winning but I still voted for them, the party got my vote, but in my riding itself, I didn't get my candidate. My candidate didn't win.
Wouldn't the same argument apply that we've been hearing about first past the post? I'm playing devil's advocate here.
I've come here today, across the big water, to argue against alternative voting.
Like most people, I think, my life is a series of compromises. I want to go to one movie. My granddaughter wants to go to another. She says, “You like that”, but really it's my third choice. I don't like Chinese food. My wife says, “Do you want to go here?” I say yes, but really it's my second choice. My boss wants me to do this. I'd much rather do that. Again, it's a third or fourth choice.
One bloody day every four years I get to walk into a ballot room and I get to cast my vote, “my” vote. It may be for somebody who loses. In fact, in my case, it usually is for someone who loses, for someone who gets a few percentage points, but it is my vote. In this case, I don't have to compromise.
I would like to argue against the alternative ballot in favour of proportional representation. I would envision not too far in the future a Parliament of 400 members, and some party gets one-half of 1% of the vote nationally. Now, strictly proportionately, they get two members, but they really haven't gathered much strength anywhere. I would argue that those voters might well be contented if they had one member like Elizabeth May sitting in Parliament representing their half of 1% across the country.
Yes, it's not proportional—they're getting half of what they should—but because they're so small, I'm saying it's fair. I think even the smallest parties, up to a very low threshold, could be represented by a voice, not a numerically correct voice but a single voice who could be perhaps the one person who says, “Let's not send our troops into Iraq.” There's always that one person who history then rewards with hindsight when the 400 other MPs are opposed. I don't think it has to be a very high threshold.
Hi there. I've come a great distance at a risk to my health to be here to speak to you today because it's very important. I would like to request that you all put away your tablets and your phones and at least pretend to care what we say.
Good afternoon. My name is Deirdre Wear and I'm a resident of Cumberland County in Nova Scotia. I'm here today because I'm 57 years old and I've voted in every election since I came of age. The only time my vote has been represented in office was the one time I held my nose and voted strategically against my conscience and my values.
I have lived in Canada's largest city, a small city, and now a hamlet. I have never had an MP who represented my values. In fact, the last time I went to speak with my MP, it was about this very issue. When I told him about feeling disenfranchised by our electoral system, he smirked and told me that my problem is not first past the post, but that I do not support the Conservatives. I left his office feeling disrespected and even more disenfranchised. No Canadian should feel left out of the process if we are to claim that we are a democratic nation.
I have no fear of minority governments, as they encourage co-operation and consensus. False majorities caused by first past the post result in absolute power going to a party that does not have the support of the majority of Canadians. We end up with the latest government in power spending most of its time undoing the actions of the previous government and not making any real progress.
Three of the parties represented here today promised electoral reform in the last federal election campaign. The one that did not was benefiting at the time from a false majority under first past the post. The members of that party may have changed their tune since this is now to their detriment. Likewise, the party now benefiting from first past the post may be reconsidering.
I'm begging all of you here today to help Canada grow up and create a true democracy instead of just maintaining the illusion of one.
Greetings, and thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I'm a proud member of Unifor Local 4600, which represents 1,300 members in Cape Breton, and I'm here today to speak on electoral reform.
I believe it's the single most important issue to be addressed in Canadian democracy, and the time and opportunity for change is now. You have been given the task to hear from Canadians on this issue, and if you fail to take this opportunity, it will be a long time before these conditions come around again.
In Cape Breton—Canso, the area which I live in, the political outcome of the last election didn't reflect the wishes of the voters. We had close to 26% of the votes that were not represented in the legislature because they did not go to the winning candidate. Our first-past-the-post system does a bad job of translating the votes of Canadians into a distribution of seats that matches the preference of voters. Instead, it produces distorted outcomes and wasted votes and contributes to disengagement. We need more reasons for young people and all of those who have been alienated from politics to engage and participate.
My union Unifor has deliberately avoided focusing on detailed models to replace first past the post. At our national convention in August of this year, we overwhelmingly endorsed electoral reform as a proportional system that allocates seats in our Parliament in a way that gives weight to every vote. We expect this committee to reach a consensus and to recommend a system that is understandable to our members and to our community. Unifor doesn't want a referendum or another process that will make proportional voting impossible in the next election.
In closing, along with my union, I am calling for a new electoral system where we maintain a local representative, where every vote counts, and where our politicians are elected in proportion to the votes received. Thank you.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak before the committee.
My name is Jessica Smith. I'm here today on behalf of myself and Unifor Local 4606, where I represent 1,300 members predominantly in long-term care here in the HRM and the surrounding area.
We feel very strongly about the need for electoral reform, and it is not only us but also Canadians from coast to coast. In our last election, every party but the Conservatives ran on a platform of electoral reform, because first past the post simply doesn't work. We are one of the few remaining countries with this broken system.
Last fall, in my own riding of Sackville—Preston—Chezzetcook, 52% of the votes went unrepresented, with 72% actually participating. That's a large number. Not only were our votes unrepresented, but many of us also had to choose to vote strategically instead of the party that normally reflects our own beliefs.
This is an amazing time in our country. We have the opportunity to improve our democratic system. We want a government where every vote counts. We want a government to be formed in proportion to the numbers of votes cast per party. We want a government that continues to have local representation. We want a government that encourages co-operation in Parliament to help truly reflect the diversity of Canada.
I also urge you not to go to a referendum, but instead to propose a mandate. As I said before, almost all parties campaigned on electoral reform and making every vote count. Please do it the way New Zealand did. Try it out for a few elections, and then, if we feel we need a referendum, do one then.
I had the opportunity to attend a town hall on electoral reform in my district this last week. Many people didn't understand the systems, even after two hours of our discussing them. I implore you to be the leaders in this and make proportional representation, with local representation, happen.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you very much. As you know, of course, you're dealing with a complex and multi-faceted exercise to strengthen democratic institutions, of which the voting system is one very important aspect.
I'm a retired lawyer. I am also retired from teaching law part-time at Dalhousie University's law school, but probably more directly relevant to your quest is the fact that I have been elected seven times in central Halifax, twice to city council and five times as a provincial MLA. My party is the NDP. I'm not here on behalf of the provincial party, let alone the federal party, which has its own representatives.
Given my electoral experience, I have benefited from single member plurality voting. I have, however, no strong attachment to it. I support moving to mixed member proportional representation in some form. The central reason is that citizens have more communities of interest than their geographic location. Single member plurality voting does not account for that, whereas mixed member proportional representation does.
If we move to a different system, we're likely to have a more diverse and therefore more representative House of Commons. At the same time, MPs need to be accountable to citizens, and a geographic tie is an efficient and easily understood way to achieve that. Hence, MMPR combines party affiliation with a geographical link.
I want to offer two examples of the general problem with the existing system.
In the Nova Scotia provincial election of 1945, of the 30 seats in the legislature, 28 were won by the Liberal Party, and two were won by the CCF in very feisty ridings in Cape Breton. The point is that the Conservative Party, with some 30% or 40% of the vote, I believe, won zero seats.
The other more recent example, of course, is the complete exclusion of any party except the Liberals in Atlantic Canada. Of the criticisms that are sometimes directed towards proportional representation, the chief one seems to be that it tends to produce minority governments. Having sat through a number of minority governments, I have no problem with them. They can, in fact, be quite flexible.
My name is Marlene Wells. I came here today from Stellarton in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.
The first-past-the-post system was designed and adopted a bit haphazardly before there was even reference to political parties. When we started voting, it was a simple “us against them” system designed by honourable men who represented their constituents. Since that time, we have evolved into more complex people who have diverging views on most issues, but we have a common goal to do better for our electorate.
Everything else in our society has evolved. Women have the right to vote. LGBTQ people have marital equality. We get news in real time through sources like Twitter. In municipal elections this year I can vote by Internet or by telephone. I can communicate with my family all over the country in real time, face to face. We also have people living in space. All of these things are life-changing events for the betterment of our Canadian values, representing all of our Canadian values.
With 19 political parties registered in Canada representing the entirety of Canadian values, shouldn't all of the votes for all of those parties count in an election, and the resulting Parliament be elected for the people by the people? Proportional representation is the only way we can ensure that every vote counts.
The evolution of the Canadian polity requires an evolution of our electoral system. Now is the time, and you have the baton.
I have been working very hard to get people out to your committee meetings over the past couple of months, through phone calls, Twitter, and email. Along the way, I've been asking people to thank you for your service. I am humbled to stand before you today and thank you in person. Thank you for taking on this mammoth task. Thank you for enduring your gruelling schedule. Thank you for criss-crossing our amazing country and listening to people like me. Thank you from the bottom of my political junkie heart.
My name is Suzanne MacNeil. I'm president of the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council, representing 25,000 unionized workers across all sectors and in multiple unions across the Halifax regional municipality.
I'm here to put in a word for some system of proportional representation as we consider electoral reform. The bottom line that I want to bring from our workers is that the system we have now needs change. We inherited first past the post from colonial Britain. A few things have changed in our country since 1867.
We would suggest that we're not necessarily married to any one system or another of proportional representation. We do have a number of good things to say about the mixed member representation, but our main point here is that no party should be able to win a majority of seats without a majority of votes.
The second point is that any electoral reform must include some system of proportionality. In a number of the discussions about electoral reform across this country, we've also heard about alternative voting or ranked balloting. Our concern is that this could actually compound some of the problems we have with our current system of first past the post. We would urge the committee to consider that as something that's not desirable.
The other thing I want to emphasize is that as district labour councils, we do a lot of grassroots work in our community. One of the biggest things we hear workers and their families and citizens in general say about the voting process is that they're worried that they're going to waste their vote. There's a really big psychological disincentive toward voting for someone who you think won't get in. Or there might be strategic considerations. Oftentimes we try to argue with people that, no, it is their democratic right to vote for who they want, but our system still really provides a counter to that argument that we try to make.
I would draw your attention to the results of our last election, in which nine million votes did not contribute to electing someone. That's nine million wasted votes. That's the population of the prairie provinces and the Atlantic combined.
Hello. My name is Thomas Trappenberg. I am a professor at Dalhousie University. I'm also the interim leader of the Green Party of Nova Scotia.
I've run as a candidate over the last 10 years in all provincial and federal elections but one. One of the nice little comments I always get goes like this: “I really like your ideas. Elizabeth is wonderful. I would vote for you, if you would win.” I get this really often in one form or another.
As you've probably noticed, I grew up in Germany, where one of the most modern electoral systems was forced on us. Luckily it worked out quite well. We already had a democratic system, but we learned that actually a threshold is very useful. I would recommend, from the discussion this morning, that it shouldn't be too high. I think 5% turned out quite well. If you cut out below 10%, you're really cutting out important voices. That's one of the things I would recommend. I did choose this country, because quite frankly, it's just awesome. It is wonderful. But we're getting behind. We have an old electoral system. Its roots are probably 200 years old. Times have changed, and we have to respond to that. Our system at the moment cuts this out.
Finally, there's a lot of discussion that lists are not good. Actually, in Germany we could all get behind the people we liked to see in government. Even if they were living in Saanich—Gulf Islands, they could still represent me and my concerns, my voice, here in Nova Scotia. So the mixed member proportional turned out actually quite nicely.
It's good to have a list. We had good, strong people who were not re-elected in the last election here. That was really a shame. They had contributed a lot to our government and to our country. I think it would be good to have a list so that we could still have faces from our province.
I have voted in every election since I was able to vote, sometimes from places like the middle of the Mediterranean with the Canadian Armed Forces. I have never elected my particular candidate to become a member of Parliament, an MLA, or whatnot. However, I have never wasted my vote. I have voted.
Whatever we do, select a made-in-Canada approach to a proportional voting system. Many good ideas have come out here. We might have to mix and match. I hope you will not consider all of them as separate entities but as something to together make a Canadian solution.
Don't be afraid of a detailed system. Canadians can handle any system, with proper education. We're not dumb...well, maybe I am. Consider mandatory voting with time off guaranteed, without penalty, so the person can vote. Start education early, at the elementary school level. You want to develop in that person, when they get up to the age of majority and can vote, a feeling of obligation and responsibility so that it is absolutely natural for them to vote and unnatural for them not to vote.
A proportional system, in my viewpoint, will encourage a more productive and truly Canadian government, i.e., co-operative. Consider the independent member. How do we fit that into a proportional system? As part of it, and I'm not sure if it's the mandate, can we control campaign spending and allow all voices to be heard, with air and other media time?
My name is Kim Vance. I'm not here to represent anyone. I'm here as a mom. I'm also here as someone who works in the field of international human rights and as a dyed-in-the-wool maritimer.
As a mom, I'm very worried about the low participation of youth in the political process, extremely worried. As the mom of a daughter who's of African-Nova Scotian descent, I'm also worried that time after time she sees nobody who looks like her from this region going to Parliament. She also sees nobody who looks like her in the current makeup of the cabinet. As much as I'm appreciative of the current Prime Minister for gender parity in the cabinet, it is a one-off act, not an institutional step that this government is taking. We need more institutional steps, like proportional representation.
On the international front, I'm embarrassed actually when I do human rights work and people talk about how great Canada is. That waned a little bit in the last 10 years. It's getting better again, but it stands in stark contrast to where we rank, for instance, on the role of women in the democratic processes in our country. We're very low, and that is unacceptable for a country that goes out and hallmarks itself as a beacon of human rights.
As a maritimer, I cannot imagine a more troubling situation than the one we're in right now. Three out of our four federal parties have no representative, no voice from our region. This cannot happen. Even though I may not support those other three parties, I still think it's important that our voices are in those caucuses. It's essential. I can't imagine a situation where the next time around, if we have a different government, that government has had an absence of perspective from this entire region of the country for four years, eight years, or whatever. That is unacceptable, and proportional representation is the answer to that.
I disagree with some of the other people who have spoken today. I do think you have to act quickly. I think you can get it right in a tight timeline. I have listened a lot to the committee deliberations, and I have read a lot of material. Other than getting rid of first past the post and moving to some system of proportional representation, I don't think there's a lot of strong debate about what the options are. I think you can act. I think you can act quickly and act on an option that works.
My name is Dave Barrett. I have been a Nova Scotian all my life. I'm 78 years old, so what you do doesn't really make any difference to me.
I have always been interested in politics. I took civics at school. They don't teach it anymore. Something is wrong there. I have seen countries, mainly in Africa, but others too that had democracies which disappeared.
We have a great country here, and it has been 150 years. I consider that we are one of the greatest countries in the world. If you start changing the electoral system, then that makes for dictatorships. When I have voted, sometimes my party went in and sometimes it didn't, but I have always felt that I was represented because the people who are elected by first past the post are basically the best people in that area. I've always felt that I could go to them and discuss things.
I also think that to have credibility you have to have a referendum. We're from Nova Scotia. Things get done behind closed doors in Ottawa and Toronto, Ontario. It happens every day. We just know it. You have to have a representative here.
Every time you vote it's important, and first past the post is something that has been accepted in Canada and has worked. You have so many different things on the table. We all have our problems.
I didn't vote for Elizabeth May, but I'm pleased she got elected, and because our media takes into consideration her vote, they gave her the thing. The minority people do have a representative and they get represented a lot.
I only have a few things to say, but referendum is one of them, and for goodness sake make sure the Maritimes is represented, not like that judge that they were going to kick out and not have anyone from Nova Scotia. That's just wrong.
I thank you very much for this opportunity. I'm here because I feel so strongly about this. It's fundamental to fairness and to our democracy that we make a change to the system.
I've lived in Nova Scotia most of my life but I've also lived in other parts of Canada. I have relatives in Montreal, Toronto, rural Ontario, rural Manitoba, small-town B.C., and small-town Alberta. Our family is a pan-Canadian family.
I favour mixed member proportional as the best system. We need to maintain that strong local representation and people need to feel a connection to Parliament. We have huge geographic diversity and diverse political cultures across the country—I know that from my own family's experience—but we also need to accurately reflect the political views that have been expressed nationally. This is where, of course, we're failing so badly. Non-geographic seat distribution by party seats that reflect the popular vote is an essential element of the new system that is going to be devised.
I wish you all the best in coming up with a good system. I hope it's mixed member proportional or something very close to that...in your brilliance.
In response to Alistair's question about diverse candidates, I do think that mixed member proportional with the list being part of the system will enable a greater diversity among the people who are in Parliament as well.
Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Thank you for inviting me to speak with you this evening. I'm eager to talk about this topic. It's one that I'm fairly passionate about.
I'll tell you a little bit about myself before I start sharing some of my thoughts on electoral reform.
I'm a Cape Bretoner at heart. I've been living in Halifax for the last 10 years, which is longer than I've lived anywhere else. I'm a marine biologist by training and an educator by calling or vocation. I dropped out of teacher's college because it was easier to start an organization that teaches civics than to become a civics teacher in Nova Scotia.
Now I run the Springtide Collective. We're an organization that is dedicated to bridging the gap between Nova Scotians and our democratic institutions. The way we do that is through education, public engagement, and research. We're weighing in on this topic because we thought it would be of benefit to share some insights in terms of how alternate electoral systems could work in Canada with Canadians. We're extending our reach for this particular issue.
We've written a paper called “Better Choices: Voting System Alternatives for Canada”. Unfortunately, we didn't write it fast enough to have it translated for the committee, but there are copies here in English for those who would like them.
I won't get into detail on that, but one of the things we do at Springtide is we try to fill a role somewhere between academics, who generally have a fairly accurate grasp of how complex systems such as our electoral system work, and lay people. We know that academics can talk in really robust and accurate language. At the other end of the spectrum there are people who work in politics, who often have an agenda and can talk in very pointed, specific, and persuasive language. We're trying to do what academics often don't spend as much time doing, which is to put their work into plain language.
I thought that with my brief time of unrestricted comments before we get into questions I'd share just a few ideas that I have, or a few tidbits of information, as someone who has observed the electoral reform debate in Canada. As an educator, I feel compelled to weigh in on it at this point.
The first point I'll make is that, because I'm trained as a scientist, I look at information with a bit more scrutiny than I think perhaps people in the social sciences have done. I look at information on electoral systems, and I see that the best, most statistically sound and robust data and research on electoral systems and governmental systems generally concludes that the benefits lie with proportional representation. The least robust, the most suspect evidence or research that seems based mostly on conjecture or hypotheses that have been long proven wrong concludes in an AV or a first-past-the-post system as that having the majority of the benefits.
I say that first because I'm going to say some things that I feel have been misrepresented in the proportional representation argument.
One is that proportional systems give more power to parties. This seems to me about as accurate as saying that wet streets cause rain.
The other element of “proportional systems give the party more control” that I find challenging to accept is that proportional systems bring more parties into the mix. On average, any existing party will have less power than they do right now. Some will get more, but on average most will be less powerful. Other parties will weigh in to hold them to account.
The other myth is not so much a myth as a challenging piece of resistance that comes up when people say proportional systems will create a more collaborative politics, or will create politics with more representation of women. Somebody on the devil's advocate side will say, well, if we wanted those things, we could just make them as MPs; or if we wanted those things, as Canadians we could just make that happen and elect more women.
I'll use a story as an analogy to demonstrate why I think this logic is flawed. We've all been in the situation where we've been in a new shower, perhaps in a hotel, where we're waiting for the hot water to come on. We wait and wait and wait. It doesn't come on, so we jam the tap over to the hot side. Then when it starts to warm up, we get in. A few seconds later, we start to burn. We jam it back to the cold side. A few seconds later, it starts to get cold again.
I think the MPs who we all probably agree, at least in public, are part of the problem in creating a toxic environment in the legislature are the ones who are quick to push it to the hot side. They lay on the heat. I couldn't tell whose voice it was earlier, but I was listening to your conversation this afternoon about a group of rookie MPs who decided to sit on their hands. They are the people who are pushing it back to the cold side. Neither approach is actually effective in getting us the politics that is the right temperature for Canada.
The electoral system, I would say, is the plumbing in this analogy, and what we need is more responsive plumbing. We need to be able to put the right amount of input by pushing the tap to where we want it to be and seeing an electoral system that gives us that instead of having this back and forth, now 10 years of Conservatives, now 10 years of Liberals, erasing each other's policies.
If we want to have a more collaborative and intelligent politics in our country, I think one of the ways to do that is to look into unintuitive solutions. Our first response that says, you know, we need a code of ethics for MPs to not do any of these things, and to only do these things, will probably, I think, ignore some of the larger incentives that exist.
I'll keep it short, and keep the water-based analogies to a minimum too.
Thanks very much for the invitation to present here today. I'm presenting on behalf of Fair Vote Nova Scotia, which is a grassroots multi-partisan association of Nova Scotians concerned about our democracy. While we don't advocate for any specific system or model, we do promote reform based on certain principles.
As has been pointed out many times before, there's no perfect system, only systems that emphasize certain values over others. I think the minister has recognized this and come up with a list of principles against which to measure reforms.
The first amongst these is democratic legitimacy and effectiveness. Any system should produce results that are an accurate and fair reflection of the democratic wishes of Canadians. It should also produce governments that are effective, and encourage government policies that are effective and durable, instead of policies that are reversed after the next election because they don't enjoy the support of a true majority of electors.
The second principle is voter engagement. Any system we use should let every Canadian feel that their vote really counts, and counts toward the election of a representative of their preference. It should incentivize collaboration among political actors and not hinder under-represented groups from participation.
We feel that these principles can best be respected by adding an element of proportionality to our current voting system. This can be done while maintaining strong local representation and direct accountability of MPs to voters. A number of highly proportional systems that accomplish this have been proposed here. You've heard about many of them. Many more will come in the briefs. It's up to you to craft a system that would be well-suited to Canada and recommend it to Parliament. I hope this will be done with an eye to improving some of the more dysfunctional political dynamics set up under our current system.
When I see the partisan incentives and confrontational politics often encouraged by our winner-takes-all system, I see something that holds us back as a nation rather than helping us realize our full potential. It's not who we are. I don't think it suits our character. As often as not, we are conciliators and consensus builders. As an example, on the international stage, Canadians are often referred to as good diplomats and peace brokers. It's who we are, and who we should strive to be.
Moving toward a more proportional, consensus-style system where legislators are encouraged to work across party lines to come to agreements supported by a true majority of voters, where politics is no longer a zero-sum game, I think will have far-reaching, positive impacts on policy-making in Canada.
The committee has a historic opportunity. I'm convinced that future generations looking back will see the decision to move to a more proportional system here—if that is the decision—as no less an advancement for Canada than the adoption of medicare, pensions, or even women getting the vote. It's up to this committee and Parliament to seize this unique opportunity to effect real change.
Thank you for the opportunity to present to your committee today.
Let me be clear on my perspective on electoral reform. I am unconvinced that adopting proportional representation in Canada would improve our democratic outcomes.
As many witnesses have made clear, there's no single best system. Consequently, the choice of one system over another involves trade-offs. This is particularly true when considering moving from our current first-past-the-post system to a proportional representation system. Adopting PR would certainly improve proportionality, and depending on the specific model could have potential benefits for diversity, but at what cost?
First, I would suggest to you that a majoritarian system, which allows voters to directly impact who forms government, and as importantly, determines when a government should be removed from power, is more democratic than proportional systems where the question of government formation could be left to negotiations among party leaders.
Second, our national unity is better protected under first past the post, which compels parties to take national approaches and soften rhetorical edges in order to maximize appeal to the broad political centre, rather than opting for a PR system, which risks the rise of regional and issue-specific parties that target Canada's historical fault lines: language and regional alienation.
Third, local representation is stronger under a first-past-the-post system, which provides the smallest possible riding size for each MP to represent and thereby maximizes opportunities for contact between voter and representative, than a PR system, which increases riding size.
You said I had five minutes, and I figured I could do it in two and a half.
It thereby maximizes opportunities for contact between voter and representative rather than under a PR system, which increases the riding size in order to accommodate multiple representatives.
Fourth, confidence in our democratic system is enhanced under first past the post when every voter in every riding adheres precisely to the same election rules—single-member plurality support, directly elected, same ballot format, same counting procedure—as opposed to the many models being proposed that would involve different approaches across the country.
As a former resident of Labrador and presently living in the largely rural riding of , I am particularly sensitive to the question of local representation and the impact of enlarging riding sizes to accommodate proportional representation. PR advocates have claimed that such a change would not undermine representation, since there would be four, five, or six members of Parliament to serve a much larger area. However, if we are retaining the notion of individual MP accountability to the voters, there has to be individual MP responsibility based on individual actions and individual relationships with voters. These would all suffer in the expanded ridings. At a minimum, switching from first past the post to PR would result in less effective local representation, a diminished level of democracy, decreased accountability, a weakening of national parties, and a loss of an electoral system that is consistently applied countrywide.
Beyond these trade-offs, it is also my position that PR will not work in Canada, unless this committee is prepared to explore and define those mechanisms utilized in successful PR countries to achieve stability in government formation, dissolution, and operation. Clearly many countries operate well under PR systems, with Germany in particular offering an apparently successful model.
However, if proposed changes are strictly limited to the voting system, the success of these PR countries would not be adequately replicated in Canada. Canada's conventions and practices for government formation and dissolution are simply not compatible with a government elected under a PR system. The stability of PR governments depends on features such a chancellor's majority, in Germany; constructive votes of no confidence; dissolution powers not held by the prime minister; the head of state, preferably elected, possessing responsibilities for government formation; governments being sworn in after obtaining confidence, not before; and they have coalitions. We have none of these.
Since the King-Byng affair, certain practices and conventions have been strictly and consistently applied in Canada: the party with the most seats on election night is given the opportunity to form the government; governments are sworn into office on this basis, and then proceed to meet Parliament to seek the confidence of the House; Parliament is dissolved any time that the government loses a confidence vote, or at the time of the prime minister's choosing; and the Governor General leaves political decisions to the politicians.
As a consequence, our federal Parliament does not lend itself to coalition governments, to second-place parties being asked to form a government, or to changes of government from one party to another within the same Parliament.
In the absence of formal changes, these mechanisms would remain in effect even if we moved to a PR voting system. This would clearly be a recipe for instability given the frequency of minority governments, yet there has been virtually no discussion regarding the potential changes to our institutions or conventions that would be required in order to effectively switch to a new voting system.
Therefore, my recommendations are, first, to retain the current first-past-the-post system for the positive governance outcomes it has provided to Canadians; and second, if you do offer a PR system, to detail the mechanisms employed by PR countries that we would need to adopt in order to make it function effectively.
Thank you to all of you.
I'll start with you, Mr. Pardy.
You made the comment that proportional representation won't work in Canada. You had a chance to elaborate on that a little bit, but I want to hear a bit more of your thoughts on it.
Obviously, one of the challenges to apply a proportional system to Canada, which is different from many countries that utilize that system, is the large geographic area that we cover. We already have some very large ridings, and when you start to create multi-member ridings or things like that, they can become very difficult. If you have one or two very large communities and a lot of other smaller communities out there, sometimes those smaller communities tend to be ignored, specifically when combining certain ridings. Those are some of the challenges.
Of course, there are some regional differences in Canada as well. You already see the more fringe parties in a lot of countries that utilize a proportional-type system. You've seen neo-Nazi-type parties being elected. There was talk today in the National Post about the Pirate Party. It predicts they may win the election in Iceland. It says they would be at a point where they would have to create a coalition government. That was one of the challenges you also raised. Sometimes it takes weeks after an election for coalitions to be formed behind the scenes, in the backrooms. Voters aren't really a part of all that.
Those are some of the challenges you alluded to, but I wanted to hear your thoughts a bit more in terms of what you see as some of the unique challenges in Canada that would mean PR, in your view, wouldn't work for Canada, and why.
The geography is a crucial challenge, as well as the provincial boundaries that we have. A lot of the advocates of proportional representation seem to be willing to offer that there would be exceptions for the very large northern ridings, but as you indicate, as you move further south you start combining ridings.
How big is too big? If you make exceptions for Labrador, the Territories, or the largest ridings in northern B.C. and northern Ontario, when you take the next step down, there are still very large ridings. You combine them to achieve proportionality and you have another problem.
If you look at P.E.I., you're looking at a different scenario. You only have four seats to work with, and as I understand it, proportionality works best with five-plus seats.
In Nova Scotia, the challenge I think you'd have geographically is that you have 40% of the population around the Halifax area. You could probably create a five-member riding right in the Halifax area, but then what do you do for the rest of the province? You would have another five or six ridings, spread out from one end of the province to the other, which I think would be totally unmanageable.
It's the same in Newfoundland and Labrador. You give an exception for Labrador perhaps—I would hope—and then as you move to the island, most of the population is centred on the Avalon Peninsula.
How do you create multi-member ridings that will adequately represent the rural areas of those provinces?
Thank you to the witnesses for being here tonight.
To start with, Mr. Pardy, it's very easy to categorize proportional representation as if it's one thing, but the more we dig into it here, for instance.... I'm not quibbling with you, although I have one tiny little quibble. You said you live in Cumberland—Colchester. I hate to correct you, but you live in the riding of Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley. Talk about a large riding, it extends from the boundaries of Halifax all the way to the New Brunswick border.
There are also PR systems that would work just with the boundaries of the one riding you're in now. There is another version that.... We've been pitched a whole bunch of different ideas, and one of them would be to have riding twins. You would have two ridings together, but you'd have two MPs for that riding.
There are an almost infinite number of variables to make sure that we have a system that works for Canada. Do you think you are open to persuasion? For instance, if this committee came to a consensus agreement that gave us a made-in-Canada solution that addressed the concerns you have, do you think that's something that would be of interest to people like you who are quite skeptical about the PR systems they've heard about that have party lists, expand the power of parties, or create lots of additional parties? We have lots of evidence that those things are not embedded in moving to proportional representation, depending on the system we choose.
I'm a bit confused with that.
On that last interaction about the Governor General, I'm reminded of the letter that Stephen Harper signed with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe to the Governor General suggesting that, if Paul Martin wasn't able to maintain confidence, there were other options on the table. I can also recall when there was a different formulation when Prime Minister Harper was in, and Jack and Stéphane Dion, with the backing of Gilles Duceppe, said they were prepared to form government.
Our system, I think, responded poorly in a sense, because the Prime Minister was able to pull the fire alarm. There was an imminent confidence vote, and the will of the people in the previous election was about to be expressed, yet it was simply going to the GG and proroguing Parliament, which is quite a bit of power. I find it hard to say that is a good, functioning, democratic system when, as you say, the system is built such as it is to test the House. The House was about to be tested, but the Prime Minister was able to delay that test for months until a campaign was run.
Even the idea of a coalition government was then vilified, even though smart people like you and others would say, “There's nothing unconstitutional about it. It's perfectly legitimate”. Is that right? I would assume smart people like you would say things like that.
Out of the last 20, we've had 11 majorities and nine minorities, so most of the time, barely. We've been a little less stable than proportional-voting countries.
Over the last six decades, we've had more elections than many of the proportional countries in the OECD because there's an incentive in proportional systems, even though you have a minority position often, to maintain the government. There's not an incentive to bring it down just because you're up three or four points in the polls, whereas under first past the post, three or four points can turn everything.
Then we have the policy lurch.
I want to turn this to Mr. Blair and Mr. Coffin.
We heard it earlier in testimony today around issues of social justice, procurement for military equipment, and climate change, which would be an underlying one. Over the last 30 or 40 years, there's been the suggestion that the policy lurch is getting worse. Canadians see themselves as a very stable, safe, boring kind of democracy, but on a policy outcome from the voters' perspective, from the investors' perspective, on an issue like climate change, it's very difficult to know where the government is going to be, even in a general sense, 10 years from now because governments spend a lot of time undoing what the last guy did and coming up with a new thing.
Is there any comment on that in terms of moving to a proportional system where there may be a bit more rudder in the water for Canada and expressing the general will of the population in one direction?
Maybe I'll start with you, Andy.
I'll answer the question around civics education first.
When I started Springtide Collective and began having conversations about how to go about it, one of the people I went back to was a professor I had at Dalhousie, Katherine Fierlbeck. I asked her, because she's a very smart professor, “How do you go about teaching first-year political science? Given the level of political philosophy knowledge you have, how do you bring yourself down to that level?”
She said, “That's not the problem I have. The problem I have is that my job is for these students to leave my classroom with more information and more knowledge and understanding about how government works than when they came in. I haven't figured out how to do that yet without making them more cynical about the process by the time they leave.”
That's a challenge we have, too. We're working on all ends of the spectrum. One of the things we really value and privilege in our work is intergenerationalism, and we try to bring conversations together that have both old and young. I think part of the challenge with young people not wanting to engage in politics is that the message they're getting from older people is that it's a problem we have to fix.
I think if we were a Silicon Valley company sitting around a boardroom table saying, “Young people aren't using our phones. Maybe they just need education on how our phones work,” we wouldn't be very profitable in the next quarter. Whereas, we should take the approach that there are a few people using our phones and they're sticking around for some reason, so let's talk to them and see how we could make it better.
A lot of those people who are engaged in politics right now are coming to committees like this one and making recommendations for a different system. I think you have to listen to those voices, and I hear that a lot of them are young. I wouldn't put the onus on citizens. If you create a system that people are incented to participate in, they'll learn how to use it.
Okay, I think I'll start with Mr. Coffin.
You had some very interesting statements in your opening comments. You were obviously a bit rushed, and there may have been some details that you didn't get to.
I've been sitting here trying to wrap my mind around one of the things. When our party formed its platform, one of the things that really appealed to me about it was the idea of evidence-based decision-making. In your statements, you opened with this notion that you're a scientist and that there's a lot of good evidence pointing to proportional representation. You didn't say it, but I took it as being a superior kind of system, that it deals with a lot of things that a majoritarian system doesn't.
Yet, as we've been talking to people, to Canadians, over the summer, and to people in the political science field—and this has come up—it seems there are a lot of trade-offs and that there's no perfect system. I'm not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, but I'd like to give you the chance to try to convince me a bit more that PR is truly superior.
Some of the things you talked about related to party power and policy swings and other elements. On one side, PR can be seen as a benefit in how it addresses those things. Yet with majoritarian systems, I've had constituents of mine say they actually prefer the policy swings. You know exactly where you're going with a Conservative government for 10 years, and some people get tired of them and they get rid of them. Then they put in a Liberal Party for 10 years and you know where the Liberals are going to go.
To have a position that the evidence says the more middle-of-the-road PR system is superior...I'd like you to explain that a bit more.
First of all, I would like to say to Mr. Coffin that I share my colleague's opinion. Political science professors from several universities came to speak to us. The opinions they gave us were diametrically opposed as to the effects of the proportional voting system. We are having trouble sorting it all out, insofar as the representation of women is concerned, and the percentage of the votes.
Among the recommended models, a professor from Concordia whose name escapes me opted for the preferential vote, another for the proportional system, and a third for the status quo.
It isn't easy for us to sort all this out.
I was struck by your comment on the fact that politicians and political parties did not take young people's perspectives into account. Yesterday, one witness told us that if we adopted compulsory voting, we could reduce inequalities in our society. If everyone voted, politicians would have no other choice than to take into account the opinion of low-income people, of the the poorest citizens. For that group, voting is often a less natural gesture.
I would like to hear your opinion, all three of you. If we brought in compulsory voting, would the vast majority of citizens vote, would it have a positive effect? Politicians would then have to take into account the opinions of the entire population, and we would not have to change the voting system. I would like to hear your opinions on having an obligatory vote.
I'd like to thank our three panellists for being here this evening and the members of the audience for coming out to listen. I know that I'm the person standing in the way of the public open-mike session, so I'll try to be brief.
On the question of sitting on our hands, I was the MP who was talking about our non-clapping initiative.
My question is for you, Mr. Coffin. You talked a little bit about women's representation. Right now, 26% of our members of Parliament are women. Often folks come here and explain to us, and I love having males explain to us, why women run for politics. That being said, there are two issues. The first is the decision to run for the nomination or for office, and the second is getting elected, and we have to separate the two.
Ms. May will tell you the same thing I will tell you, which is that it is incredibly difficult to convince women to run for office for many reasons, and I guarantee you that none of them have anything to do with the first-past-the-post electoral system. It has to do with the fact that if you decide to have children as a member of Parliament, you do not have paid maternity leave, so you're on an unpaid leave of absence. There is no day care for anyone under 18 months of age. If you happen to live in British Columbia, the fact that you have to travel a long distance to go to work is not really an incentive. You're spending a good 10 to 12 hours on a plane there and back. The fact that our Parliament sits more than any other Parliament in the Westminster system, except for the U.K., could also be a disincentive.
There are other reasons women decide not to pursue public office. A lot of it is the cynicism, the adversarial tone. It's not the electoral system per se. Once we decide to run, there might be a reason behind that, but I am living proof that you can run in a non-winnable riding. I'm the proof that we women can succeed, so when people tell me that proportional representation is the Noah's Ark, if you like, plumbing for all the ills of our electoral system, it is a fallacy in my view.
I'm not against proportional representation. I don't have an opinion right now. I'm listening to Canadians, but I think we need to put the good, the bad, and the ugly out on the table because there is no perfect system. It is an ecosystem, and as my colleague said, we actually have a lot of things we can be doing that can address some of the boo-boos we have, i.e., mandatory voting; i.e., quotas for increasing women on the ballot; i.e., zippered ballots. There are many things. It's not one thing that's going to fix the system.
I just had to get that off my chest.
Mr. Pardy, you talked a little bit about your non-preference for PR systems. In your opinion, what system, if not a PR system, do you think Canada should look at, whether it be first past the post, AV, or AV-plus? Could you give us your opinion?
Well, they do here in Nova Scotia.
I think that the ranking has its academic advantages definitely, but I think it's just too complicated for certain people. It would overwhelm and frustrate some of them, so please keep it simple.
The second thing I want to touch on has to do with my professional side. I've been in IT, information technology, for about 15 years. There are many great applications for IT and the Internet, but voting is not one of them, so I urge you to stay away from electronic voting. There are companies that invite you to nice dinners and that tout their systems. We have an election here in Halifax that uses that. Personally, I think it's a disaster. It leads to lower voter turnout. You have probably also heard about the many problems with its security, identification of voters, and outside influence.
I also want to touch on two very different things that are not actually related to technology, and those are things that you can't solve and that e-voting undermines. One is trust in the voting system, and the other thing is the ceremonial aspect of voting. All important things in our lives involve a ceremony: when we get baptized or not, when we finish school, when we get elected, when we get a degree, when we get married. All these things are ceremonies. Going out to vote is a ceremony that underscores the importance of voting. If you do it on your phone while you're on the loo, like liking someone on Facebook, I don't think that's the way our political system should go.
Thank you very much.
Thank you for listening.
It was appropriate that I walked by the Nova Scotia Legislature on the way here today, just a block away, because that's the place where representative government started in Canada. It's also the first place for responsible government outside of Britain. Nova Scotia is a place where representative government started, and I'd like to make the argument that proportional representation would effectively erode or destroy representational government.
Representational government is about representing people, not parties. The House of Commons is the house of commoners; it's not a house of parties. It may amount to that somewhat in practice, but that's not something we want to push forward any more.
Governments govern and MPs represent constituents, but the parties' raison d'être is power. We know a government is doing a good job when it has good governance. An MP is doing his or her job when he or she provides good representation. But a party is doing a good job when it's working towards power.
This is basically a complaint about the party system and how giving seats that are just going to represent parties is a bad thing. MPs' votes are whipped. Extreme retaliation faces an MP who votes against his or her party. We know MP is a local hero because he voted against a party in power, against a money bill. I'd argue he's a hero, not because he voted against an unpopular party or was supporting Nova Scotia but I think he's a local hero because he represented himself and not the party. He went against the party.
Free votes are a rare thing. That's because of the party system. Imagine if every vote were a free vote. The only MP who can really have a free vote is an independent MP.
I could go on. Parties move to the political centre as they get closer to power, because that's the objective of the party system. Look at the surreal situation in the United States, where Republicans who don't necessarily like their leader are going to hold their nose and vote anyway because they support their party. It's all about the party.
The antagonistic nature of the House, I would also argue, is based on the party system.
Everybody has their pet arguments as to what's wrong with politics. My argument is that it's the party system. I note that a lot of you people are members of parties. Like-minded people will get together and talk about things that are important to them and move things forward, so we'll always have the party system.
Francis, I have to be impressed by your memory. You were bang on.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Alan Ruffman: I do remember Clifford's intense interest, and yours. The American scavengers, however, got the better of us. Canada chose not to defend the wreck, even though it ended up inside our juridical limit under Law of the Sea.
I'll speak very briefly about geography. Geography does matter, and in Canada, size matters. In effect, the issue I want to lay before you is that certain MPs have a whole lot more environment to be concerned with. If we consider that the environment of Canada is important, and will become increasingly important, whether it's preservation of species, preservation of enough fresh water for everyone, or ocean species, we have to think about environment.
Now, how the hell do you represent environment or the amount of coastline or fresh water in some sort of voting system? None of the polar bears that are getting wiped out on the west coast of Hudson's Bay, and none of the mainland moose that are just a little bit north of us, have a vote or even know that it's going on, but their livelihood and their survival as species depend upon a large number of MPs acting in concert to preserve their environment.
I'll leave that with you. I don't have a solution for it, but I will point out that just north of here, they're arguing about striped bass. The striped bass are in the Shubenacadie River, which is the border between Colchester and East Hants. Why the hell is the river a border? It's because people couldn't cross borders at one time, so we made the rivers the borders for constituencies. Now we have bridges and a lot of other ways of going over those boundaries.
Those are just a few thoughts.
Thanks very much for coming.
I had a look at the website today. It struck me, as I read the website, that rather than finding a solution for a problem we don't have, it suggested between 12 and 24 solutions for a problem I don't think we have with first past the post.
If we do, and if there is importance in having every MP elected with a majority of votes, I suggest you consider the runoff system that the French have.
The main point I want to make, however, has to do with the desire for inclusion, transparency, and meaningful engagement. I don't believe that anything in these reform proposals would effect those ends, but it would rather render the process less inclusive, less transparent, and potentially more alienating to voters. I would urge you to consider committing to a referendum on the matter. The process that has been designed here will exclude those who are unable to meet with this panel, whose right to vote on the question is their best guarantee of inclusion.
I might say, finally, that one of the reasons I would ask the government to reconsider its opposition to a clear referendum on a clear question of electoral reform is that Canadians, especially those who are members of designated groups, are being presented, in the current process, with over a dozen electoral systems in effect around the world, with substantial variations of each.
At the end of the day, the government will have to propose one, and this carbon-heavy process in which we are engaging here may or may not play much of a role in what that proposed solution will be. Whatever it turns out to be, the government should be prepared to let Canadians choose directly whether they prefer that reform or prefer to keep the system they have and know. I would suggest that a government that is frightened to find out the answer does not advance but mocks the principles that are laid out here.
My name is Patrice Deschênes. I live in Halifax.
I arrived about 30 minutes ago and I heard a lot of horror stories. The fish are dying, polar bears are disappearing, nature is expiring, and all of it is due to the electoral system. A large part of the population is ignored, their voices are not heard, and all of that is because of our electoral system.
It is as if these people live in a parallel universe where they create imaginary problems. The reality I see here in Canada is a country that has been a democratic beacon in the world for 150 years. I see a country where, despite the fact that political parties don't agree, there is continuity in policies, except for the current government, whose objective is to completely erase the policies of the previous government. Nevertheless, the system works. This party was elected and has the right to act.
Creating imaginary problems and trying to solve them with medication that doesn't exist is something Molière spoke about in his play The Imaginary Invalid. That is what we are doing here in Canada. This exercise is a big charade, a long play by Molière. I find this disappointing.
I invite you to reconsider this effort, and I invite Canadians to reconsider their imaginary illness. Before we move to another system, please, hold a referendum, because Canadians know that we live in a country that is one of the world's leaders, a country that is economically stable and politically sound, a country where everyone benefits from our democratic strength.
Hello. Thank you so much.
My heart is pounding. I am not a public speaker, and I had no intention of speaking, but having been here since 1:15 this afternoon, I did not hear the point of view that I felt I wanted to express. I do have an electronic version that I will be sending to you tomorrow, I promise. But here's the point of view I would like to express—and please, my notes are so scribbled that I can hardly read them—about how addicted we are as Canadians to being able to have a relationship with our MP.
I can sympathize with this position, regarding the person-to-person point of view. I personally do not want a social worker, i.e., a constituency worker MP. I want an MP who will work together with other MPs to create policy to help Canada navigate into the future, policy that makes the social work role of an elected MP obsolete.
Many countries I admire have PR systems without the local MP component. In our riding, what counts as accountability is how many favours an MP has granted, how many ribbons have been cut, or how many funerals have been attended. Please do not think that I devalue an elected representative who is engaged with his or her community, but if I had to choose between having an MP who creates comprehensive policy for Canada's future and having one who gets re-elected based on how many public events he or she has been seen at between elections, I think you know what I would choose.
While I am, at this time, favouring MMP, which gives constituencies their own MP, I just wanted you to know that at least one Canadian has another viewpoint of an MP's role. I think PR can support my view of an MP.
Thank you, and I am against a referendum.