I understand you have a copy of the PowerPoint already, so I'll go over that, if that makes sense to you, in about 20 minutes.
What we've put together here is a general overview of electoral systems and then some materials, specifically, on proportional representation by the single transferrable vote, which is what we use here in Ireland.
I'll start with general thoughts about electoral systems and proportional representation generally.
PR has positives and negatives, and these are probably quite familiar to the committee. The biggest positive, probably, is a much closer relationship between seat shares and vote shares, which I know has been a subject of much debate in Canada. It also means that the main parties will have members in their parliamentary parties from right across the country; so the largest parties, particularly, would have people from the west, the Prairies, the bigger provinces, and the maritime provinces as well, unlike the present situation.
In addition, fewer votes would be wasted. Fewer votes tend to be wasted on proportional representation; more votes count, more votes contribute towards the election of a member of Parliament. Although this is not quite so clear cut, certainly some people reckon that MPs as a whole will be more representative of the entire population with regard to factors such as gender, ethnic origin, and maybe social class too, although that's more contentious.
Nothing comes without problems, and there are two problems in particular that might be identifiable. One is that constituencies as we call them, ridings, would have to be much larger, both in geographical size and in population because proportional representation necessitates multi-member constituencies, so ridings would be much larger, and they already are huge in some cases. In addition, government formation becomes a much more complicated process because single party government would be very unlikely. It's very hard for any party under a really proportional system to win an overall majority. That's not necessarily a bad thing; there are pros and cons in coalition government, but it would become more complicated.
Going on to the second page, we have a look over the background, or the terms of reference for your committee. We can see that one hope about an electoral system change is that it might lead to things like greater civility and collaboration in politics; it might enhance social cohesion. I think we would flag a warning there that you mustn't expect too much from electoral system change. It would change some things, especially the relationship between seats and votes, as I mentioned before, but it's not going to transform the whole style of politics, either for better or for worse. A lot of things about Canadian politics—and I know Canadians are generally quite proud of their political system—would remain unaltered. To expect an electoral system change to transform the whole nature of politics and make it more civil and so on, I think, is probably unrealistic. Generally we shouldn't try to over-explain things through the electoral system. A lot of people do look at countries, including Ireland, and say that Irish politics works this way, and it's got that electoral system, so it must be cause and effect. Very often it's not.
I'm sure you've got other sessions where you're looking at proportional representation electoral systems generally, but just to give a brief overview, proportional representation is really a principle rather than a method. There are lots of different ways of implementing the principle—Ireland has one specific method, which I'll come to in a moment—but they vary on different factors. One is the amount of choice given to voters as to which individual candidate they want to be represented by. Typically, voters have a choice of party and sometimes that's all they've got—the party picks the MPs once it's known how many MPs the party is going to get—whereas, in other electoral systems, more commonly, in fact, the voters can also choose individual candidates. They're saying not just that they like that party, but that they like that particular candidate within the party. So in designing any new proportional representation electoral system, that's one choice to be made.
In Europe, proportional representation is virtually universal. Britain and France are the only two countries that don't use proportional representation. But there is huge variation; it's difficult to find any two countries that have exactly the same system. That alone suggests that there is no one perfect, best system because if there were, presumably every country would have chosen it.
Electoral system designers have a lot of choice. One aspect concerns a trade-off between proportionality and other things. Some countries have electoral systems that go for broke on the proportionality dimension. They think it's very important to have as close a correspondence as possible between the votes cast and the seats cast.
South Africa is a good example. There's one big nationwide constituency and a very close relationship between the votes cast and the seats cast. The price paid for that is that there's a lack of any close connection between voters and MPs. Voters don't really have a local MP. All MPs in effect are national MPs. If you maximize that criterion, you lose out on other criteria. That's something to bear in mind when designing or choosing an electoral system. Maybe if you go overboard on one thing, you have to give up a little bit of some other criterion.
The other big choice is the thing I mentioned before, whether voters should be able to choose among candidates of their favourite party. Most voters might have a favourite party. Should they be able to choose among candidates of that party?
Also, is a territorial connection between MPs and constituents important? That's a factor that is important in a lot of countries. I know in Canada it's very important. Yet, in a lot of countries they think they're unusual in that. They think most countries don't do that, but actually, in most countries it is important. It's very important in Ireland, as I'll go on to say. I know it's very important in Canada that MPs represent their riding and their constituents. It's very important in most countries. Most countries do want an electoral system that guarantees the preservation of that link between MPs and constituents.
Looking over Europe as a whole before we get on to the Irish case specifically, the most common type of electoral system in Europe is what's called open list proportional representation. That's where, when voters go to vote, they see lists of candidates put forward by the various parties. They are open lists because the voters can express a preference for an individual candidate. In Denmark, for example, voters might be very loyal and supportive of the social democrats. But when they go to vote, they don't just vote for social democrat. There would be, say, eight social democratic candidates, and the voter actually puts an x by one individual candidate, saying that if the social democrats get three MPs in this constituency, they want that particular person to be one of those MPs. So voters are directly choosing who represents them.
There is variation on the detail around Europe, but in broad terms, that is the most common kind of electoral system. Voters choose a party and then they can choose a candidate within that party. The seats are awarded to the parties in proportion to the total votes they get, and then within each party, the seats go to those individual candidates who get the most votes. Candidates are competing against each other for votes. Social democrat candidates in Denmark are saying to the voters, “Please vote social democrat, and also, by the way, please vote for me”. They're not explicitly badmouthing their party colleagues, but at the same time, they do want people to vote for them specifically rather than for another candidate.
I know that some people are concerned that it might make the parties internally divided because different candidates are making different appeals to the voters within the same party, but in practice, it doesn't. In practice, the parties all around Europe do operate very cohesively for the most part. Candidates typically don't form factions within parties. European parties are pretty cohesive, and they vote pretty solidly in Parliament on the main issues.
That's a general overview of Europe.
You might be particularly interested to know what we can tell you about Ireland. One type of partial representation is proportional representation by the single transferable vote. This aims to do a number of things simultaneously. First, it attempts to achieve a reasonable closeness between the share of votes cast and share of seats cast for each party. Second, it tries to give a maximum choice to voters—more choice than open-list systems. It avoids having voters waste their vote by casting it for someone who has no chance. Third, it aims to retain the close territorial connection between voters and MPs, or TDs, as deputies are known in Ireland. It aims to do all of those things.
There is a ballot paper. You might have seen this kind of thing somewhere else. When voters go to vote, they see a ballot paper with all the candidates in the constituency listed. In Ireland they're listed in alphabetical order. That's not necessary, but that's the way it's done in Ireland. Votes are cast for their favourite candidate, their second favourite, their third favourite, and so on. They don't have to vote for any more than the favourite. They might vote for the favourite and then quit and not give a second preference. Or they might go from their favourite right down to the bottom of the ballot paper and cast number 17 for their least favourite.
Voters can vote on the basis of any factor they want. They don't have to vote along party lines. A significant minority of people in Ireland don't vote along party lines. They might give their first preference to a candidate from one party, their second preference to a candidate from a different party. It's entirely up to the voter what motivates their vote, what drives their preference. For the voter, it's all pretty straightforward. You vote one, two, three, four, and so on.
As to the counting process, if we went over a detailed, stage-by-stage, blow-by-blow explanation, it would all sound rather more complicated than it really is. The principle is clear: if very popular candidates have a lot more votes than they actually need to get elected, their votes are not wasted. Their votes are surplus votes, as they're called, and they're transferred to another candidate in accordance with the second-preference vote as marked on their ballot paper.
The surplus distribution is the most complex part of STV. What's more straightforward is that if a candidate fares very poorly, and gets only a few hundred votes, those votes are not wasted. The candidate is eliminated from the count and the votes are transferred to other candidates in accordance with the second preference marked. If that candidate in turn is later eliminated, the votes are transferred on in accordance to the third preference marked, and so on. The aim is that even if a voter votes for someone who doesn't do very well, this vote is not wasted as it is under the first past the post system. The lower preferences are taken into account and can still influence the outcome.
Counting proceeds until all the seats are filled. The counting is a multi-staged process. It takes much longer than a first past the post count. In Ireland we had an election earlier this year. It was on a Friday, and the counting of the votes didn't start until 9 o'clock on Saturday morning. Most of the seats were filled by midnight on Saturday, but some went into Sunday. There was one constituency in which the outcome was very close and there were a few recounts, so it didn't end until early on Wednesday morning. Counting is not an instantaneous process—it can be several days before the full result emerges.
What is the political impact of this? We can look at that under a number of headings.
Firstly, in terms of the accuracy of representation, it does give fairly accurate representation. It doesn't give extremely high proportionality like the South African system does, but it gives pretty average levels of proportionality by the standards of most European electoral systems. It's much more proportional than non-PR systems such as Canada uses or such as Britain or France use. On that criterion, it performs to the satisfaction of people here.
In terms of government stability, over the years there has not really been a problem there. Most governments these days are coalitions, but they can be just as stable as single-party governments. We've had 29 elections in the history of the state, so something like three years between elections. Having said that, the last election in February did not produce a very stable-looking government. We have a minority government, with only 58 seats out of 158. It took two months to put it together. Its lifespan is rather uncertain. At the moment we wouldn't rate highly on current government stability, but over the entire period this has not been a problem.
One of the strengths of PR-STV, as I mentioned before, for its proponents is that it gives voters a lot of choice. They can really say exactly what they feel. They're not compelled to vote just for, to name the Irish parties, Labour or just for Fianna Fáil or just for the Greens. They can vote number one for Green Party, and if the Green Party candidate is eliminated, then they can give a second preference to Labour, a third preference to Fine Gael and their vote isn't wasted, it still counts. They can choose on the basis of any criterion they want. They can vote on party lines or some people will vote on geographical lines. They want a candidate from this part of the constituency, a candidate whose home base is somewhere near here. For that reason they might give their first preference to a local candidate from one party and their second preference to a candidate from another party.
Do turnout levels engender high participation? Not particularly in Ireland. Turnout is not especially high. It was around 65% for the election earlier this year. But people who study turnout say that it is affected by lots of different factors. The electoral system might have only a minor role. The only other country in Europe to use PR-STV is Malta, and that has a very high turnout, over 90%.
In terms of the cohesion of parties, as I said before, this internal party competition doesn't really damage party cohesion. In this country the solidarity of parliamentary groups is very high. It's very rare for MPs to defy the party whip. For good or for bad, that's the way it is. MPs nearly always vote the party line, they just don't vote different ways. Whatever the local pressures might be, the parliamentary parties are very cohesive.
Next is links with constituents. It's quite interesting that this arises in the Canadian context because this is quite a controversial point in Ireland. Links with constituents are extremely strong in Ireland. Links between TDs-MPs and their constituents are very strong. MPs spend a lot of time dealing with their constituents, representing their constituents, meeting their constituents, taking cases to central civil service bureaucracy on behalf of constituents. Some people criticize that. There are critics in the commentariat; not so much academics but commentators think this is a bad thing. They say this TD-MP's focus on constituency work is not what MPs should be doing. MPs should be in parliament considering legislation, scrutinizing the government, it's wrong that they spend so much time on constituency links. Moreover, these commentators say the cause of MPs spending so much time on constituency work is PR-STV. In some ways, though, that's ironic because in many other countries, as I said earlier, and including Canada, including the U.K., for example, there also MPs spend a lot of time on constituency work. For the most part, as I understand it, it's not seen as a bad thing. In fact, it's seen as quite a good thing. It's seen as an important part of MPs' role. For sure, there doesn't seem to be any reason to be concerned that PR-STV would weaken constituency links, if anything quite the contrary. Academics, as I say, take that view. The main point about PR-STV in this regard is that MPs now have a strong electoral incentive to respond to constituents' demands.
Even if they wanted to ignore their constituents' wishes for representation—which I'm sure all the MPs on the committee wouldn't want to do anyway—under PR-STV they've got a strong electoral incentive not to, because they know if they did ignore constituency work, then another candidate from their own party might be more active in the constituency and might take their seat at the next election. MPs therefore know that they're under threat, not just from other parties but also from within their own party. They might lose their seat to another candidate from their own party.
At the end of our presentation, we just put together a few thoughts on how PR-STV might work in Canada. At the moment you've got 338 MPs, so if Canada had PR-STV there might be around 70 to 90 multi-seat ridings, each returning anything from maybe three to seven MPs, or it could be more. Just looking at a few particular provinces, we see that Newfoundland and Labrador currently has seven single-seat ridings that might become one three-seat riding and one four-seat riding, for example. Prince Edward Island currently has four single-seat ridings that would become one four-seat riding. New Brunswick currently has 10 single-seat ridings that could become two five-seat ridings. It could be that really large geographical areas like Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon would remain as single-seat ridings. I see that Labrador is a single-seat riding. Labrador is about three times as big as the entire island of Ireland, so to us it's unbelievable that this would be just one—