Nigel Aplin on electoral reform

Electoral reform in Canada

A fresh take on proportional representation

By Nigel Aplin
True North Perspective

The Globe and Mail ran an editorial series a few weeks ago on electoral reform. Among other things, it questioned the need for any electoral reform at all and, if there is any improvement to be made in the way we elect governments, it called for a national referendum to decide on a new system rather than simply the creation of a parliamentary bill passed in the usual course. I tend to agree with the latter point but certainly not with the former.

I have been increasingly dissatisfied with the first-past-the-post system over recent elections and, in our multi-party system, with the relative ease with which parties have been able to win the majority of seats in parliament (and in provincial legislatures) while receiving significantly less than a majority of the popular vote. Take the recent federal election where the Liberal party received 39.5% of the vote but earned 54% of the 338 seats. With its parliamentary majority, it now has 100% of the legislative power. The 2011 election produced almost identical results in favour of the Conservatives. In Ontario in 1990, the NDP won a majority government with about 37% of the vote. I would like to see a significant change to this system and I favour the introduction of a form of proportional representation (PR) as a way to modify our election results to better reflect the wishes of Canadian voters and to, quite simply, make majority governments significantly more difficult to win.

Most proposed models of PR involve the creation of a new block of seats and members of parliament to be allocated to political parties based on their aggregated national vote totals. These new seats/members would be added to the existing 338 members elected through the existing first-past-the-post system. This would increase the size of the legislature as has been done in Germany starting in the 1980s. Some of the key questions asked by skeptics of this concept include (1) how many new seats/members should we add (and how we decide on the right number. (2) who would occupy these seats? and (3) since the new members would not represent or be responsible to a specific geographic constituency, what specific duties would they have in a new and larger Parliament? I have a proposal which resolves questions (2) and (3) while offering some options to consider for question (1). 

My proposal is this: rather than actually creating a block of new seats to be occupied by new members put forth by the political parties, why not simply create a new block of "votes" in parliament to be allocated to the parties according to the aggregated national popular vote results from each election? Strict party discipline is a fact of life in our parliamentary system and this proposal presumes and requires that it continue to be. Blocks of votes in Parliament would be allocated to the political parties based on their respective share of the popular vote with no need to create new "seats" or corresponding parliamentary "members" at all. Under this system, if it were in place for the most recent election in October, the Liberal Party would receive 39.5% of the new parliamentary votes, the Conservative Party 31%, the NDP 19%, the BQ 4.6% and the Green Party 3.5% — exactly reflecting the breakdown of the popular vote. So, no new seats would be required and therefore — obviously — no consideration need be given to who would occupy them or what these new members would do with their time.

This system of a mix of MPs elected through the existing first-past-the-post system a block of new parliamentary votes allocated to the parties according to the national popular vote would, like any form of PR, give more tangible value to each vote cast. For example, under the current system, some voters in certain ridings may have felt that in past elections, quite correctly, their vote is cast for little reason. I'm referring to ridings where one party has historically dominated or another has very little chance of winning. Take Stephen Harper's Calgary riding, for example, where Liberal, NDP or Green Party voters may have felt that they have been casting their votes pointlessly as the Conservatives have won the riding very easily going back many decades. Or take the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina where the Liberals and the NDP are the only real contenders and Conservative voters there will have had the same kind of issue. Green Party voters in virtually every riding in the country can also surely relate. A system which includes blocks of parliamentary votes allocated according to the national popular vote would give each vote an extra measure of value even if they may have seemed irrelevant to the first-past-the-post results. Another corresponding benefit of adding new Parliamentary votes rather than new MPs is that it includes the addition of exactly zero cost. 

The impact to the present system would depend on the size of the new block of votes. I have crunched some numbers using three theoretical scenarios: the addition of 100, 200 and 338 new Parliamentary votes allocated through PR. Adding 100 new PR votes in parliament to the existing 338 first-past-the-post MPs comes close to eliminating to the current Liberal majority but maintains it with a margin of 3.5 votes (a system of rounding will obviously be required). This compares to its present majority margin of 14. The addition of 200 new PR votes changes the parliamentary majority to a minority which leaves the minority 7.1 votes short and the addition of 338 new PR votes (a doubling of the present number) results in a minority government where the Liberals would need a further 21.6 votes from other parties in order to pass legislation. I favour this last scenario which would still allow a party to achieve a majority in parliament but only with considerably more than 40% of the popular vote, depending on the impact on the seats determined by the first-past-the-post system.

Let's have a referendum on this. Count my vote in the yes column. After all, it is my idea.