The recent federal election produced the second consecutive minority government – and the fifth since 2004.
Neither conservatives nor liberals received more than 34 percent of the popular vote across the country, but parliamentary representation is greatly distorted.
Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system works poorly when there are too many three-way races and even a few four-way races. Seats can be won with very little majority, and some areas are represented by a single party. There is also a growing rural-urban divide in representation that is widening the political fault lines.
There is a compelling alternative used by many other countries: proportional representation, where seats in parliament reflect vote shares. However, there are three concerns: local representation, fringe parties and weak governments. Nonetheless, a cleverly designed proportional system can address the first two concerns, and parliamentary protocol can address the third.
A new idea for electoral reform
The menu of electoral systems consists of either proportionality, local representation or a strange combination of both.
My own research offers a new electoral system that can provide proportionality and even increase local representation. It combines provincial proportional representation with electoral districts that are represented by two Members of Parliament instead of one.
People vote for parties rather than local candidates, and elected members of each party are required to represent two districts each so that the majority of voters from each riding is represented by the choice of their preferred party.
In almost all instances, the “senior” member receiving more votes than the “junior” member in the ride will be from the same party with our current system.
But since each district has two members of parliament, there is better local representation overall, and there is more competition between parties for effective representation of each district.
Each MP has slightly more work than before, looking after two districts instead of one. Since voting patterns are locally clustered, most MPs will look after neighboring districts. Dual representation makes it very likely that districts are represented by someone from a party in government. Voters have two members of parliament to whom they can appeal with their local concerns.
Provinces hold the same number of seats
Reflecting Canada’s federal structure, proportionality is achieved for each province separately. Each province would retain its current number of seats, while the three regions would continue to directly elect their own Member of Parliament. Provincial proportionality means that only Alberta MPs will represent Alberta, and only Quebec MPs will represent Quebec.
To prevent regional and fringe parties from gaining unfair representation and influence, proportionality needs a stronger threshold: a five percent barrier across the country and for each province. In the September election, this limit would have applied to both the Green Party and the People’s Party of Canada (PPC). Maxime Bernier’s PPC came in a tizzy of the first hurdle, receiving 4.94 percent of the nationwide popular vote.
Some critics associate proportionality with fragmented parliaments, instability, weak governments and fiscal negligence. But this outcome is unlikely in Canada as there are well-established major parties that will continue to struggle for first place.
Parliamentary protocol already ensures that governments cannot be toppled too easily. A “conference of confidence” requires the government to enjoy the support and confidence of a majority in the House of Commons. The current system encourages premature parliamentary dissolution in search of a majority government. But majority governments remain elusive.
What would the electoral map look like under proportionality?
The Conservatives would lose four seats (123 instead of 119), the Liberals 36 seats (123 instead of 159), the NDP 40 seats (65 instead of 25) and the Bloc Québécois six seats (27 instead of 33). .
The Green Party and the People’s Party would be closed because of the five percent handicap. Parliament will retain the centre-left majority, but with a different structure. (Riding-by-riding results are on my web page.)
Election reform creates winners and losers. In 2021, the New Democrats will have benefited the most from proportionality.
Unsurprisingly, liberals prefer lighter versions of electoral reform such as ranked ballots. Conservatives don’t like anyone.
After the Liberals won a majority government in 2015, their appetite for electoral reform quickly vanished. Ultimately, electoral reform can only happen if a smaller party – possibly the NDP – has the balance of power and electoral reform has to pay a price for supporting a minority government.
The fact is that voters care more about parties than local candidates. Proportionality would be fair, but effective local representation is also needed and could in fact be improved by maximizing preferred-party representation in each district.
My research shows that local representation does not need to be reduced to achieve proportionality. Canada deserves a 21st century electoral system that best suits its unique political landscape.