I sat down with the affable Shane Claiborne at MissionsFest 2012 to talk about social justice, life, and junk food, for Converge Magazine Online.
In 2008, 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party sent no one to Parliament, setting a new historical record for the most votes cast for any party that gained no parliamentary representation. By comparison, 813,000 Conservative voters in Alberta alone were able to elect 27 MPs.
In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received about twice the vote of the Liberals and NDP, but took seven times as many seats. However, when it came to urban Conservatives, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one, nor did Conservative voters in Montreal.
Finally, The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 50 seats, the NDP 37.
It doesn’t add up
The discrepancy should set off alarm bells. In any business, the managers would be alerted and policies would change immediately. Yet Canadian politics has resisted change for a very long time. As a result, Canada’s outdated First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system of election caters to clustered pockets of support in ridings and completely ignores national trends. Canada is falling behind the rest of the democratic world in voter participation and representation by hanging on to a troubled system.
Our system currently allows a candidate to win with as little as 26% support in their riding. All they need is a few more votes than the next candidate. What’s more, it allows provincial parties like the Bloc to win twice as many seats as a national party like the NDP with half the votes: look at our previous election. The Bloc: 10% of national votes. That got them 50 seats. The NDP got 18% of national votes, but ended up with 37 seats. Our system is broken, and we need to fix it.
If no change takes place, everyone continues to lose more than necessary:
- Parties lose through the hit-or-miss aspect of our electoral system.
- Voters lose as huge numbers of ballots are cast meaninglessly.
- Government is failed by an unfair allocation of representative seats.
- Ultimately, Canada loses as a country that is already struggling with citizen participation.
Here are more actual Canadian statistics:
In the 2006 federal election, more than 650,000 Green Party votes across the country elected no MPs. Meanwhile, fewer than 500,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada alone elected 20 MPs.
So, clearly, smaller parties lose the most, but it’s not just one party that loses. All Canadian political parties have incurred losses that are above and beyond what should be reasonably expected.
A better way
Speaking politically, is there a better way? Are there ways to represent more people more accurately? There certainly are. Many alternate systems are alive and well in most European democracies. Democratic nations around the world have sought a system that allocates votes in proper proportions. The idea is called Proportional Representation and it comes in various forms.
In Canada, Proportional Representation ideally means that Canadians across the country enjoy the best possible representation by making some adjustments. Ultimately, Proportional Representation aims to reflect national demographics more accurately, reflecting not only numbers more accurately, but accounting for aspects like gender or ethnic, urban and rural representation.
Kimberley Earles and Tammy Findlay from York University argue that the current representation in both the House of Commons and the Senate fails to:
1. Reflect the diversity of the Canadian people (In 2003, Aboriginal peoples occupied 1 per cent of House of Commons seats, no Cabinet positions, and 6 per cent of Senate seats. People of colour occupied approximately 5 per cent of House seats and 7 per cent of Cabinet positions).
2. Reflect gender equality (In 2003, Women sat in only 21 per cent of House seats and 35 per cent of Senate seats). This decade, Canada ranked 36th in women’s representation in legislative assemblies.
Earles and Findlay demonstrate in their findings that Proportional Representation systems elect more women. The top five countries with most women in legislative assemblies all have Proportional Representation.
The Hon. Senator Lucie Pépin agrees that there has been little change in Canada:
“Eighty-six years after Agnes McPhail was [the first woman] elected to the House of Commons, women’s presence in Parliament has not changed significantly. Canadian women are a long way from carrying a significant weight on the political scene. According to the United Nations, the critical mass should be at least 30 per cent, but women’s representation in the House of Commons remains around 20 percent. After six successive federal elections, women still have not managed to break through this glass ceiling. Clearly, the current inaction will not solve this problem”
The United States and Canada are supposed to be global leaders in modern democracy, yet both use medieval systems. There are other systems of democratic government at work all over the world that are more democratic than today’s North American systems.
What are our options?
A. Single-Transferable Vote (STV)
In 2005, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly proposed the BC-STV as an equitable voting system. It came within three percent of passing in 2005 and was offered again for referendum in 2009, failing once more, arguably because of gross misinformation.
Single-Transferable Vote (STV) is designed to reduce wasted votes by giving greater weight to multiple preferences. On an STV ballot, each voter ranks the candidates on the list in order of preference. A candidate must make a certain quota of votes to win.
An STV election proceeds like this:
1. Any candidate who has reached or exceeded the required quota is declared elected.
2. If not enough candidates have been elected, the count continues.
3. If a candidate has more votes than the quota, then their surplus is transferred to other candidates according to the next preference on each voter’s ballot.
4. If no one meets the quota, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred.
This process repeats from step 1 until the required numbers of candidates have been elected . By allowing the voter to state their preferences, this system eliminates the hit-or-miss aspect of FPTP.
B. Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
This system was proposed in Canada by the Ontario assembly.
MMP gives the voter one ballot with two votes.
- The voter casts one vote for a local candidate, and casts a second vote for any registered political party.
- Local candidates (one for each riding, as usual) are elected by the current “winner takes all” system.
- An amount of extra empty seats get filled in proportion to the second votes for the parties.
- These give the chance for popular parties to ‘top off’ their representation in the assembly according to the votes they get across the country.
- In practice, the MMP allows you to choose, for example, a Conservative candidate to represent your riding, and cast a vote towards a Green party seat.
Features of the MMP:
1. The system captures the broader preferences of citizens.
2. An individual vote is more decisive and more meaningful. MMP erases the need for the “do I vote with my head or with my heart?” question.
3. Parties that have general (eg. national) support but few elected representatives will gain a reasonable measure of influence.
4. The system allows for a more accurate representation of viewpoints.
5. There is opportunity for parties to work towards more proportional representation.
Ontario MPs, Senators, and over 150 university political science professors all agreed that the MMP system is more democratic and would better represent the diverse Ontario population than the current system. There was a lot of misinformation spread about MMP and thus the vote did not favour the MMP.
Pressure for reforming democracy in Canada comes from a variety of sources inside and outside of government. Each party ought to have a concern for democratic renewal in their platform. Regrettably, leading parties are least concerned. We wonder why more Canadians don’t participate, but when we see how meaninglessly broken our system is, we should be prompted to fix the root cause of our political despondency. With a more representative system, voters have more opportunities to re-engage the governance of the country and to have their voice heard. Is it so easy to forget that is the reason the system exists at all?