Proportional Representation: Fairness, Representativeness and Accountability

Here are the notes for my introductory comments to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform July 27, 2016


I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear on this important issue. I have been a longtime proponent of electoral reform as a key to democratic renewal. While no electoral system is perfect, the comparative evidence is, I believe, strong that a more proportional system increases democratic participation and trust in political institutions. Since most democracies have adopted some form of proportional representation, there is no shortage of evidence.


The choice between a winner-take-all system such as ours and a proportional system is often characterized as a choice between local accountability and better representativeness. In fact, however, we can and should choose a system that provides both. Of the many commissions in Canada that have examined electoral reform – and there have been many – all have recommended greater proportionality and all have proposed systems that at the same time maintain local representation. In a federation such as Canada it is inconceivable that our electoral system not include local representation. That means some version of either single transferable vote or mixed-member proportionality.


Indeed either approach not only ensures that the outcome of elections more closely reflects how people voted but arguably also strengthens local representation.   In either system every citizen has more than one representative and is far more likely to find one that shares their values and interests. And, because every vote matters to the outcome, no riding can be taken for granted because it is safe or be ignored because it is out of reach. Because every vote matters, every riding matters. No more undue focus on swing ridings. No more so-called strategic voting where voters feel forced to choose the least bad option because their preferred candidate could never win in our current system. No more staying home because we think our vote cannot make a difference to the outcome.


With either system no longer would we risk entire regions being shut out of government as has happened on a number of occasions under our current approach. That means better representation, better and more regionally sensitive government, and stronger national cohesion and unity.


Yes, single party majorities, though not impossible, would be more difficult. But majorities would have greater legitimacy because they would actually represent a majority of voters and from every part of the country. Caucuses would be stronger because they would be more diverse. Parliamentary cooperation would be the norm. Who knows, that might even mean less polarized and adversarial politics. And coalition governments can, the evidence shows, provide good stable government without the policy lurches that our current system too often leads to.


The evidence suggests that concerns about the proliferation of small parties in Parliament are exaggerated. And depending on design it can be quite hard for so-called fringe parties to get in. In any case, one of the main benefits of proportional representation is that it does indeed capture a greater diversity of views. And most important PR makes it virtually impossible for a party that the majority see as extreme ever to take control of the government.


I know too that some worry about versions of PR in which some members of parliament would be selected by the party rather than the electorate, that is, selected from a Party-constructed list.  This need not be the case. Indeed, I think it’s important that whatever system is adopted voters rather than Parties alone determine the ordering of candidates.  Of course how candidates are selected in the first place is an issue in our current system. These are questions independent of the electoral system we adopt: How open is the process for selecting candidates?  How much it is controlled locally or centrally? Clearly the choice of an electoral system will not address all the issues we may have.


But a more proportional system would be a major step towards a stronger, more engaged and trusted democracy. In a representative democracy representativeness ought to count – and especially in a diverse country such as ours.

15 Responses to “Proportional Representation: Fairness, Representativeness and Accountability”
  1. Robert White says:

    Far be it for me to criticize a Liberal, but the glowing assessment of Proportional Representation evidenced here is lacking in terms of mention of a referendum vote on the matter that all Canadians can contribute to. This is the problem with Participatory Democracy when Liberals ram through changes to our age old voting system without the appropriate Informed Consent being issued to all voting blocks. This article is pure unadulterated Liberal cronyism run amuck IMHO, and it does nothing to instill confidence in terms of opposition to Liberals and their overarching policies. I have always expected better from academic Liberals, frankly.


    • himelfarb says:

      I’m not a Liberal and don’t know what the Liberal position on this – and these were my introductory comments to a committee that discussed the relative merits of a referendum,

  2. megannety says:

    And if it doesn’t work, we can become Italy or Israel and watch the structure of our national collective evaporate in the miasma of “reform”. We need change, but until you come to terms with the value of a vote in PEI to one in Scarborough and meaningful Senate reform (abolition), I believe the end does not justify the posited rewards.

    • himelfarb says:

      I must say that the glib references to Italy and Israel get really boring really quick. Most democracies use some version of PR so why not look at the extensive research which shows that it contribute to trust and cohesion, why not point to Germany or Sweden or Norway or New Zealand? And Israel uses a model that no commission in Canada ever had proposed though they have all proposed more proportionality so why not look at those countries using the models that make sense for Canada.

      • megannety says:

        Glib references do quickly become boring as do the majority of glib comments on the failings of the current system. I am a fan of reform, but Canada isn’t New Zealand or Norway. And I read your comments and have followed the debate. I hope we can get beyond glib and boring soon.

      • himelfarb says:

        Many commissions on electoral reform were asked to assess what would work best for Canada. Every one of them proposed a version of PR tailored for Canada. There is now extensive research on the relative performance of the various systems and given that most democracies now use some version of PR and do there’s extensive comparative data. The vast majority of those who electoral reform experts and researchers have come to the conclusion that PR is best. There’s nothing glib about it and interestingly it crosses all ideology.

  3. Lorna Marsden says:

    Have you watched Borgen, the Danish series about a woman who becomes PM? Any form of PR requires a safe-guard against spending one’s entire PMship negotiating with hardline right wing and far-left parties to say nothing of independents and ornery centrists.and avoiding the endless coalition negotiations a la the Netherlands…while the civil service runs the country. So let’s be highly practical in this discussion, not just theoretical add idealistic…

    • himelfarb says:

      Lorna, you’re better than this kind of anecdotal response. They kinds of models ever proposed for Canada (such as used in Germany and New Zealand) have produced stable, responsible governments and more trust in the electorate. There have been many commissions in Canada, the Law Reform Commission included, that tailored their proposals to Canada’s federal system. All of them have proposed more but not perfect proportionality. Given that most advanced democracies use PR there’s huge evidence on it, solid comparative evidence. And yes, there are some systems with national lists and low thresholds that have more parties and we can learn from them. Germany by the way has 4 Parties in their parliament. We have 5 and an independent, 6 if you include the Senate.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        I watched a number of the witnesses on ParlVu (though I clued in too late to catch yours). Virtually all that I saw noted the global omnipresence of PR, without casting it as mere copying of a bad practice.

        I suspect the varierty of opinions on the matter – including your own and Lorna’s, and probably my own – is a function of the many different sorts of problems individuals see it as a solution to. Can it work? Well, we’re not entirely surrounded by utter chaos, so I guess it can. But does it adequately address the specific problems citizens view within their own democracy? I don’t know that it does or doesn’t, largely because I think we haven’t enumerated a shopping list of specific issues we want addressed.

        Indeed, when the “referendum question” comes up, my recall of the witnesses’ testimony is that, despite outcry from pundits, citizen groups, and Opposition members, it would simply be a bad idea; perhaps only at this juncture, perhaps ever. And while they may not have articulated it as such, I would concur that it remains a bad idea until such time as we have:
        a) enumerated what our main concerns are regarding the functioning of government (and those could easily be very different for different constituencies/perspectives),
        b) identified what specific electoral alternatives will most likely lead to the resolution of those specific concerns, and
        c) managed to transform the specific alternatives into a clear question whose public response provides unambiguous direction.

        For myself, and many others, a change in the manner whereby Parliament is constituted by public will is every bit as important as deciding what regions/provinces the nation will consist of from here on, making something *like* a refendum a sort of necessary stamp for proceeding.

        Could that actually *happen*, though? I don’t know. Some might suggest, I suppose, that rather than take place in the form of an issue-specific referendum, it could also take the form of a platform, come the next federal election. I realize election promises are supposed to be sacred, and PM Trudeau did say 2015 would be the last FPTP election. But it would be sheer partisan pettiness to obsess over “But you said…!”, were a specific identified electoral change and accompanying rationale be pitched as part of an electoral platform. Yes, I realize general admiration or distaste for this party leader or that would be confounded with electors’ preference for systemn A, B, or C, and that may warrant against what I propose – I’m enough of a social scientist to recognize the inferential conundrums in that methodology. BUt at least it would be a way of honouring the promise without creating a divisive frenzy over that specific issue.

        In any event, I look forward to the resumption of hearings at the end of August. I’m also kind of glad Matt Mendelsohn, Lori Turnbull, and Mark Jarvis have found their way into PCO for the time being. Matt, in particular, prepared a terrific piece last year on Senate reform and the governance problems raised by an elected Senate. Some excellent insights, so it gives me comfort to know PCO has that level of detailed thought pacing its halls.

  4. debdavemg says:

    I am pleased that the commission got to hear from you. I completely agree with your analysis and recommendations. Thank you for representing Canadians who care for the state of our democracy. Very good job.

  5. Jared Milne says:

    A wonderful summary of the advantages of PR. I especially like the idea of governments needing more support from across Canada to gain and stay in power,

    John Ibbitson loved to crow about the collapse of the Laurentian Consensus, but instead of the provinces west of Ontario being shut out of government, he seems to want the provinces east of Ontario to be shut out. Different shade of lipstick on the same ugly pig.

  6. Alex, I just read this and it is really good. If it was your whole presentation, it would be good! The third paragraph is the best succinct explanation I’ve seen of why every vote should matter (although I still think it is facile to say “every vote counts”). I must say I’m appalled at the first few comments and I commend you for your restraint in answering them. I love Danish TV dramas but they do tend to be over-wrought, and I wouldn’t have thought they would be cited as evidence of how the system works.

    I have very little hope that there will be any progress in this Parliament, but I hope that there will at least be some open consideration of alternatives that might make people fell better about how we elect MPs.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Andy. I’m writing a longer piece on PR which I will share with you. I’m amazed at reactions on this issue. My sense is that the for most this is an eye-rolling beltway issue. But those who do care seem to care passionately. In part because it taps into partisan interests. And if course because electoral systems are so central to democracy – it’s how we grant authority to govern on our behalf – it evokes powerful conservative instincts. But mostly it taps into competing ideas about democracy and that’s what my next piece will address.

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