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.