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A Fix for Gerrymandering? Real Electoral Reform

04/27/2012 11:35 EDT | Updated 06/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada's electoral system undermines the legitimacy of our government and frustrates the will of the people. There can be no issue more serious in a democracy than when its electoral system does not serve the public good.

Government actions flow from the number of seats parties win in the House of Commons. In Canada, these seats are not awarded in close correlation to the popular vote. In the last election, the electoral system awarded 53.9 per cent of the seats to a party that won only 39.6 per cent of the votes cast, and allowed that party to form the government. Numerous polls conducted in 2012 show that support of the governing party has declined since the election, to a level ranging from 31.4 per cent to 37 per cent.

Based on the election results and recent polling, it is reasonable to conclude that the ruling party has not enjoyed the support of a significant majority of Canadians, yet the electoral system has given that party the power to act as though it has this support. This can lead to a misalignment between the government's priorities and policies and those preferred by the majority of Canadians. In any event, majority rule by a minority offends basic democratic principles.

All told, the present electoral system resulted in a distortion of 22.2 per cent in terms of seat allocation as compared to the parties' shares of the popular vote. A system that distorts election results by more than 22 per cent cannot be said to meet the standards for a functioning democracy.

Last week, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien suggested that the New Democratic and Liberal parties should merge into a single centrist party. Presumably, this would have the effect of making candidates of the new party stronger competitors for individual seats. This, in turn, would make it less likely that a progressive majority would be governed by a Conservative government with only minority support.

Chrétien's proposal is ill-suited to its purpose. Michael Ignatieff ran the last Liberal campaign with the goal of trying to bring Canadians into the Liberals' "big red tent." Clearly, Canadians did not follow his lead. Now that the NDP has attained Official Opposition status, it is even less likely that NDP supporters would merge with the Liberals and risk moving farther to the right.

Parties should not have to merge for our system to become more democratic. The answer to the problem of majority rule by the minority is to achieve electoral reform so that the electoral system is sound enough to itself produce a truly representative government.

With this in mind, Canadians for Justice has released a proposal for electoral reform and how to achieve it. The details of its proposal are available on its web site. This new electoral system, called PTPR (Provincial/Territorial Proportional Representation), allocates seats based on the percentage of the parties' popular vote in each province/territory. Candidates are ranked and elected based on the percentage of the popular vote they earn in their respective ridings, which makes this system different from other proportional representation systems, including Mixed Member Proportional Representation, the system favoured by most of the candidates in the NDP's recent leadership contest.

The PTPR designed and proposed by Canadians for Justice is far more accurate than Canada's present electoral system. When applying the system to the results of the past election, the distortion factor is reduced from 22.2 per cent to just 1.6 per cent.

The Conservatives are opposed to electoral reform and the Liberals are uncommitted, while the NDP and the Green Party advocate for change. If the new leader of the Liberal party supports electoral reform, the party should cooperate with the NDP and the Green Party in the next election to achieve this important goal.

If not a merger, what should this cooperation look like? In his campaign for the leadership of the NDP, Nathan Cullen suggested that the three "progressive" parties have common nomination meetings to select a single candidate who would oppose the Conservative candidate in each riding. This is not the best mode of cooperation. The competition inherent in Cullen's proposal would result in more bitterness between the parties in each riding, thereby discouraging many "progressive" voters from voting for the chosen candidate.

The Leader of the NDP and of the Official Opposition, Thomas Mulcair, does not favour cooperation between the "progressive" parties. His intention at this time is to run NDP candidates in all of the ridings across Canada. There are 57 ridings in which the total "progressive" vote would have exceeded the Conservative or Bloc vote had the "progressive" vote not been split among the three "progressive" parties. In the vast majority of the 57 ridings, one "progressive" candidate was far ahead of the others. This means that in the ridings in which the NDP did not come second to the Conservative, the party is unlikely to make up enough ground to overtake both the leading "progressive" candidate and the Conservative incumbent. Unless there is a massive sea change in favour of the NDP at the next election, it would be hard for the NDP to make meaningful progress against the Conservatives as long as the "progressive" vote remains split.

The most efficient and realistic way to restore truly democratic representative government to Canada would be for the three "progressive" parties to follow the path set out here. They should agree to support the candidate of the party that came in second in each of the 57 identified ridings in the last election (subject to polling undertaken closer to the next election to tailor the approach in each riding).

Based on the results of the last election, the three parties could all expect to win more seats this way than they would without cooperating in this manner. Once they collectively earn a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the three parties should then pass a law adopting the PTPR.

To alleviate possible concerns on the part of Canadians about a formal coalition of the three parties, these parties should make it clear that they will cooperate in this limited way only for the purpose of achieving electoral reform to make future elections more democratic. As evidence of this, the three parties should commit not to form a coalition government after the next election. They should also agree that another election will be called immediately after electoral reform is passed so that the seats in the House of Commons can be reallocated based on the new electoral system.

This approach would restore legitimacy to Canada's democratic institutions and give Canadians future governments that reflect their aspirations.