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Electoral Reform Could Come At The Cost Of Our National Unity

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CANADA ELECTORAL REFORM
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In my final blog on electoral reform I will share my most serious concern with a move away from our long standing electoral system. In previous blogs I highlighted that this electoral reform exercise was a solution in search of a problem and how the limited debate and lack of a referendum undermined the legitimacy of the exercise.

My greatest concern stems from the fact that a move to Proportional Representation (PR) could actually undermine national unity.

Canada is one of the world's leading democracies and our stable and effective Confederation is even more impressive when you consider our expansive geography, relatively small population and our diverse cultural and linguistic heritage. National unity must be a core consideration for our Prime Minister and a look at our history shows that unity is not always a simple task.

From the conscription crisis to two Quebec Referenda to the divisive National Energy Program that alienated the West, the actions of government can often tangle Canadians in our differences rather than bind us together in common purpose.

Tory Leader Robert Stanfield described the need for Canadian political parties to appeal to all Canadians when he reminded us that "national unity does not mean uniting most of Canada against part of it".

Our Plurality or First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system has helped unite Canadians due to the consensus nature of the system that rewards parties that unite Canadians rather than those that divide. Since 1935, the House of Commons has always had at least four or five political parties represented by Members of Parliament, but only the Liberal and Conservative parties have formed the government.

This is due to the fact that these two national parties had broad enough appeal to win a plurality of votes in a large number of ridings across Canada. They achieved this appeal by bringing Canadians together on a range of issues and not by advancing only narrow or regional interests.

Canadian history is dotted with dozens of regional or single-issue parties at both the federal and provincial levels. The United Farmers and Progressive parties grew out of agrarian movements in the early 1900s and they ran on agricultural and rural issues. They formed governments in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba and elected MPs to the House of Commons by effectively speaking only to a portion of the electorate.

In Quebec, the Bloc Populaire was formed to fight against conscription in the Second World War and had several MPs in the Commons. The Bloc Québécois became a party premised on the single issue of Quebec sovereignty. In the 1993 election the Bloc became the official opposition in the House of Commons and has elected MPs in every election since that time.

In New Brunswick, the Confederation of Regions (COR) Party ran almost singularly on the issue of opposing official bilingualism. The COR Party took 21% of the vote and 8 seats in the 1991 New Brunswick election becoming the official opposition.

This brief history demonstrates that regional or single-issue parties can secure seats under our FPTP system, but it also shows that without a willingness to grow beyond their narrow appeal they generally fade away. A move to Proportional Representation would actually discourage the consensus building that has been the hallmark of our parliamentary democracy and lead to a narrowing of interests that we see causing disruption in other parts of the world.

A PR system would set a threshold (of seats or popular vote) that once passed would allow regional or single-issue parties to join the House of Commons even when they fail to elect an MP in a riding. Once these parties gain the legitimacy provided in the House of Commons and the financial resources that come with it, their motivation will be to perpetuate their narrow views and horse trade with other parties in shifting coalitions.

This has certainly been the experience in New Zealand, which has lived through the rise of splinter parties, strange coalitions and the general uncertainty caused by their move away from FPTP.

Will Canada's Parliament see more regional or secessionist parties under PR? Will we see more single-issue parties based on social or cultural issues? Will a move to PR virtually guarantee that the Bloc Québécois never fades away like single-issue parties of the past? Under a PR electoral system the answer is "likely yes" to all of these questions.

If PR discourages consensus building within political parties and produces a more balkanized House of Commons, how does this improve our democracy? The Prime Minister is quietly trying to move Canada towards a system that breeds division rather than working within our system that fosters unity. The fact that he believes he can do this without a real debate and without a referendum shows a reckless disregard for national unity. It also confirms that "sunny ways" was nothing more than an election slogan.

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