Friday, April 29, 2011

Will the NDP get us closer to proportional representation? Here's my suggestion

With the latest polls, such as those from Nanos and Ekos, showing the NDP is strongly positioned to challenge a Conservative minority, one of the NDP's long-term goals may have a chance for life.

That goal is proportional representation. It turns out to be also a goal of the Green Party, which I support.

In the distant past, when there were two main parties, our Westminster-stule first-past-the-post election system served just fine. However it prevents strong and legitimate national parties in third, fourth and fifth place from having their fair share of influence, and has shut out the Green's entirely, despite the fact that they had the support of a million Canadians. It also disproportionally increases the influence of regionally focused parties such as the Bloc Quebecois.

True proportional representation would rectify this. However most observers feel that we wouldn't want to throw away the concept of local MPs to achieve that. The most popular alternative the therefore a mixed-member system, where additional parliamentarians are chosen by the parties so that the total representation in the legislature matches the popular vote. However when a referendum was held in Ontario on this topic, there was public backlash against two aspects. The "no" forces didn't like the idea of the parties appointing 'party hacks' who weren't directly on the ballot; and there was also a backlash against increasing the size of the legislature. Additionally, the public just didn't understand the system since they would have to vote twice, once for their local member and once for their preferred party.

Here's what I propose:

  • Firstly, at the next redistribution of seats, a fixed proportion of seats in each province should be set aside for the 're-balancing' members who would represent the under-represented parties. Parliament would not be increased unduly to accommodate this.
  • Secondly, the seats for under-represented parties need not be in sufficient numbers to result in a complete match to the popular vote. Perhaps 10% of seats could be used for re-balancing.
  • Thirdly, the re-balancing members would automatically be those with the highest percentage of votes in existing electoral districts, but who did not win. So, for example, If the Green Party was given 14 seats, to better represent their proportion of the popular vote, then the 14 Green Party candidates getting the highest percentage of votes locally, but who did not win, would become MPs.

The advantages of such a system would be the following:

  • People would have less incentive to vote strategically since their vote would count in two ways, even if their vote did not result in their chosen candidate actually winning. Firstly, it would influence the overall national or provincial totals and thus determine which party gets the re-balacing seats. And secondly, since it might help their chosen candidate get a seat even if they come second.
  • The elected MPs would be known on election night.
  • All MPs would be directly elected; none would be appointed by parties.
  • Experienced MPs who lose tight races, may be able to retain a re-balancing seat. We need experienced people in parliament.
  • National parties would benefit at the expense of regional parties. The latter tend to be divisive.
A disadvantage of my system would be that some electoral districts would have two MPs, resulting in a perception of undue influence. But it seems to me this is the lesser of two evils. With the current system there is already a divergence of influence: Distrcts with Government MPs have more influence, and districts with opposition MPs have less influence.

Many will argue that any proportional system will result in perpetual minority governments or coalitions. I used to think this would be bad. Stephen Harper rails against minorities and constantly calls for a 'strong' majority. However, minority governments and coalitions have worked well in many Western democracies.

Here's how the re-balancing of seats in my system might have worked in the last parliament, if 10% additional seats were used for this purpose (i.e. 31 seats). My actual proposal calls for no additional seats, but rather that electoral districts be expanded to keep the number of seats the same, however, I can't know who would have been elected in such a different electoral map:

% % Popular Percent Resulting Resulting
Seats Seats Vote Below Rebalancing Seats Percent seats
Conservative 143 46.4 37.6 143 42.2
Liberal 76 24.7 26.2 1.5 3 79 23.4
BQ 50 16.2 10 50 14.7
NDP 37 12.0 18.2 6.2 13 50 14.7
Independent 2 0.6 1 0.4 1 3 0.8
Green 0 0.0 6.8 6.8 14 14 4.2

The main beneficiaries would have been the NDP which would have gained 13 seats, and the Green Party, which would have gained 14 seats (up from zero). The Conservatives would have still had a proportion of seats that was considerably greater than their proportion of the popular vote, but at least the other parties would have had a somewhat fairer representation.

The biggest loser in my system would have been the Bloc. However that seems fair: The Bloc has had far more influence than their proportion of the national vote would warrant. Note also that my system does allow for an extra independent MP; again, this would be the one who came closest with the highest percentage of votes, but didn't win. A modification of my system might only allow actual parties to gain seats in this manner, or only independents that got at least 30% of the vote in their district.

For earlier posts on the current Canadian Election, see:

1 comment:

  1. Tim,
    Still doesn't seem right that BQ would end up with 50 seats for only 10% of the vote.
    They're voting this month in the UK in a referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote. It's not perfect, but it certainly seems the simplest way to modify first-past-the-post in a parliamentary system. The interesting parallel is that the Lib-Dems, who demanded the referendum as junior members in a coalition government, played a role equivalent to the NDP in Canadian federal politics - always the third party, they'd never been in government, and had always made proportional representation as a key plank in their platform.
    It will be interesting to see how the result affects Canadian thinking...