Walter Robinson

Walter Robinson is a trilingual (English, French and functional Spanish) public affairs executive and spokesperson who has held national lea

Nov 29, 2000
Published on: The Globe and Mail
2 min read

On Monday night, the votes of millions of Canadians didn't count.

Our archaic electoral system, referred to as first past the post, gives each parliamentary seat to the party that wins the most votes in that riding, and throws out the rest of the votes as irrelevant, no matter that they expressed the democratic wishes of, very likely, the majority of the voters in that riding. Yet, despite its undemocratic nature, we continue to maintain the system in election after election.

As two individuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum who disagree on most issues, we wholeheartedly agree on one thing: Changing our electoral system to better represent the wishes of voters is an urgent necessity.

Once again, the Liberals won a majority of the seats in the House of Commons (173 of 301), with a minority of the popular vote (40.8 per cent). They now hold unchallenged and, for the most part, unaccountable power for the next four years or so, even though the majority of us voted against them. In 1997, it was much the same story. With only 38 per cent of the popular vote -- the smallest mandate in Canadian history for a majority government -- the Liberals clung to government.

It's the same story in the provinces. In British Columbia, the current NDP government has a majority even though they received fewer votes than the opposition Liberals. Similarly, Lucien Bouchard became Premier of Quebec with an overwhelming majority of the seats although the Parti Québécois got fewer votes than the Liberals. And in Ontario, Mike Harris continues to enjoy a majority government despite the fact that 56 per cent of Ontario voters cast ballots against him last year.

The worst aspect of our electoral system is that it exacerbates regional differences. Monday night's vote clearly demonstrates this as the country was increasingly balkanized. The Canadian Alliance garnered about 1.9 million votes across the four Western provinces for 64 of their 66 seats. But they also received more than one million votes in Ontario; all for a paltry two seats. Meanwhile, the Liberals cleaned house in Ontario with about 2.3 million votes and 101 seats -- about twice as many votes as the Alliance but 50 times as many seats.

In the West, this electoral perversion continues. The Liberals received about 950,000 votes in the four Western provinces -- about half of the Alliance total -- but got only one-fifth as many seats.

Before Monday's vote, pundits and political leaders alike urged us all to look to the U.S. presidential election to remember that every vote counts. Not so. In our system, some votes count more than others. For example, the Liberals needed about 5.2 million votes to win 173 seats in Parliament -- that's an average of about 30,000 votes for each seat. The Alliance, on the other hand, needed an average of about 49,000 votes for each of its 66 seats. The cost of seats was even higher for the NDP and Conservatives. They needed averages of about 84,000 and 130,000 votes respectively to win their 13 and 12 seats in the House.

Canada is one of just five modern industrial democracies that still use this outdated system. Even Great Britain has started to abandon it. Recent elections in Ireland, Scotland and Wales employed preferential ballots or proportional representation. Under proportional representation, the distribution of seats and power is a function of the popular vote cast for respective candidates or parties.

If Monday's seats were allocated based on a pure proportional model, the Commons seat tally would be: Liberal, 123 (instead of 173); Alliance, 77 (instead of 66); Conservatives, 37 (instead of 12); Bloc Québécois, 32 (instead of 37); NDP, 26 (instead of 13); and six "others" would each have won a seat instead of being shut out.

Versions of proportional representation systems are employed in more than 90 jurisdictions and can be tailored to reflect the needs of different countries. For example, some people believe a German system of combining first past the post and proportional representation might be most suitable to Canada. Such a system would retain the concept of MPs representing traditional ridings, while the overall result would better reflect the voters' wishes.

Opponents of proportional representation argue that it encourages the creation of small parties and makes it very hard to elect a majority government. They say that politicians end up deciding after the voting is over which parties should combine to form a coalition. Better, these people say, to let voters choose from a smaller number of parties, and better also to have stable majority rule.

Why? After 20 years of arrogant majority rule by Liberal and PC governments, we think a little uncertainty in those holding the reins would be a good thing.

Proportional systems are employed around the world and, with the possible exception of Israel and Italy, produce governments that are no less stable than our own. True, parties have to combine forces in order to rule, but this yields governments that are both more representative and more accountable. Women and minorities are better represented. There is no such thing as a wasted vote since even small parties can make their presence felt and strategic voting is of much less interest. You have more opportunity to vote for a political party rather than against it.

Perhaps the greatest proof of the success of proportional representation is in voter turnout.

Canada has seen a disturbing decline in voter turnout over the past four elections. In 1984 and 1988, about 75 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. In 1993, the number dropped to 69.6 per cent and, in 1997, it fell again to 67 per cent. Monday's voter turnout was a mere 62.8 per cent! Some may argue that this is a function of a vicious mudslinging campaign, but we believe an equally compelling argument can be made that voters are feeling, with some justification, that their vote just doesn't count.

If the deadlock of the recent U.S. election is farce, our electoral system is tragedy.

Canada desperately needs a new voting system. We both favour a move to proportional representation. In such systems, coalition governments are more common. Successful coalitions respect the diversity of opinion articulated by voters on election day. They must do this -- their political survival depends on it.

The march toward voting reform needs more than our two voices.

A new organization called Fair Vote Canada ( ) has recently been formed to launch a national campaign for proportional representation. Saskatchewan NDP MP Lorne Nystrom's re-election ensures that his work for voting reform will continue. He had a private member's bill on voting reform accepted for debate in the last Parliament; we hope he can do it again.

Once a party wins by the first-past-the-post system, it is loathe to change it. That means citizens must raise their voices. Monday's vote marked the end of one campaign. The campaign to return our electoral system to the people has only just begun. Judy Rebick, the author of Imagine Democracy , leans to the left. Walter Robinson, Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, leans to the right.