Is PR an idea whose time has come?


Calls for a systemically more representative government always seem to follow a deeply unsatisfying election. Last Monday’s vote in New Brunswick produced no deviation from this familiar – and, for some, increasingly tiresome – norm.

After all, here was the spectacle of five jockeying, jostling, jiggling parties, only two of which had any chance of securing a meaningful number of the legislature’s 49 seats. (David Coon’s Fredericton South win for the Green Party was the exception that proved the rule).

Here was another pitched battle in the seemingly endless war between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives over whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing in a province that has, in fact, permitted the drilling practice for years, and with no evidence of environmental harm accruing.

And here was a fractured plebiscite, replete with technical glitches and calls for recounts, in which, despite all efforts to the contrary, much of the electorate politely declined their invitations to the cotillion.

Unofficially, 373,337 New Brunswickers did their democratic duty. Nearly 200,000, who were eligible to cast a ballot, sat this one out. . .again.

That was the lowest voter turnout on record (65 per cent) – lower than the 2006 and 2010 elections (68 and 70 per cent, respectively)

According to a CBC report last week, “Jamie Gillies, an assistant professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University, said low voter turnout is in part a generational problem, which won’t be easy to fix. ‘This is a feeling among a lot of people who believe that voting as a civic duty does not matter. It does not matter who we elect on election day.’”

Need we even wonder, then, why people like Kelly Carmichael are calling for an entirely different – and fairer – way to participate in our democracy. She’s a spokesperson for Fair Vote Canada, a national group that advocates for proportional representation.

The organization’s definition is succinct: “Proportional representation is any voting system designed to produce a representative body (like a parliament, legislature, or council) where voters elect representatives in proportion to (their) votes.”

As it was, in our existing first-past-the-post system, the Liberals earned 43 per cent of the popular vote, but more than half the seats in the Assembly. The Tories’ garnered slightly better than a third of the vote, but won more than 40 per cent of the house. The Green Party took one seat with seven per cent of the vote. The NDP (13 per cent) and the People’s Alliance (2.1 per cent) were out of luck, left only to shuffle along old Freddy Beach’s cobblestones.

If Ms. Carmichael and her like had their way, all parties would have emerged with some degree electoral representation: Liberals with 21 seats; Progressive Conservatives with 17; the NDP with six; the Greens with three; and the People’s Alliance with one.

Lamentably, in Canada, proportional representation has been a notoriously hard sell, not among voters, but among those who have the most to lose under such a system: the political establishment, members of which often spout the most egregious generalizations and spin the most outrageous myths about the process.

They say it’s uncommon and unstable. They say it would, in New Brunswick, generate confusion, instability and deadlock. It might even embolden the secret extremists among us who, given a chance, would seek and secure representation for themselves in the Assembly.

The reality is, however, that proportional representation is the most common electoral system in the world, favored most major democracies – though not Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

As for instability, Fair Vote points out on its website, “Since Italy reformed its voting system in the 1990s, Canada is actually now the most unstable of the major democracies, with twenty-one elections since World War II to Italy’s eighteen.”

Finally, the facts simply don’t support the claim that our present system – which can, and frequently does, reward lightly supported candidates for office with absolute power – is somehow inherently better equipped than proportional representation to prevent the barking lunatics in our midst from joining our various assemblies and parliaments.

Of course, no system of self-government is perfect. In fact, oftentimes, it’s a democracy’s flaws that suggest the very strategies for improvement.

This was, indeed, the case last Monday in New Brunswick, where one system of representation pointed, in its failure, to the promise of a better one.

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