Disproportionately misrepresented?

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The problem with Canada’s electoral system can be summed up in four words: “first past the post”.

It means, simply, that those who win a plurality of votes (more than the other guys, but not enough to justify a true majority in any particular constituency) get to rule the rural and urban roosts of this country without further ado.

For our purposes now, in an election cycle, that could mean that 60 per cent of this country will collectively vote for the NDP and the Liberals.

Still, under our peculiar system of government – which we borrowed – that would not be enough weapons-grade determination to defeat the Conservatives, whose 40 per cent showing would almost certainly return their majority government for a fourth, historic time.

As Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson pointed out last May, “Canada’s system is looking increasingly isolated. It’s a system inherited from Britain, but even in that country, the system no longer easily fits with a fractured electorate. It also no longer fits easily in Canada, where three of the last four elections produced minority governments.”

Indeed, Mr. Simpson writes, “In contrast to many other systems, the Canadian provides very few checks and balances on a prime minister with a majority. The unelected Senate is a wet noodle; the government backbenchers are yes-men; the cabinet members are appointed by the top dog. With a couple of exceptions, none would dare stand up to such a domineering leader and his controlling staff.”

In fact, the evolution of western democracies seems to favour some form of proportional representation, and NDP Leader Thomoas Mulcair is not wrong when, in his election platform, he claims, “Democracies such as Germany and New Zealand have embraced proportional representation and realized improvements since moving away from first-past-the-post. In a study that looked at 36 countries with proportional representation, countries that reformed their systems saw increased voter turnout, more women and minorities elected and an overall higher satisfaction with democracy.”

Nova Scotia’s Atlantica Party also makes a good point when it declares in its mission statement, “A party that gets 35 per cent of the vote should not get 60 per cent of the seats in the Legislature. Electoral reform is needed to give fair results while retaining the voter-representative link. Voting systems such as Single Transferable Vote provide this; making it easier for independents to run in elections.”

The party also wants to institute e-voting and “the direct election of the Premier (and of) Nova Scotia’s Senators. Everyone should have a say in picking our leadership. The ruling party should not have the unfair advantage of game-playing the date of an election. Election dates should be fixed every four years and be called Joseph Howe Day.”

What if, in a new mood of enlightened self-interest, local leaders decided to experiment with proportional representation in New Brunswick – indeed, across the Maritimes?

Would that make our democracy stronger, more able to sustain a wider variety of voices and opinions, more wiling to entertain unorthodox, yet workable, solutions to our shared problems?

Or would proportional representation only guarantee – as its opponents repeatedly point out – policy gridlock at every turn of the screws of government? You think it’s tough getting anything done now, they argue? Just wait until you add dozens more dissenting voices to the mix. See what happens then to the quicksand of political decision-making?

Still, I’m inclined to ignore “facts” that are not based on evidence. How do we know until we’ve tried?

We certainly know what “first past the post” has done for, and to, our democracy.

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