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As I See It

The problems with proportional representation

These past few years of minority governments in Canada have been somewhat impressive, despite the constant bickering and polarization between the major parties it has caused.

Impressive, because I have a difficult time imagining what, short of a earth-shaking scandal, will change things on the Hill.

It is possible that eventually the electorate itself (you and I that is) will get tired of this mess in Ottawa, and vote one way or the other, period, end of story, granting one party or another an unquestioned majority.

But there has been whisperings heard over the past decade, from corners of the federal political scene, whisperings of a single phrase.

That phrase is 'proportional representation.'

Coming most often from libertarians, neo-conservatives, communists, and political environmentalists, a brief explanation about the Canadian electoral system would likely be good here, as it is an imbalance that is perceived by some to be inherent in the system that leads them to call for electoral reform.

In Canada, our system of federal election is called a 'first-past-the-post' system.

What this means is whichever candidate wins the simple majority of the votes cast within their riding takes the seat.

However, the imbalance some complain of becomes clear when you look at the election statistics verses the party representation within the parliament.

With 308 seats up for grabs in the last federal election, the government of Stephen Harper increased its seat count from 124 seats in the 2006 election to 143 seats, or 46.4 percent of the total seats on the Hill.

In terms of the popular vote, this increase in seats came at an increase of only 167,494 votes, equalling a popular vote for the Conservative Party to 37.65 percent, an increase of a little more than 1.3 percent from the previous vote.

On the other hand, the Green Party under Elizabeth May hit their highest vote count ever, with more than 900,000 votes cast for Green Party candidates, yet they failed to win even a single seat.

With 6.78 percent of the popular vote behind them, many Greens spoke at length about the benefits to democracy that proportional representation entails.

While there are subtle differences on how a proportional system is run, the basics are that the electorate would cast votes for parties, as opposed to candidates.

Each party, before the federal election, would hand into the electoral board (Elections Canada in our case) a prioritized list of candidates.

Once the election was held, and the ballots counted, each party would be assigned federal seats in a proportional percentage to their showing in the election.

If the Bloc du Quebecois matched their showing in the 2008 election, and ended with 9.98 percent of the federal vote, then they would be granted 9.98 percent of the seats, or about 30 seats in the parliament.

In the present system, the Bloc, with the showing stated above, won 49 seats, while the New Democratic Party, which won 18.18 percent of the vote, nearly double that of the Bloc, sat in only 37 seats.

As you can see, there does seem to be an imbalance in the system . . .

That is, an imbalance if you think that the point of democracy is to ensure the voice of the minority is heard.

Yes, that sounds rather harsh, but that is how I feel about the issue, and I would say that some of the very parties that stand on platforms supporting proportional representation illustrate my point.

Usually small, fringe, or way-out-there parties, their very extremism is the reason they do poorly in elections.

The Reform Party and the Bloc du Quebecois have both shown that it is possible to enter the federal arena as a party, assuming you message appeals to a broad enough base of constituents in at least one riding.

So as opposed to complaining about Alexis de Tocqueville's 'tyranny of the majority,' and demanding a major electoral overhaul just so you can sit a single person in the House of Commons, just get the idea that this is a democratic state where the desires of the majority are those most often represented following an election.