Real electoral reform

354b174In an article in the Edmonton Sun, David Akin complains, with good reason, I think, that “there’s no one, so far as I can tell, that has any plan to do anything to fix this most fundamental flaw in our system, that votes in some regions of the country, like PEI, get you a whole lot more juice in the House of Commons than voters in other regions, like the riding of Brantford—Brant.” He points out that “proportionate representation by population is a much more basic expectation in a democracy than a concern that political parties not feel hard done by after each election.

The problem

It seems to me that the essence of democracy is government with the (informed) consent of the governed. We give our consent on a periodic basis through elections, but, in Canada:

First, our votes don’t count, equally ~ that has very, very little to do with how seats are allocated on the basis of the vote but a lot to do with how seats are allocated by population. As Mr Akin points out, Prince Edward Island with a population of under 148,000 elects four MPs ~ one for every 37,000 people, about the same as in the Yukon and Nunavut ~ while one single riding in Ontario elects one MP for all of its almost 98,000 residents ~ in other words, voters in PEI and the territories have more than twice (or even more) as much “voice” in Ottawa as do voters from the suburbs around e.g. Toronto and Calgary. That, not “hurt feelings” because one party  was rewarded for a good campaign while other were “punished” for running campaigns that appealed only to a very narrow slice of 10936000Canadians, is what’s really wrong with democracy …

Second, that and the fact that in the 21st century one of the two chambers in our parliament isn’t elected at all! There are real problems with Canadian democracy that fiddling with proportional representation or ranked ballots with do nothing at all to solve. Prime Minister Trudeau’s proposals for democratic renewal are pitifully weak and the process he has chosen is, actually, anti-democratic.

I’m, frankly and sadly, not sure that Justin Trudeau actually understands the intricacies of a parliamentary democracy that uses the Westminster model.

David Akin ends his article with a plea to do some real democratic reform. He offers two ideas of his own:

“First and foremost: Change public support of our federal political system by ending the cozy system of political tax credits and rebates that do nothing but make rich national parties even richer and replace them by bringing back the per-vote subsidy. By this system,” he suggests,  “voters might more clearly see how their vote will make a difference even if it is for a party that is struggling in their electoral district.

Second: Bring in some system by which MPs could be subject to voter recall. Just knowing this kind of threat was out there would surely bind an MP more closely to an electorate and lessen the power of party whips.

Sadly,” he concludes, “neither of these ideas — or many others like it — are on the table right now. Instead, the electoral reform debate so far is a squabble about how political parties will divvy up an existing pie.

I have different priorities.

It seems to me that the first rule in Canadian politics (however undemocratic) is: Québec must never lose anything.

It follows that if Quebec must not lose then all the other provinces will demand something similar ~ thus a true proportional representation of vote share, by district, will only happen if we expand the House of Commons to almost 1,000 members (980 by my guesstimate, based on everyone having ridings the size of those in PEI), but it should be possible to change the rules in order to bring the electoral system more into line with the expectations of Canadians. I suspect that those rules, found in §51 of the Constitution, may need to be amended only after a full blown Constitutional convention ~ which might be a good idea, anyway, if the government really wants to change the electoral system.

My proposal would be to establish a “baseline” for representation based on one province that is near to equality with a few others. My model …


… which assumes that the representation accorded to New Brunswick is fair, allocates seats accordingly, ensuring that no one “loses.”

It produces a 480 seat House of Commons which is not, I think, unreasonable for a country of 35+ million people (75,000:1). (The UK has 650 MPs for a population of nearly 65 million (100,000:1),the Netherlands has a 150 seat House of Representatives for a population of nearly 17 million (113,333:1) so I am proposing more generous representation.)

My proposal is based on data provided by Statistics Canada and Elections Canada, and, except for using a different way to balance votes and population, it obeys the “rules” found in §51. The goal, which it achieves ~ notwithstanding the fact that PEI and the three territories remain over-represented, albeit less grossly ~ is that we have a legislature where everyone’s voice is a lot more equal.

But we still have another legislative chambre where we have almost no voice: the Senate of Canada. In my opinion the Senate must be elected … period, end of discussion and so on. Unelected legislatures are not appropriate to the 21st century and every prime minister who does not bring forward action to make the Senate democratic is a failure. I believe Prime Minister Harper wanted to reform the Senate but I also believe he found the task just too difficult when he was fighting a war in Afghanistan and facing economic stagnation, too. He put his emphasis on balancing the budget …

But Senate reform is also needed, and it is urgent.

I am less sure about how the Senate should look and work. I tend to agree with the Americans that a federal state involves two political bargains:

First, between the constituent, sovereign partners ~ the original colonies in Canada’s case; and

Second, between the people, in their communities, and the federal state.

Given Canada near equality of representation, as I outlined above would go a long, long way towards clearing the current deficit we, in Canada, have with the second political bargain.

The first bargain seems to require some sort of “upper house” in which each province has an equal voice. The problem  is that, as the illustration above shows, Ontario is nearly 100 times as populous as Prince Edward Island (94:1, actually) and many, many Canadians cannot imagine how equal representation makes any sense. But, in the USA, California with nearly 40 million people has the same two senators as Wyoming with less than 590,000, a 67:1 ratio, and they each have only two senators. The point is that provinces, like US states, are equal partners in the federation and they ought to have equal representation. But if they do then maybe the Senate, per se, can be disbanded ~ after a Constitutional amendment is passed ~ and a formal ‘Council of the Federation’ (the ten provincial premiers and the territorial leaders, can be put in its place, but I find it difficult to imagine that busy provincial premiers want to be required to consider federal laws, too. I, and I think Canada, could live with a Senate that is not equal … but not, for much longer, with one which is not elected.

One thought on “Real electoral reform”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s