CPJ for proportional representation

Following is the content of a letter sent to Nathalie Des Rosiers, President of the Law Commission of Canada, May 26, 2003

Dear Ms. Des Rosiers:

Citizens for Public Justice welcomes the opportunity to express its views on electoral reform as part of your consultation. CPJ is a national Christian public advocacy organization with a 40-year history of involvement in a wide range of issues which face our country.

CPJ’s interest in electoral reform grows out of our strong belief in the value of pluralism and respect for diversity. We believe that is not enough to simply allow Canadians the freedom to express a wide range of opinions and for our society to include people with a wide range of values. Those values and opinions also need to find expression in the institutions of our society, including our political institutions. Our legislatures and governments need to reflect the diversity of opinion found in the country.

In particular, we have argued for 40 years that people with different beliefs need to be given public room to order their lives differently, in keeping with their fundamental perspectives on life.

Our respect for diversity and pluralism forms the basis of CPJ’s longstanding belief that our current “first past the post” (FPTP) system of political representation is fundamentally flawed and should be replaced by a proportional representation (PR) model. Our current system does not, in our view, make room for the diversity of public philosophy and policy positions found within Canada. This is an issue of basic justice and of treating Canadian voters justly. It’s thus one with which we are deeply concerned. Justice and equity create a compelling argument for changing our current electoral system.

CPJ does not believe that all perspectives are equally valid. Some viewpoints, such as those which advocate racist policies, are abhorrent to us. Yet we their minds as to the type of diverse views they wish to see expressed in their political system.

Therefore since the 1960s, CPJ has proposed implementation of proportional representation (PR) on numerous occasions at both federal and provincial levels. For example, CPJ responded to federal government proposals in 1991 for constitutional change with a paper, Reforming the Canadian Electoral System, which supported some form of PR for the House of Commons. More recently, CPJ members John Hiemstra and Harold Jansen outlined a detailed case for PR in their chapter “Getting What You Vote For”, in the book Contemporary Political Issues, edited by Mark Charlton and Paul Barker, (Scarborough: Nelson, 2002).

The shortcomings of the current FPTP model, in which the candidate in a given riding who wins more votes than the other candidates wins a seat as MP, have become glaringly apparent in recent years. It amounts to a “winner take all” system, in which the dominant party grabs the electoral spoils at the expense of smaller parties.

The results of the 2000 federal election serve as a case in point. The Liberals won 57 percent of the seats in the House of Commons (172 of the 301 seats), with a minority of the popular vote (40.8 percent). Looking at the number of votes cast for each party and the number of MPs elected for that party shows that the notion that all parties are treated equitably under our current system is a myth. Each Liberal Member of Parliament needed an average of only 30,218 votes to get elected. Yet it took an average of 83,918 votes to elect each New Democratic MP and a whopping 130, 316 votes to elect each of the 12 Conservative MPs elected.

Some argue that PR would worsen regional divisions within Canada. Yet in fact, such divisions are deepened under the current system, which rewards parties with regionally concentrated support, while discriminating against parties with a more national appeal. For example, while the Canadian Alliance was rewarded with 64 seats for the 1.9 million votes it received across the four Western provinces, it received a mere two seats in Ontario, even though it received over one million votes in that province. Meanwhile the Liberals received about 950,000 votes in the four Western provinces – about half as many as the Alliance – but only received one-fifth as many seats as the Alliance. These distorted results reinforced common beliefs that the Alliance is a Western-based party with little support in Ontario, and that the Liberals have little support in the West. Many similar examples could be given involving other parties.

We reject the argument that proportional representation would lead to unstable, ineffective government. Versions of PR are used in more than 90 jurisdictions around the world. The vast majority of them have stable, effective governments.

The House of Commons and other legislatures should reflect the diversity of political opinion that exists within the country. Yet our current system discriminates against political parties which take distinctive stands on issues. In order to win under the “first past the post” system, a candidates usually needs about 40% of the vote in their constituency. The easiest way to win those votes is to adopt a middle-of-the-road stance. A party that runs a platform that only appeals to 15 or 20% of the voters runs the risk of winning few or no seats. Yet under PR, such a party would win some seats. The result would likely be more principled parties, thus improving the quality of representation. Voters would have a more clear idea of the mandate they are giving to MPs, and thus be better able to hold MPs accountable for their policies and political actions.

In effect, millions of Canadians wasted their votes in the last election by casting them for candidates with no chance of winning. Thus it’s not surprising that voter turnout in Canada has been declining. In the 1984 and 1988 federal elections, about 75% of eligible voters cast ballots. The number dropped to 69.6% in 1993, and in 1997 to 67%. Turnout sank further in 2000, to 62.8%.

This is an alarming trend. While we do not believe that a new voting system would in itself reverse this trend completely, we do believe that it is an essential ingredient for revitalizing Canadian democracy.

Given the shortcomings of our current FPTP system and declining citizen involvement in elections, it is no accident that support for electoral reform has been growing in Canada. Nor do we believe that it is an accident that a growing number of Canadians, from across the political spectrum, are calling for the adoption of some kind of proportional representation system in our country. It is the fairest and most effective way to involve Canadians in a representative democracy.

Your consultation is part of this growing movement for electoral reform. As well as endorsing PR, we believe that your consultation should support a process whereby the electoral reform movement will be affirmed and acknowledged. For example, a royal commission or a citizens assembly could be established on electoral reform, with a clear mandate and deadlines.

British Columbia provides an example of one model of how such a process might work. Reflecting a strong electoral reform movement, the government of B.C. recently announced that it plans to establish a citizens assembly to consider options for how MLAs are elected in that province. If the assembly recommends a different electoral system, voters will have an opportunity to express their views through a referendum on that new electoral option, to be held on the date of the next provincial election in 2005.

Without an independent, non-partisan process that gives Canadians a meaningful opportunity to express their views, it will be all too easy for the current reform movement to get sidetracked, because parties that win power under the current system are, understandably, reluctant to change it.

We look forward to the report and recommendations from your consultation. Thank you for this opportunity to express our views on this vital issue.


Harry J. Kits
Executive Director, CPJ

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