Until recently in Canada, for someone to launch into a dis- cussion at a social function about proportional representation (PR) was the quickest way of getting the eyes of the selected victim to glaze over. I know from experience. In the 1950s I wrote an undergraduate paper calling for PR in Canada for Paul Fox, a leading scholar of Canadian politics, at the University of Toronto. Ever a generous man, he gave me a good mark but his concluding comment in terms of its then political relevance to Canada was shattering: ”œingenious but ingenuous.” Not deterred by this academic put down, later as a politician in the 1970s I strongly supported a resolution on this subject which was adopted by my party. This was, of course, ignored by my party colleagues " and worse still, by the peo- ple of Canada. As leader, ever in pursuit of worthy causes, at the end of 1970s, I submitted a proposal for a mixed first- past-the-post and PR system to the Pepin-Robarts Commission which to my delight went along with the idea. I was ecstatic, momentarily forgetting that the best way of ensuring that noth- ing happens on an issue in Canadian politics is to get a Royal Commission to recommend it. Parenthetically, I should note that Jean-Luc Pepin once told me that whenever there was some political- ly dead-end issue to be dealt with, Trudeau asked him to take it on.
In the real world of politics, the first time the major political relevance of Canada’s archaic, pre-democratic, regionally divisive, non-inclusive elec- toral system hit home was after the 1980 federal election.
Shortly following the election Pierre Trudeau asked me to meet with him. The subject of our subsequent dis- cussion was his proposal that I join the cabinet. I thought he was joking. After all, he had just obtained a so-called mandate from the people of Canada in the form of a majority government. I said to him that I would of course need other members of the NDP to be included. He replied, ”œHow many do you want?” I said, ”œWe will need five or six and a couple of major portfolios.” He looked at me and said, ”œYou’ve got them.” It was clear he wasn’t joking.
Trudeau then proceeded to explain why after having obtained a majority of seats, he was making this unusual request. He explained that he planned to introduce in the coming session of Parliament what turned out to be two of the most important and divisive measures in recent political history: the National Energy Program and the re- patriation of the constitution combined with a charter of rights. He observed that he was aware that in general out- line NDP policies on both matters were quite close to his own thinking.
In our discussions, it quickly tran- spired that because such an agenda would not only be highly controversial in substance but also potentially regionally divisive, he wanted us in the cabinet because in comparative terms, in numbers of seats, the NDP was electoral- ly strong in Western Canada and the Liberals were not. We had 26 MPs in the four provinces. He had none in BC, none in Alberta and none in Saskatchewan, and only two in Manitoba.
I want to focus on two related and overlapping points that show how nega- tively our electoral system influenced sub- sequent Canadian history. The first is that notwithstanding the fact that the Liberals obtained almost 25 percent of the votes in Western Canada in 1980, because of our pre-democratic electoral system, Trudeau’s government was virtually blanked out in terms of seats. Instead of the 20 MPs their share of the vote war- ranted, in terms of the popular vote, as I have said, the Liberals had only two. The Liberals, as has been said so misleadingly so often, were then seen in Western Canada to be a party of Eastern Canada (read: Ontario and Quebec). One of the serious consequences is that disagreement in Western Canada with controversial proposals by Liberals is almost invariably portrayed by opposition parties, even when there is no objective reason for doing so, as ”œThose Easterners are doing it to us again.” When a quarter of all the votes in Western Canada are not reflected in the membership in the caucus and cab- inet, differences about substance get transformed for partisan purposes into conflicts between regions. Parliament is seen to be out of touch with Canadians because its membership doesn’t accurate- ly reflect how Canadians actually voted. National unity suffers. Canada suffers.
There is a serious democratic deficit and credibility problem in Canada when the only votes counting for seats are those which are cast for the candi- date who gets the most votes in a first- past-the-post constituency. The system is equally bad for federal opposition par- ties. Reform under Preston Manning’s leadership did not get blanked-out by Canadians in Ontario. Notwithstanding a substantial popular vote of 20 percent in Ontario, it got blanked-out by our undemocratic electoral system. Thus, instead of a new political party arising in the West and successfully expanding in the East with a number of MP’s reflecting its popular support, it remained locked- out and was then dangerously and mis- leading described by the media as a ”œmere” Western party. Is it any wonder that thousands of Western Canadians feel alienated from their nation’s capital? Or that the 20 percent in Ontario who voted for Reform have increasingly felt that their votes are irrelevant?
If we look at the shaping of the sub- stance of policy in my 1980 example, again we see how counter-productive the Canadian electoral system is. Both in the initial drafting of bills that made up the National Energy Program and in their subsequent discussion and amend- ment at the committee stage, I believe that a Liberal caucus and government in 1980 that more accurately reflected Western Canadian votes would have led to material differences in the substance of the legislated program. Had the dem- ocratic right of every citizen’s vote to be counted equally in its impact on seats in the House been present and had there been a number of Liberals from each of the Western provinces to explain national policy, inter-regional conflict on both the constitution and the National Energy Program would have at the very least been reduced.
The failure of the Liberals to obtain seats in Western Canada anywhere pro- portional to their vote was by no means an isolated incident. I recently looked at the data for the four federal elections that took place since I left politics in 1989 (1993, 1997, 2000, 2004). There is a persistent failure of Western Canadians to get the Liberals they voted for elected. In each of the three provinces (Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.), in vir- tually every election, large numbers voted Liberal but only a handful of Lib- erals were elected. The disparity over time was worst in Alberta. Is it any wonder that in the West Albertans are most recently seen to be the most alienated from their national government? Of course, not just electoral representation but also matters of substance play a role in regional dis- content. However, I repeat the point I made earlier: the absence of equitable repre- sentation in caucus and cabinet plays a significant role in producing an imbalance in the substance of policy as well as weakness in persuading the public to accept it. Does anyone here in New Brunswick doubt that changes made in Employment Insurance and Fishery policies on the eve of the recent federal election were directly due to short-run fears by the Liberals " that unless these changes were made they would lose seats? My point is all regions deserve an electoral system that will ensure impact in Ottawa is equitably dis- tributed. All caucuses deserve a system that ensures representation from all regions proportional to votes cast.
I have put particular emphasis on the negative impact our electoral system can have on governments, particularly on the Liberals, because they have most often been in power. However, I also want to emphasize the impact on the opposition. A central value of our par- liamentary system is seen to reside in having a strong, representative opposi- tion. Once again the system militates disastrously against this. In Ottawa, more often than not opposition parties are not only weaker in numbers than their votes would justify, they also tend to be over-represented in some provinces (witness the Conservatives in Alberta) and under-represented in oth- ers (witness the NDP and Conservatives in Quebec). This inevitably causes oppo- sition parties, not just the government, to have a distorted view of the so-called national interest. In understanding regional concerns and in shaping national policies, 21 years of political experience have taught me it matters a great deal for all regions to be equitably represented in both the government and opposition. Our present undemoc- ratic electoral system fails us completely in this area on both sides of the House.
The failure of our electoral system to provide an effective opposition is ever more glaringly seen at the provin- cial level. The people of New Brunswick and P.E.I. know very well from recent history that opposition parties can be virtually wiped out in our system. Today in British Columbia there is a Liberal government vastly over-represented in seats and no official opposition in spite of the fact that thousands of citizens from one end of the province to the other voted for the NDP.
Recent polls show that most Canadians now believe that it is unfair and unacceptable that a party should obtain power without having the sup- port of the majority. Certainly more than any at any other time in my political life our electoral system is being called into question. In my view this is not only because of serious concerns about the negative impact on national unity of our regionally divisive system or its failure to produce equitably representative govern- ments and opposition parties. As the recent polls showing our disapproval as ”œunfair” of governments that lack major- ity support indicate, increasingly we Canadians believe that our electoral sys- tem should cohere with or help promote a broad range of democratic values and principles. Voter turn out, the role of women, the place of minorities, the par- ticipation of youth, consensual or adver- sarial politics " these issues and others are finally surfacing in public debates about our electoral system.
I do not believe that ”œgovernment by referendum” is a good general policy. Quite the contrary. Referendums on the vast majority of subjects are normally highly divisive, lack the deliberative process that elected Parliaments are expected to engage in and can be serious threats to minority rights. However, when restricted to establishing the dem- ocratic rules of the electoral system applicable equally to all citizens and when the question is preceded by a thorough deliberative process involving the citizens themselves, it seems to me such a referendum fully measures up to the democratic aspirations and values of classical democratic theorists like John Stuart Mill. I believe the citizens of British Columbia are now involved in exactly this kind of democratic process and are showing us what can and should be done at the national level.
Before presenting a case for adopt- ing the BC model for a process leading to electoral reform at the national level I want briefly to sketch in the reasons for my personal preference for a mixed system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post. No one I know who has actually been a member of Parliament believes we should abolish individual constituencies. Citizens must continue to have the right to vote for a particular candidate for their region or community.
Empirical evidence drawn from other countries strongly suggests women and minorities will be much better rep- resented in the House of Commons. The impact on the percentage of citizens who vote would likely be positive in the short-run, but over time considerations other than the electoral system will like- ly have a greater impact on voter turnout. We will have fewer one-party governments because Canadians, like citizens in the vast majority of democra- cies, like to exercise their democratic right by voting for a number of different parties, including new parties like the Greens. As in most of the stable democ- racies in continental Europe we will come to experience coalition or multi- party governments as a normal and desirable condition of democratic life. Our MPs will be more likely to listen to each other in part because they have to and in part because over time they begin to internalize the view that their political opponents have as much interest in the common good and as many ideas about how to achieve it as they do. I, for one, will welcome the day when the mindless exchanges in our Question Period cease to be the standard by which Canadians judge our national political behaviour.
The BC Citizens’ Assembly process is unique not only in Canada but, as far as I know, in the world. It is a remarkable example of what grassroots democratic consultation and decision-making should be all about. Very briefly stated, the Assembly is made up of 160 ”œordi- nary citizens” divided equally on a gen- der basis with two persons from each of the provincial constituencies, plus two specified First Nation’s representatives. All of these citizens were selected in a methodologically neutral, non-partisan manner to represent an accurate cross section of the general population of British Columbia.
It was also a requirement that none of the participants could have had senior political experience in any political party going back to, and including, the last two election periods. This Assembly, which will report to the B.C. government before the end of this year, is to recommend one of the fol- lowing two options on the electoral system: either maintain the status quo or provide a detailed alternative. The government has given both private and public assurance that if a recommenda- tion other than the status quo is taken by the Assembly, it will put forth the precise question, as recommended, on the referendum. The referendum would then take place at the time of next provincial election in June 2005. A recent meeting of the Assembly in Vancouver affirmed that some form of proportional representation will almost certainly be recommended.
One of the most important aspects of this Assembly project is that it has captured the full engagement of all 162 participants. I believe because peo- ple know the Assembly’s decision, not that of a parliamentary committee, will directly determine the referendum question. They will make this decision only after thorough consideration of all the plausible options. Their recommen- dation will then be voted on by the people of BC.
I believe the House of Commons should adopt the BC process as a model for the reform of our federal electoral system. Some key points that would have to be included if such an Assembly were to be Canada-wide: bilingual service, bilingual co-chairs (one man and one woman), keeping size down to where effective communication is possible (one man and one woman for every four con- stituencies would keep the number close to the effective B.C. model). Each province would have the same percentage of members as they now have seats in the House of Commons. I also believe that the final outcome need not entail an increase in the numbers of MPs. Parliament embarked on this process during this session, by learning from the opera- tional experience of British Columbia. A citizen-created referendum question could be ready in between 18 months and two years. Indeed, the process could be scheduled to culminate in the summer of 2006, when Canada’s Citizens’ Assembly could actually use the House of Commons chamber (dur- ing the Parliamentary recess) to reach their final recommendation. How excit- ing this would be.
The prime minister said during the recent election campaign that he favoured democratic reform, indeed that he would be open to considering proportional representation. Britain has changed, Australia has changed, New Zealand has changed, our provinces have changed. It’s a demo- cratic idea whose time has come.
Excerpted from an address to the ”œPublic Roundtable on Proportional Representation,” organized by the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy, in Moncton, on September 23, 2004.