Proportional Representation and the Democratic Deficit in Canada

by Lynn McDonald - March 21, 2013

OUR QUAINT FIRST-PAST-THE-POST SYSTEM is the major cause of Canada’s democratic deficit, and fixing it will help address other gaps and distortions--on social justice, climate change and the environment.

The problem is obvious: a majority Conservative government elected with less than 40% of the popular vote, which governs as if it had 90% of the vote. With proportional representation each party’s share of MPs in the House of Commons would reflect its share of votes in the election. Countries with proportional representation enjoy greater citizen confidence in their democratic institutions, higher voter turn-out and better representation of women and minorities; they also adopt better environmental protection laws and use energy more efficiently. We could achieve all this and, as well, adapt  the system to ensure better First Nations representation.

The Conservatives don’t want proportional representation for obvious reasons; nor do the Liberals, who hope to go back to winning majority governments. Oddly, former leader Stéphane Dion is now promoting proportional representation, but a cumbersome kind  requiring five member ridings. The NDP has proportional representation as official policy, but which kind it has not said, nor has it actively promoted the reform.

What Kind of PR System?

WE COULD GET HUNG UP FOR YEARS deciding what kind of proportional representation to adopt, but need not, for the basic work has been done. The Law Commission of Canada, appointed under a Liberal government, reported in  2004 with a recommendation for a mixed member proportional system (see Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada). This is a sensible Canadian compromise, making the changes necessary to get fair representation, yet with minimal alterations to ridings. It would keep the same number of ridings, but increase their size by one third. (By contrast, Dion’s system would increase riding size by five, and the proposal of the B.C. Citizens’ Assemblies would go from five to seven times the size.) With the MMP proposal, two thirds of MPs would continue to be elected by first-past-the-post, so that constituents would continue to have someone they consider “their MP.” The other third would be elected by lists, so that parties under-represented by regular MPs (typically the NDP, and even more so the Greens) would get more seats, while fewer, or no, seats would go to parties over-represented by the regular system.

The Liberal government, however, did not proceed with the Law Commission’s recommendations, and a later Conservative government disbanded the commission itself. Since then evidence for PR working has only continued to mount, in countries like our own, like Scotland, Germany and New Zealand.

The proposal that a royal commission should be established to study options would almost certainly ensure that no change could happen in less than five years.  Perhaps we could consider that the then Law Commission effectively did what a royal commission would do: it brought in experts, conducted research, looked at other countries’s systems, and invited public discussion.

Consultations are needed again, for the Law Commission report dates to 2004, but this could be done expeditiously by a Parliamentary committee or a working group of MPs.

The policy of the Liberal Party (except for leadership candidate Joyce Murray) is alternative voting. It provides that, if no candidate gets a majority, the bottom candidate drops out, and that person’s second vote is then counted. In 1931, when it was being considered for the U.K., Winston Churchill called it “the worst of all possible plans....the stupidest, the least scientific,” for allowing elections “to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.”

Another version of PR is the “two tour” system, where, if no one candidate/party wins a majority on the first ballot, a second ballot is held a week or two later. Candidates must drop off if they have less than a stated percentage of  the votes, and some choose to drop off strategically, in favour of a candidate of a similar party. The system does promote cooperation, but it expensive--two elections cost roughly twice as much as one. And Canadians do not have a high turn-out with only one voting day.

Electing More Women

FORMER CONSERVATIVE PRIME MINISTER Kim Campbell promotes the system of Equal Voice, of two member ridings, one man and one woman. This would eliminate the problem of under-representation of women, but would do nothing to correct the great distortions of first-past-the-post. As well, the 50% demand might be too much for Canadians.

Proportional representation greatly improves the representation of women, without requiring an exact 50%. Data on the percentage of women elected (for the lower house), show

Sweden 45% of the seats in 2010

Norway 40% in 2009

Finland 43% in 2011

Denmark 39% in 2011 (and a woman prime minister)

Netherlands 39% in 2012

Germany 33% in 2009

New Zealand 32% in 2011

France 27% in 2012


For first-past-the-post countries, women are only at:

Canada 25% in 2011

U.K. 22% in 2010

U.S. 18% in 2012

Russia 14% in 2011

India 11% in 2009

Promoting Cooperation in the House of Commons

COMMITTEES: ONE OBVIOUS WAY of making the House work better, with or without PR, would be to expand the power of committees. Committees can and sometimes do work cooperatively, calling on expert advisors and making compromises in their recommendations. A Parliamentary review of committee powers could be conducted and options studied.

An interesting example of a committee dealing with a serious problem cooperatively occurred when climate change was first identified as a global threat, on the publication by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1998. The then Standing Committee on the Environment (which later added Sustainability to its title) held hearings with experts and non-governmental organizations. Its unanimous reports had hard hitting titles: No Time to Lose: The Challenge of Global Warming, 1990; Out of Balance: The Risks of Irreversible Climate Change, 1991; Our Planet, Our Future, 1993; Keeping a Promise: Towards a Sustainable Budget, 1995; and Kyoto and Beyond: Meeting the Climate Change Challenge, 1997. Yet no government, Liberal or Conservative, brought in measures remotely like those  advocated. Clearly, merely giving committees more scope is not the only change we need.

Most Canadians want more action on climate change, yet our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and there is no concerted plan at the federal level to reduce them. This is a prime example of the democratic deficit in  practice: people want action on an urgent matter, and yet governments do the opposite.

Another way to make the political process work better in Canada would be to expand the role of private members’ bills. Reforms brought in in 1984 made it possible for a limited number of such bills to be “votable,” given a reasonable amount of legislative and committee time. MPs on these bills are supposed to vote as individuals, or without a “whip” as on government business. Simply by allowing a larger number of bills to become votable, and allocating more debate time, could make a big difference.

To promote cross party cooperation, a second tier of private members’ bill could be established, those proposed by members of two or more parties. This stream of bills would need its own allocation of debate time. Doubtless sitting MPs could come up with other workable reforms.

The Senate: Reform or Abolition?

IT IS A GREAT ANOMALY that our democratic country has an unelected Senate, a holdover from the past when a “sober second thought,” by men of property, was considered necessary. In the United Kingdom, which still has an unelected House of Lords, there is at least a provision for the democratically elected House of Commons to  overrule a veto by it. We need an equivalent measure here, if the Senate is to continue.

Of the many recommendations for Senate reform, probably the most well known is the old Reform Party’s “Triple E”: elected, effective and equal. But “equal” here means that each province would elect the same number of  senators! Or the 150,000 residents of Prince Edward Island would get the same number of senators as the 13 million residents of Ontario.

A democratically elected Senate, however, would pose new problems, for it would be unfair to deny it real power. Then what to do if the two houses vote differently on a bill? The NDP position has long been for abolition, and  recent scandals in the Senate have resulted in increased support for this simple solution. However, both abolition and amendment of the Senate would require a Constitutional amendment. This means that the Senate itself would have to agree, as would the necessary number of provinces. Abolition might be no more difficult to achieve than modest amendments.

A referendum might be required to give moral authority—it would not alter the legal requirements. It would be very hard for the Senate and the provinces not to agree if a good majority of Canadians voted for abolition or reform.

Better perhaps to reform the House of Commons by giving it proportional representation (MMP), get that system working effectively, promote measures to give ordinary MPs more say in committees and private members’ business, and then consider Senate abolition. If the House were truly representative, and MPs had the opportunity to give legislation that “sober second thought, the old “need” for an upper house would vanish.

How To Get There?

CLEARLY PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION WILL never be adopted by a government that benefits so much by the existing system. It will take the 60% of citizens who do not support it demanding their parties bring it in. Hence the proposal of an “electoral alliance,” not a merger, but for one election. With a good system of proportional representation strategic voting would not be necessary, and parties would be represented in the House commensurate with their voting support.

Is that too much to ask? At the moment, neither the NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, nor the expected Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, will even entertain such a proposal.  Constituency organizations can work to that end for their own ridings, but party leaders are powerful, and could stop any “cooperative” candidate by simply appointing another to run as the official candidate.

At the least we should keep the lines of communication open. Let MPs, especially in Opposition, know that voters want this reform. Unless the Conservatives actually won a majority government, there could still be a chance at the 2015 election. That is, the other party leaders could then, at the last minute, post-election, choose some kind of coalition or accord. The current government has done a lot of damage with its 39.6% support, and we must not lose the earliest opportunity of stopping it.

Voting Counts provides much information on the pros and cons of other voting systems. See it and other points on what could be achieved with electoral reform on

Download as a PDF (2 pages--can be printed front to back on one page) /sites/default/files/images/PR-and-democratic-deficit-20130321.pdf