RE: The Problem With PR

Electoral reform, a buzz-phrase from the NDP leadership contest that’s trickling down to conversations between growing numbers of Canadians. While all candidates support electoral reform and the implementation of a proportional representation (PR), it’s important to be critical of any public decision.

Proportional representation is an electoral system that uses party ballots; citizens vote for a party, not a candidate. Prior to the election, parties create a ranked list of prospective MPs and elect the percentage of MPs equal to their vote-share. 

PR defines itself in opposition to our current first-past-the-post system in that it privileges ideology rather than geography. Under PR Canadian votes would represent ideas behind parties rather than the region they vote in.

I argue that Canada may just be too big and too diverse for PR to work. The success of the Bloc Québécois is that it fully exploited the geographic nature of our current electoral system. National PR elections would largely dilute regional concerns, including sovereignty, on the national stage.

Further, if MPs were elected by lists, partisan elites would populate the House of Commons. A national PR model would reinforce a class barrier to the participation in electoral politics. The switch would also require that the government find new and meaningful ways to interface with the pubic; Canadians would be losing their long standing institution of a constituency representative.

In an attempt to incorporate geographic representation into a PR electoral model, Mixed-member-proportionality (MMP) has been proposed. Therein, Canadians would be given 2 votes for both a local MP and the party of their choosing. Two types of MP would be elected, constituency representatives, and a predetermined number of list MPs in addition.

While MMP would mean our parliaments would more closely reflect parties’ vote-share, it would create a dichotomy of elected officials. To whom are the list MPs accountable if not a constituency? And are the duties of the list MPs less or less valuable, than those of representing Canada’s diverse regions?

Two models stand out as more palatable to Canadians. The first is Alternative Vote (AV) or Instant Run-off Voting (IRV), an electoral system is used by every major Canadian political party for their leadership contests. Therein, voters rank candidates, making the electoral process a more comprehensive reflection of public opinion. Effectively, it would benefit non-Conservative parties in the many races that centre-left vote splitting saw Conservative candidates elected with well under 50% of the vote. AV/IRV also maintains the mechanism of geographic representation, which has underscored most of Canadian political culture. 

The second option is a regionalized PR election; wherein, citizens would vote for a party that fields candidates in their region, and a given number of MPs representing that area would be elected from regional party lists. By holding separate regional run-offs, Canadians can elect a group of multi-partisan MPs that understand the needs of their constituents. Canadians then have multiple MPs to contact regarding local issues, and the election results would better reflect the real vote-share.

Incorporating regionalism into PR also inhibits partisan elites from dominating public discussion and reduces the impact frivolous single issue parties can have PR election outcomes. The regional dimension would allow a geographically based party, such as the Bloc Québécois, to be represented on the Parliament Hill.

Canada needs electoral reform, but it can’t be a decision made in haste; Canadians should demand a system that balances ideological and geographic representation.