It happens after every election these days. Those who don’t like the result, and those who don’t like the existing voting system, begin clamouring for changes to the way Canadians elect MPs.
The usual demand comes from those who want a version of proportional representation, the theory being that PR produces a result that more closely matches votes cast to seats won than the existing first-past-the-post system.
PR advocates insist that their system — there are actually many kinds of PR systems — would make Parliament more “democratic” in the sense of being more representative or more reflective of how Canadians actually voted. PR systems certainly do that.
But there’s an entirely different method of assessing how representative MPs are – and an entirely different method of correcting this alleged problem.
Look at the June 28 election this way: Only 129 of the 308 MPs elected won more than half the votes in their constituencies. A shade under 42 per cent of the MPs, therefore, arrived in the House of Commons having won 50 per cent or more of the votes.
The rest — 179 out of 308, or 58 per cent — won their seats with less than 50 per cent of the votes and, in many cases, with less than 40 per cent. (NDP Leader Jack Layton, a big PR proponent, won 46 per cent of the vote in Toronto-Danforth.)
When these 58 per cent of MPs declare that “I speak on behalf of the people of East Elbow,” they really don’t speak for a majority of the electors at all. They might hope to represent all the electors, but a majority of the voters in their districts preferred other candidates.
In only Quebec and Alberta did a majority of MPs win more than half the votes in their constituencies. In Quebec, 44 of 75 MPs captured more than half the votes; in Alberta, 24 of 28 did so.
These two provinces stood alone for a simple reason: One party scored a crushing province-wide victory: the Bloc Québécois in Quebec, the Conservatives in Alberta. (A few Liberals piled up huge majorities in largely non-francophone ridings in Quebec.)
In Ontario, by contrast, 76 of 106 MPs won less than 50 per cent of the votes. In British Columbia, it was 28 to 8 for MPs scoring below 50 per cent, Saskatchewan 10 to 4, Manitoba 8 to 6, Nova Scotia 8 to 3, Newfoundland 4 to 3, and the territories 3 to 0. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were tied between MPs with and without at least 50 per cent support.
This House of Commons is therefore unrepresentative in a way not usually underscored by PR advocates, because more than half the MPs didn’t get more than half the votes in their ridings.
There’s a way to stop this, a way used in other countries, without opting for one of the complicated variations of PR that will lead almost inevitably to permanent minority or coalition governments that, if international experience is any guide, don’t last as long as majority governments.
That method is to ensure that MPs who get elected do, in fact, reflect a majority. There are essentially two “fixes” to the problem: a two-round voting system, as in France, or a preferential ballot, as in Australia.
The French system requires a second round of voting with only the top two finishers in a district if no candidate secures a majority in the first round. It produces a plus-50-per-cent winner, but it does require voters to work twice, and it’s hard enough in Canada to get people to the polls once, let alone twice.
A better system is the one in Australia, a federal, sprawling state such as Canada. There, electors select their first choice, then their second. If no candidate secures a majority, the second preference of the candidates at the bottom of the rung is redistributed until somebody winds up with 50 per cent. The result is usually majority government, but a more representative one.
Who knows which Canadian party would benefit under such a scheme? It does nicely combine the utility of two majorities — in the constituencies and in Parliament, and is therefore worth considering by all those who want change.