I have a radical proposal: The allocation of seats in Parliament should reflect the number of votes cast for each party.
Many Canadians assume this is how our system works today. After all, the principle sounds simple, clear and fair. But that’s far from the reality.
We cast our ballots in what is called a winner-take-all voting system. Like the victor in a hand of poker, the candidate with the most votes in each riding walks away with everything, no matter how narrow the margin of victory.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s party won just 39 per cent of the vote in 2011, yet it holds an all-powerful majority in Parliament. By Conservatives’ cold math, the 61 per cent of Canadian voters who chose different parties simply vanish.
There’s an alternative.
Many advanced democracies around the world have recognized the flaws of winner-take-all systems — from distorted results to more adversarial politics — and adopted a different kind of voting system: proportional representation.
Proportional representation is based on the principle that the number of seats a party earns should match the percentage of voters who voted for it. This doesn’t just align with most Canadians’ values about fairness and democracy, it also has some unexpected benefits.
Political scientists studying winner-take-all democracies and “consensual” democracies — countries such as Germany, New Zealand and many others that embrace proportional representation — have found breathtaking differences. A landmark study of 36 countries found that proportional representation increased voter turnout, elected more women and led citizens to report feeling more satisfied with their democracy, even when their party was not in power.
Other studies have uncovered more surprising benefits. Countries with proportional representation score higher on indices of health, education and standard of living. They’re more likely to enjoy fiscal surpluses. They have healthier environmental policies and faster economic growth, and they have less income inequality.
What explains these differences? How can a voting system fuel economic growth and diminish inequality?
It comes down to people. Consensual political institutions involve and empower more citizens. They respond to — and represent — a deeper pool of interests and people. The policies they enact aren’t just more representative of the average voter, they’re more credible and more stable. Those qualities make consensual politics better for people, better for business, and better for the planet.
For decades, the New Democratic Party has been proposing that Canada adopt proportional representation. As NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said: “It’s a position long held by the NDP and something we’re going to be seeking a mandate on in 2015.”
Canada’s official Opposition intends to make 2019 the first election to benefit from proportional representation. Where do the other parties line up?
Justin Trudeau has been clear: “I do not support proportional representation.”
The Green Party supports the NDP’s stand on proportional representation, and adopted a new policy similar to the New Democratic position at their convention this summer. Of course, proportional representation is particularly important to the Green Party, which has been able to win just one seat in Parliament in 31 years, and stands to gain from a new system.
Proportional representation is good news for all Canadians. It’s good news for Liberals in the Prairies, for Conservatives in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and, yes, New Democrats in many places — such as Saskatchewan, where 32 per cent of the popular vote failed to yield a single seat.
So, proportional representation has many benefits, but is it also a way of somehow stacking the deck in favour of New Democrats?
No. In fact, had the last federal election used proportional representation, despite our momentous electoral gains, New Democrats would have had slightly fewer seats in Parliament today.
But, as Mulcair said: “It’s a matter of principle.” And the principle is simple: Every Canadian deserves fair representation, every voice should be equal and every vote should be counted.
To learn more about proportional representation, how it works, and what it could mean for future elections, join legal expert and Democratic Reform critic Craig Scott at 7 p.m. Friday at Alix Goolden Hall. Admission is free.
Murray Rankin is the New Democratic Party MP for Victoria.