observations and opinion
Electoral Reform in Canada: if it happens, it will be another “Quiet Revolution”
The most dramatic political change in Canadian history, arguably, happened when the regressive, Catholic Church-aligned Union Nationale government in Quebec collapsed in the early 1960s, opening the door to dramatic modernization, nationalization and reform. It was called “The Quiet Revolution.”
In Ottawa this week, we see signs of another, quieter but potentially just as powerful revolution. It has to do with the dullest stuff in the world, election rules. The two main Opposition parties in Canada (both calling themselves “progressive”) have now both endorsed proportional representation (“PR”). At present the Canadian Parliament is elected by the familiar First Past the Post (“FPTP”) system, familiar to Americans because that’s how U.S. elections work.
FPTP was adopted when local representatives actually represented their districts, and their own consciences (as opposed to their party bosses, or the Koch brothers, or the teachers’ union). It makes sense if members are willing to stand up to power. Few are, anymore.
Oddly, because the U.S. is a two party state, there is a reasonable alignment of votes cast to results in each part of Congress. If PR applied to the US House of Representatives, there would still be a Republican majority – just a smaller one. If PR applied to the Senate, there would still be 54 GOP Senators, but fewer Democrats (Libertarians and Independents would have earned spots).
But in Canada,where we have multiple parties, FPTP produces very different results – results which favour parties which can lock down about one third of the vote. We often see results where a party gets 35-40% of the national or provincial vote, but way more than 50% of the seats. For example, the current Conservative Government got 39% of the vote nationally in 2011, but because their vote is efficient and the other parties split the progressive vote, the Conservatives won 54% of the seats.
Similarly, in Alberta (long time bastion of the most conservative governments in Canada) the once-socialist, now moderately liberal New Democratic Party just won 61% of the Assembly seats, with only 40% of the votes cast. In Canada, that’s what we call normal. Thus, it is common in Canada that 2/3rds of voters often “get little or nothing for their vote” (like Oklahoma Democrats or Massachusetts Republicans).
PR says that individual districts (ridings we call them) don’t need individual representatives, but rather citizens should vote for parties. Seats in the House would be allocated by party totals, rather than individual district wins. Thus, if the Conservatives get 39% of the vote again (right now they’re polling in the mid 20s) that’s what they’d get in the House.
Historically, PR has been pushed by the third, fourth and fifth parties – because they get very few seats for their 5, 10 or 20 percent of the vote. But as of this week, both of the major opposition parties have pledged to support PR. If they mean it, and if one is elected government this October, they could very well be the LAST government elected with more seats than votes.
And in Canada, where it has been possible for a party to hold total power, with far less than majority support, THAT would be a real – quiet – revolution.