Thursday, September 30, 2010

A New Brunswick proportional legislature

What would the New Brunswick legislature look like under a fair voting system?

We don't have to invent one. It's been professionally done by New Brunswick's Commission on Legislative Democracy, appointed by the Progressive Conservative government of Bernard Lord in 2003.

It is clear to the Commission that the current single member plurality electoral system is not meeting the democratic values and needs of New Brunswickers. Fairness and equality of the vote, which are central to democratic satisfaction, must be given more weight when votes are translated into seats. Fortunately, it is not necessary to discard the values of effectiveness and accountability - key benefits of our current system - when making a change. The Commission’s made-in-New Brunswick, regional mixedmember proportional representation system would continue to produce effective single party majority governments while maintaining the direct link between voters and their riding MLA - a link that helps keep them accountable to voters.

Why change?

Simply put, it is not equitable that 60 per cent of the voters in 1987 elected 100 per cent of the MLAs. The votes cast by the other 40 per cent of New Brunswickers had absolutely no effect on the election results. The outcome would have been identical had these 161,814 New Brunswickers simply stayed home. And while this result is somewhat extreme, the three elections that followed illustrate that it is not anomalous. In each of these three elections, about half of the voters elected 80 per cent of the MLAs while the other half elected just 20 per cent. . . There are often too few opposition members to effectively hold the government accountable - a key function of the Legislative Assembly.

Bernard Lord said he supported proportional representation, and if he had been re-elected in 2006 he would hold a referendum on the new system, with 50% of voters required to pass it, not the 60% threshold used in BC and Ontario. Ironically, although Lord's PCs got more votes than the Liberals, it was a "wrong-winner" election, and Lord was out of office.

In the 2010 election it has taken 4,328 New Brunswickers to elect one Progressive Conservative member; 9,854 to elect one Liberal; and 38,737 to elect not a single candidate from the New Democratic Party despite those voters' explicit desire to do so.

Commission's model

The Commission recommended MLAs elected from local ridings and from four regions. Each region would have nine local MLAs, elected as today, and five regional MLAs. To "top-up" the disproportional local results we know all too well, the voters for an under-represented party elect some regional MLAs.

See MMP Made Easy.

Power to the voters

An exciting prospect: voters have new power to elect who they like. You can vote for what you want, not against what you don't want. New voices from new forces in the legislature. No party rolls the dice and wins an artificial majority. Cooperation will have a higher value than vitriolic rhetoric. One-party dominance by the Premier’s office will, at last, be out of fashion. Governments will have to listen to MLAs, and MLAs will have to really listen to the people. MLAs can begin to act as the public servants they are.

Competing MLAs

Every voter has competing MLAs. Instead of having only a local MLA -- whom you quite likely didn’t vote for -- you can go to your local MLA or one of your diverse regional MLAs, as you choose.

Each voter has two votes. Your local vote is used to elect an MLA to represent your riding, as today, but you don't need to vote for the local candidate of your party. You can vote for who you prefer, since the party make-up of the legislature is determined by your second vote.

Your second vote -- your regional vote or party vote -- is used to elect several regional MLAs from your region. The regional votes are counted to give the level of support for each party in the region.

What would the legislature look like?

For an example, let’s see what the New Brunswick legislature would have looked like under this model if voters voted as they did in 2010.

This projection assumes voters voted as they did in 2010. In fact, if voters knew every vote would count, more would have voted -- typically at least 6% more. And some would have voted differently -- no more strategic voting. We would likely have seen different candidates -- more women, and more diversity of all kinds. We could have seen different parties. Who knows who might have won real democratic elections?

But on the votes as cast in 2010 for 55 MLAs, the overall result is 28 Progressive Conservatives, 18 Liberals, 6 New Democrats, and 3 Greens.

New Brunswick's Liberal government shelved the Commission’s report in 2006, yet their voters in the Saint John and Fredericton regions are the ones who got shafted worst in this year’s election. A lesson for Liberals everywhere?


Liberal voters in South West and Central New Brunswick are badly under-represented today. South West Region voters would have elected 13 MLAs (8 local, 5 regional), including three more Liberal MLAs: maybe Mary Schryer, new candidates Dan Joyce and Kevin McCarville, or Ed Doherty or Abel LeBlanc or new candidate Victoria Clarke? Central region voters would have elected 14 MLAs (9 local, 5 regional) including three more Liberal MLAs: maybe Greg Byrne, T. J. Burke and Kelly Lamrock or Larry Kennedy or new candidate Kit Hickey?

New Democrats

New Democrat voters would be fairly represented. From the Northern region they would have elected two MLAs: no doubt leader Roger Duguay, and maybe Ray Godin or Claudia Julien or Maureen Michaud. From the South East they would have elected two MLAs: maybe Susan Levi-Peters and Bill Evans or Leta Both or Cyprien Okana or Agathe Lapointe? From the South West they would have elected one MLA such as Wayne Dryer, Sandy Harding, Julie Drummond or Jesse Travis. From the Central region they would have elected one MLA such as Tony Myatt, Sharon Scott-Levesque or Jason Purdy.


Green Party voters would be fairly represented. From the Central region they would have elected one MLA: their leader Jack MacDougall or Jim Wolstenholme? From the South East they would have elected one MLA such as Margaret Tusz-King, Bethany Thorne-Dykstra, Mike Milligan or Paul LeBreton. From the South West they would have elected one MLA such as Janice Harvey or Sharon Murphy-Flatt.

The Law Commission of Canada Report

The Law Commission of Canada recommended a similar system for Canada in 2004: a mixed member proportional system, like Scotland's and Germany's, with the majority of MPs elected locally, and additional MPs to represent under-represented voters and "top-up" the local results. Unlike the models which failed to win support in referendums in Ontario and P.E.I, it had open lists, not closed lists, so every MP faced the voters.

What would a proportional House of Commons look like?

While Stephen Harper once favoured proportional representation (as did the PC Party in 2002 just before they decided to merge instead), Ottawa’s present Conservatives (other than Senator Hugh Segal, Rick Anderson and Walter Robinson) seem have lost interest. Conservatives once courted the young, bilingual Bernard Lord for federal leader, and he’s still only 45. Might he yet play a role in the evolution of Canadian democracy?