Monday, May 18, 2009

What would a proportional representation model for Nova Scotia look like?

Nova Scotia’s Premier Rodney MacDonald stated in the May 18 Halifax Chronicle-Herald:

“One of the concerns I have . . . is the issue of proportional representation. As a rural Nova Scotian, that scares me . . . because that means less of a voice for rural parts of Nova Scotia.”

That’s why, when the Ontario NDP took a position on proportional representation in 2002, they decided on a regional model. Perhaps Nova Scotians have not yet looked at how a decent proportional system would work in Nova Scotia.

They're not alone. Outside BC, journalists routinely say things like, with winner-take-all, "you get representatives who fight tooth and nail for the good of their communities. I'm not sure how you get a system of proportional representation that doesn't somehow require the appointment of MPs or MPPs."

So let’s look at a typical regional proportional system.

In referendums in PEI and Ontario, voters turned down a Mixed-Member system with closed province-wide lists. BC voters recently turned down an STV model. That leaves a Mixed-Member system with regional open lists.

You have two votes. You vote for your local MLA -- whoever you like best locally, and this vote won't count against your party, for a change -- and you also have a vote for your favourite out of your party's candidates for regional MLA. Your regional vote counts for your party. Like this ballot.

See MMP Made Easy.

A regional MLA, who faced the voters in the region, will represent voters in the region whose votes didn‘t elect a local MLA. Unrepresented and under-represented voters will finally have a voice. And all voters will then have a choice after the election: you can go to your local MLA for service, or to one of your regional MLAs. Instead of having to vote for your party's single candidate, and then having to go to your single MLA, you have competing MLAs! What a concept!

The province has four regions. Urban Halifax has 18 MLAs as it does today: 11 local (from larger ridings) and seven regional. Cape Breton still has nine: six local, three regional. South-West still has 14: nine local, five regional. North-East still has 11: seven local, four regional. Overall, 63% of the MLAs would still be from local ridings, 33 of them, while 19 MLAs would be from the four regions.

Mr. MacDonald would like what this does in Halifax.

Take the votes as cast in 2006. (This isn’t real, since many voters in safe ridings don’t bother to vote today, while others have no hope of their vote counting and also stay home. So with a Mixed-Member system more voters would vote, and we’d expect more choices to vote for. But take 2006 as an example.)

The NDP swept Halifax in 2006. With fewer local seats, NDP voters would have elected five fewer Halifax MLAs. But PC voters would have elected three more MLAs than they did. Which three? The ones who got the most votes on the regional ballot (after skipping over anyone who won a local seat.) I’d bet on Bill Black (hmm -- might he have been Premier today?), African-Canadian educator Dwayne Provo (would Nova Scotia have a black cabinet Minister today?), and former Caucus Chair Gary Hines.

Halifax Liberal voters would have elected one more MLA than they did. Maybe their leader Francis MacKenzie wouldn't have lost his seat?

Halifax Green voters would have elected one MLA. Maybe their leader Nick Wright? Then again, Amanda Myers got more votes than he did.

But in the South-West, where NDP voters were short-changed, they’d have elected two more MLAs than they did, and PC voters two less. Maybe Wolfville Councillor David Mangle and Mahone Bay councillor Chris Heide would have been elected NDP regional MLAs?

In the North East, almost 16,000 Liberal voters elected no one in 2006, when they deserved two MLAs. I’d bet Antigonish lawyer Daniel MacIsaac would have won a regional seat, and maybe Danny Walsh from Pictou County.

Sometimes our winner-take-all system happens, by accident, to work about right. In 2006 it did in Cape Breton. PC voters elected four MLAs, Liberal voters three, and NDP voters two, and those numbers wouldn’t change.

In fact, the overall result wouldn’t be so very different from 2006, which accidentally worked out about right. You’d still see a PC minority government, with one less MLA, but better Halifax representation. Three fewer NDP MLAs, three more Liberals, one Green.

What’s the point? First, voters everywhere would have real choices, for both candidates and parties.

Second, all voters would have an MLA they trusted. Competing MLAs would be more accountable. Scotland's similar model has 16-member regions (nine local members, seven regional), while Wales has 12-member regions (eight local, four regional), allowing reasonable accountability.

Third, you’d be sure that the system gave fair results. Not like 1999, when PC voters elected 58% of the MLAs with only 39% of the vote. Supporters of all political parties would be fairly represented in proportion to the votes they cast.

Rural and urban voters would be fully represented. All regions would be sure of effective representation.

Would this system always mean minority governments? Well, in 1993 Liberal voters outnumbered the PC and NDP voters combined, so they got an honest majority, and that wouldn‘t change. Same as the PC win in 1984.

But otherwise, MLAs would have real control, not be rubber-stamps for a powerful Premier. MLAs and their parties would have to work together, like a real democracy. Bring it on!

Does anyone else use this particular model? Lots of countries use a Mixed-Member system. This particular open-regional-list model is used in the German province of Bavaria, and has been recommended as an improvement to Scotland's similar system. It was recommended for Canada by the Law Commission of Canada.