Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why Liberals needed the Law Commission of Canada’s recommended electoral reform, in 2010.

As Chantal Hebert wrote on May 28, 2010: “If the Liberals are serious about restoring their status as a national institution, it is time for them to abandon their faith in short-term electoral short cuts and rethink their approach to a more proportional voting system.”

Across Canada, people ask “why do three-quarters of Western voters vote Conservative?”

But they don’t. In 2011 54.7% voters in the four western provinces voted Conservative, but they elected 78% of their MPs. In 2008, 52.5% of them voted Conservative, but they elected 77% of their MPs. In 2006 only 48.6% of them voted Conservative, yet they elected 71% of their MPs.

And they used to ask “why do the majority of Quebecois keep voting for the Bloc?”

But they didn’t. In six elections from 1993 to 2008 the Bloc never won the majority of votes in Quebec, yet they always elected the majority of Quebec MPs.

Proportional representation cannot be left to the NDP and the Green Party.

Liberal voters have practical reasons to need it. And Canadian unity requires it.

The answer was authoritatively recommended in 2004 by the Law Commission of Canada: Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada.

In 2006 the Harper government disbanded the Law Commission of Canada, one of the country’s most respected and productive federal commissions.

Launched in 1971 by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau as the Law Reform Commission of Canada, and resurrected by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1997 as the Law Commission of Canada, this independent body conducted research, facilitated dialogue and produced innovative policy recommendations on a wide range of issues related to the role of law in society.

In 2002, under the leadership of President Nathalie Des Rosiers (currently General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association) and Vice President (later Liberal MP) Stephen Owen, the Law Commission of Canada launched a comprehensive review of Canada’s electoral system. In 2004, the Commission recommended to Parliament the adoption of a mixed member proportional voting system.

1. Update on the Law Commission’s 2004 report.

Events since early 2004 make this report more relevant than ever.

First, the Commission’s approach to designing an MMP system differed from the MMP models presented to voters in the Ontario and PEI referendums. Its model has been proven correct. Voters did not accept closed province-wide lists where voters would be forced to accept a party slate of at-large candidates, as presented, rather have the option to vote for individual candidates on those lists. In the last B.C. referendum voters did not accept the Irish STV system.

Second, after Quebec’s first draft model was not well received in 2006, Quebec’s Chief Electoral Officer described a model like the Law Commission’s.

Third, polls continue to show strong support for adopting a more proportional voting system. On April 15, 2010, the Council of Canadians released a major poll conducted by Environics showing that 62 per cent of Canadians support "moving towards a system of proportional representation (PR) in Canadian elections."

Fourth, the elections of 2004, 2006 and 2008 repeated the pattern of the previous three elections in Quebec, but with even worse under-representation of federalist voters. And even worse under-representation of Western Liberal voters.

The model: two-thirds of MPs from local ridings, one-third from open regional lists

The Law Commission recommended “Adding an element of proportionality to Canada’s electoral system, as inspired by the systems currently used in Scotland and Wales, would be the most appropriate model for adoption.”

It recommended “a flexible list system that provides voters with the option of either endorsing the party “slate” or “ticket,” or of indicating a preference for a candidate within the list.” This open list method means every MP has faced the voters and been personally elected.

Voters have TWO votes: one local, for a constituency representative, and one regional.

Scotland and Wales have 16-MP regions (9 local MPs, 7 regional MPs) and 12-MP regions (8 local MPs, 4 regional MPs). In Canada, with 2/3 local MPs, a 14-MP region would have 9 local MPs and 5 regional MPs. This would mean eight regions in Ontario, five or six in Quebec, two in BC, and two in Alberta.

This method was also recommended by the Jenkins Commission in the UK. Their colourful explanation accurately predicted why closed lists would be rejected in Canada: additional members locally anchored are “more easily assimilable into the political culture and indeed the Parliamentary system than would be a flock of unattached birds clouding the sky and wheeling under central party directions.”

Similarly, the latest Quebec model described by their Chief Electoral Officer in December 2007 has a typical MNA elected from a 15-MNA region, with nine local MNAs, and six regional MNAs elected by the flexible open list model, which it said would balance voter choice with better representation of women and minorities.

See "Why the Liberal Party of Canada should lead on electoral reform."

Bloc Québécois Bonus

In 2004 Bloc Québécois voters cast 48.9% of the votes in Québec, so they deserved 37 MPs. But they got 54, a bonus of 46%.

In 2006 they cast 42.1% of the votes in Québec, so they deserved 31 of the 74 MPs won by parties. But they got 51, a bonus of 65%.

In 2008 they cast only 38.1% of the votes in Québec, so they deserved only 28 of the 74 MPs won by parties. But they got 49, a bonus of 75%.

In 2008 it took 86,203 federalist voters to elect one Quebec MP, but only 28,163 Bloc voters.

To quote Lord Jenkins’ Commission about this effect of first-past-the-post systems on regionalism “This is perverse, for a party's breadth of appeal is surely a favourable factor from the point of view of national cohesion, and its discouragement a count against an electoral system which heavily under-rewards it.”

2. A long-standing need

Liberals have known the problem for decades.

The Law Commission noted that first-past-the-post has been criticized as:

• "Disregarding a large number of votes in that voters who do not vote for the winning candidate have no connection to the elected representative, nor to the eventual make-up of the House of Commons." About half the votes cast elect no one. Many voters live in safe ridings dominated by one party and have no hope of electing an MP.

• "Being overly generous to the party that wins a plurality of the vote, rewarding it with a legislative majority disproportionate to its share of the vote." The partisan beneficiaries and victims may change from time to time, but skewed results are routine.

• "Promoting parties formed along regional lines, thus exacerbating Canada’s regional divisions.

• Leaving large areas of the country without adequate representatives in the governing party caucus."

• "Allowing the governing party, with its artificially swollen legislative majority, to dominate the political agenda." A party with far less than majority support can gain majority control of Parliament and introduce programs and laws that most Canadians oppose.

• "Contributing to the under-representation of women, minority groups, and Aboriginal peoples.

• Preventing a diversity of ideas from entering the House of Commons.

• Favouring an adversarial style of politics."

When most votes have no effect, incentive to vote is reduced. Voter turnout is declining, with turnout in 2008 dropping to 59%, an historic low. Lord Roy Jenkins, who chaired the U.K.’s Jenkins commission on electoral reform, had this to say about safe seats and ineffective votes in his 1998 report: “many voters pass their entire adult lives without any realistic hope of influencing a result. In these circumstances it is perhaps remarkable that general election turnouts remain at a respectable level.” When he wrote that, turnout in the prior election had been 71%. In the subsequent election turnout dropped to 59%.

In 1979, first-past-the-post produced a "wrong-winner" election. Pierre Trudeau's Liberals won 40.1% of the vote, but only 114 seats. Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives received only 35.9% of the vote, but elected 136 MPs and formed the government with support from six Créditiste MPs.

Trudeau’s big problem was the West. Liberal voters in BC deserved to elect six MPs, but got only one. In Alberta, Liberal voters deserved to elect five MPs but got none. In Saskatchewan they deserved three, but got none; even Ralph Goodale lost his seat.

In 1980 Trudeau's problem with western underrepresentation in his government was extreme: he had only two MPs from the four western provinces, both from Manitoba. Trudeau would have had sixteen more western MPs with proportional representation. In the 1980 Speech from the Throne, the newly re-elected Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau promised to appoint a committee to study the electoral system.

3. No more Bloc blockage, no more Conservative bonus

With this Law Commission model, if voters voted as they did in 2008, they would have elected 118 Conservative MPs and only 32 Bloc MPs.

4. Would the Alternative Vote be better for Liberals?

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats have postponed their claim for proportional representation, settling for the Alternative Vote (AV) which they thought would help them somewhat in the UK. Since no one really wanted it, it was no surpriose when AV was rejected by UK voters.

They don’t have our problem of exaggerated regional differences. AV would do nothing for Alberta Liberal voters, or most other western Liberal voters.

Would AV have helped Quebec federalists? In three-way or four-way races, who can say? To quote Lord Jenkins and his Commissioners, “its effects are disturbingly unpredictable.” It depends who voters want to vote against on voting day.

5. Unheard Liberal voices

A study released in 2006 by Fair Vote Canada showed that in the seven federal elections between 1980 and 2004 an average of 43.3% of Liberal voters cast ineffective votes, electing no one.

In the 2008 election, the percentage of Liberal voters electing no one was stunning in a number of provinces: Alberta (100%), Manitoba (82%), Saskatchewan (73%), British Columbia (72%), and Quebec (69%). In 2011 it was even worse.

In summary, many Liberal voters live in areas where they will seldom, if ever, elect a Liberal MP. The elected Liberal caucus simply does not represent the breadth of Liberal support across the country.

With the Law Commission’s model, Liberal voters in 2011 would have elected 25 more MPs from regions where they are unrepresented or underrepresented, minus four where they were over-represented. For example, in the GTA Liberal voters deserved to elect at least 13 MPs in 2011, but elected only seven.

Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke frequently and eloquently about the urgent need to address Canada’s democratic deficit, but was unable to take corrective action during his tenure. The solution is overdue and new Liberal voices are needed to carry the torch. Stéphane Dion has now done so.