Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Bloc supports proportional representation; the Liberals are interested

In the run-up to the current election, was anyone watching March 3 when the House of Commons debated the NDP motion on proportional representation (and Senate abolition), and the Bloc supported it?

There's a common belief that the Bloc would never vote for proportional representation, since it would cost them close to half their seats in Parliament. But this is not true. There is a consensus among most Quebecois, especially progressives, in favour of the principle of proportional representation. The Bloc does not have a definitive position on PR, but is not opposed.

The motion called for the House to appoint a Special Committee for Democratic Improvement, whose mandate is to engage with Canadians, and make recommendations to the House, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation. (It also, unfortunately, called for a referendum on abolishing the Senate, an issue worth debating, but giving the Liberals an easy reason to vote against the motion.) The NDP's call for a mixed member system has been party policy since 2003. See MMP made easy.

The Bloc moved an amendment that the recommendations "in no way reduce the current weight of the Quebec nation in the House of Commons.” The NDP had already taken the same position, so it accepted the Bloc amendment. The Bloc then supported the amended motion. However, after their amendment was defeated by a vote of 77 to 214, they could not vote for the original motion.

The NDP caucus was vocal in support of proportional representation, with statements from David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre), Libby Davies (Vancouver East), Claude Gravelle (Nickel Belt), Jean Crowder (Nanaimo-Cowichan), Jack Harris (St. John's East), Fin Donnelly (New Westminster - Coquitlam), Jim Maloway (Elmwood - Transcona), Alex Atamanenko (British Columbia Southern Interior), Peter Julian (Burnaby - New Westminster), Don Davies (Vancouver Kingsway), Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre), Yvon Godin (Acadie - Bathurst), and Linda Duncan (Edmonton Strathcona).

The Bloc MPs stated, in regard to "the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in Parliament, specifically the House of Commons, we quite agree with the NDP." Pierre Paquette (Joliette) said "We are comfortable with this motion, but on two conditions. . . I want to point out right now that we will support the NDP motion . . . We also agree with abolishing the Senate and with looking at a new voting system that would include elements of the proportional voting system. . . Most countries with such a voting system have elements of both representation based on ridings and representation based either on regions or on lists presented by political parties. There are a number of possible models. In Quebec during the time of René Lévesque, Robert Burns did some very important work that led to proposed reforms that, unfortunately, were never implemented. . . In the debates that were held in Quebec, we discussed at length the difference between members who would be elected on the basis of their ridings and those who would be elected on the basis of the lists suggested by the political parties. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems. What would be best is a combination of the systems in which proportional representation would be used but the regions and ridings would also have a say in the choice of members. . . The Bloc Québécois has proven time and time again that it is not here to reform Canadian institutions or to prevent reform. However, we want it to be understood that our priority is certainly not to work toward the abolition of the Senate or toward a system of proportional representation across Canada but rather to work toward Quebec sovereignty."

The Liberals said interesting things.

Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul's), their democratic renewal critic, said "As for electoral reform, the issue is in need of serious and comprehensive dialogue with Canadians about whether the current system is, for all its faults, working, and if not, what needs to be fixed or what is to replace it. We believe there is lots of support for various approaches to electoral reform.

"Last week in Alberta it was very clear. Many Liberals in Alberta are very keen that their votes count in the House of Commons. Green Party members across the country care about this. I think the federalists in Quebec have been often worried that more people there can vote for a federalist party and they can end up with a separatist majority. This kind of distortion in result is worrying to people and although we welcome that dialogue, I believe it would be premature to start prescribing alternate systems at this time.

"On October 23, 2003, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the creation of the Democratic Renewal Secretariat, which mandated a citizens’ assembly to examine the electoral system. In May 2007, the citizens' assembly recommended a mixed member proportional system. Under this system, a person votes for a local member and for a party, which is elected by means of the first past the post system. The local member represents an electoral riding, while the votes for the parties, in conjunction with the number of local members elected from each party, determine how many list members each party will receive in addition to its local members. In October 2007, this reform received only 36.9% of the vote, far less than the 60% required to make the referendum result binding.

"Commentators said that the result reflected the electorate's skepticism about political parties. The lack of transparency and democracy in every political party deterred people from voting in favour of the referendum question.

" . . . in the world there are only three countries with pure first past the post systems left, the U.K. which is moving to change it a bit, the United States and ourselves, and that there are systems around the world that work and ones that do not. I agree with the member that the ones where it is purely proportional and no one really knows who their member of Parliament is would not work in this huge country. People do need to know their members' address, where they come from and know the regional issues. We would, I assume, in any electoral reform keep individual riding members.

"The debate that we would have with Canadians is about the lack of proportionality and the lack of Liberal members from Alberta when they can get up to 20% of the vote, and the fact that in 1993 the Conservative Party had 20-plus per cent of the vote and only two seats. People understand that there is a distortion and that we need to have a proper conversation with Canadians as to what might work to fix that.

"The Green Party put forward an interesting idea which would be that there would be a best losers list, where they would have had to have been a candidate in the last election, knocking on doors and listening to people, that if we were going to get three members from Alberta, they would be three of our candidates as opposed to a predetermined party list, as was the proposal in Ontario. I have to admit that until we move on party reform, we are not going to get the kind of support for electoral reform."

Liberal MP Mauril Belanger (the former Minister) said "I really rather agree with where the rest of the motion (on PR) is going.

"I was at one point the minister for democratic renewal, and I remember the discussions I had with Ed Broadbent, who was the member for Ottawa Centre at the time. I said that I personally agreed that there may be a use in our system for an element of proportionality. I tried to define that element.

"I recall an op-ed in the Globe and Mail a few years ago calling for a “12-per-cent solution”, which apportioned a reduced number of seats on a proportional basis, but regionally. The reasoning then was that if we had greater regional representation within caucuses, for instance if the Liberals had more voices from Alberta and the Conservatives more voices from Quebec and the NDP more voices from other provinces, in other words, if we had more provincial voices speaking in the respective parties' national caucuses, the national perspective might win the day more often.

"I think that would be healthy for our country. Therefore, I do support, notionally, an element of proportional representation."

Liberal MP Scott Simms said "the mixed member proportional representation that the member talks about has some merit."

That's as close as we have gotten to a Liberal position, at this point. The Liberals need the Law Commission's recommendation, but they haven't said so, yet.


Skinny Dipper said...

While I am not particular to the type of proportional representation that we should have for electing candidates to the House of Commons, I do think political parties and candidates who support proportional representation need to be strong advocates during the election campaign. They need to say that they support proportional representation--not just a study to examine voting reform. Also, by being vocal advocates, political candidates need to do more than just place a policy section hidden somewhere on a back page of their website.

The voting reform issue will be key on who I support and whether or not I will vote. For example, if Jack Layton keeps democratic reform including voting reform as a minor issue, this will suggest that the NDP will not take voting reform seriously.

Wilf Day said...

Not to worry. The NDP platform says:
“7.3 Making your Vote Count
• We will propose electoral reform to ensure Parliament reflects the political preferences of Canadians. To this end we will propose a new, more democratic voting system that preserves the connection between MPs and their constituents, while ensuring parties are represented in Parliament in better proportion to how Canadians voted. Your vote will always count.”

And in the English leaders debate Layton said “What Mr. Harper's saying here, is he's ready to accept that were he to get a majority . . . he could possibly do it with significantly less than 50 percent of Canadians supporting him. That's undemocratic. We need to change our electoral system. There's something wrong with the system, when a party, the Bloc Quebecois for example, has 1.3 million votes and gets 50 seats in the House. And we've got the Green Party that gets 900,000 votes, not that far behind the Bloc, they get zero seats. It's time that we had proportional representation in this country, so that we have a proper representation of everyone's point of view when it comes to that House of Commons.”

There are Liberals who support this too, as noted above.