Tuesday, March 12, 2013

With 8-MP regions every vote counts, moderately

My Letter to the Editor in The Hill Times, March 11, 2013:

"Justin Trudeau says every MP should represent actual Canadians and Canadian communities, not just political parties. (Let’s ignore for the moment that every MP was nominated by a political party).

In a discussion with Justin Trudeau on Feb. 14 about the mixed-member model recommended by the Law Commission of Canada, he quickly focused on the key question “how big are the regions?” The Law Commission recommended two-thirds of MPs be from local ridings as today, and one-third elected from regions so as to “top-up” disproportional local results. You vote for your local MP, and also for your party’s regional candidate you prefer.

Many Liberals, like St├ęphane Dion, want a “moderate proportional representation, which corrects partisan and regional distortions, but moderate enough to avoid a proliferation of parties.” So the regions must not be too large. Just as well, or we’d have bed sheet ballots, and MPs wouldn’t be from actual communities as Mr. Trudeau and others want.

Take Ottawa, which will elect eight MPs at the next election. Assume it elects five local MPs: say three Conservatives, one Liberal and one NDP. On the votes cast in 2011, the three regional MPs who Ottawa voters elect would be two Liberals and one NDP, for a total of three, three and two, matching the total Ottawa vote shares. Isn’t Ottawa a real community? Can’t Ottawa Liberal Party members nominate accountable candidates?

But is this region too small for Green voters to have any hope of representation? Not on the votes cast in 2008, when Lori Gadzala was the strongest Green candidate in Ottawa. The result would have been three Conservatives, three Liberals, one NDP and one Green. Every vote counts, moderately."

How big are the regions?

For most purposes, regions of 14 of so MPs (nine local, five regional) would serve Canada well, as they do Scotland and Wales. They would result in Canadians having more choices, rather than trying to use a two-party voting system in a multi-party country. Requiring a threshold of 5% of the vote in the province for a party to win a "top-up" seat in that province would prevent micro-parties from proliferating as Israel's 2% threshold allows them to do.

Regions averaging only eight MPs, or even seven MPs, would only be half as proportional, but could still be acceptably proportional, and MPs would be more locally accountable. These are plausible trade-offs in designing a democratic voting system. As the Jenkins Commission said in the UK, while proposing regions averaging eight MPs, top-up MPs locally anchored to small areas 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.”

Suppose, instead of Ottawa's 8 MPs and Eastern Ontario's 8 MPs being two separate regions, they were a single region. Francophone voters in eastern Ontario might prefer this, being together in one region, and Green voters would certainly prefer it, being numerous enough to elect an MP.

If the ten local MPs were seven Conservatives, two Liberals and one NDP, the six regional MPs would (on the votes cast in 2011) include an extra Liberal, an extra NDP MP, and a Green MP, for a total of eight Conservatives, four Liberals, three NDP and a Green. Oddly, by splitting this region into two smaller regions, not only the Greens lose, but the Conservatives lose an MP due to rounding differences: each of the two smaller regions gets two NDP MPs, while the Liberals get three in Ottawa and two in the rest of Eastern Ontario. 

These rounding differences dwindle with larger regions, but they also cancel out. The full mid-size regional model gives a Canada-wide outcome of 144 Conservatives, 107 NDP, 63 Liberals, 15 BQ, and 9 Greens, while the smallish-region model gives 144 Conservatives, 115 New Democrats, 60 Liberals, 14 Bloc, and five Greens. One difference is in Ontario, where the smallish-region model gives the NDP three more MPs that the mid-size region model, at the cost of the Greens (three).

So the smaller regions help the two biggest parties, just as one would expect.

But only a little. Is it a good trade-off?

This is one of the issues to be determined after public consultation.