Monday, November 30, 2020

When Pierre Trudeau supported Proportional Representation

Many people don’t know Pierre Trudeau supported Proportional Representation in 1980. You can listen to him here:

Hearing Pierre Trudeau explain why he supported proportional representation, his reasons sound totally familiar 40 years later.

The Pépin-Robarts solution (now the Bélanger solution)

In the 1979 election, Liberals in Alberta cast 22% of the votes but elected zero members – in fact they had only one Liberal MP west of Winnipeg. The Liberals had no Saskatchewan MP after their young star Ralph Goodale lost his seat. And conversely, Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative Party got 13% of the Quebec vote and only two members, and much the same for the NDP.

Pierre Trudeau said “I think we have to move in this direction because the national parties, even though they have many voters in all parts of Canada, don’t have sitting in Ottawa members of Parliament from that particular region on the government side. In the case of Mr. Clark’s government, he doesn’t have a lot of members and ministers in the house who could speak for Quebec, and in the case of our government we didn’t have a lot of members or ministers who could speak for Alberta. You are aware, of course, that the Pépin-Robarts Committee also recommended something along those lines.” 

The Pépin-Robarts Commission

“To move in the direction of proportional representation” was the solution recommended by the Pépin-Roberts Commission Jan. 25, 1979. That Commission (the “Task Force on Canadian Unity”) was multi-partisan, co-chaired by former Ontario Conservative Premier John Robarts. They proposed electing an additional 60 MPs to the House of Commons to top-up the results from each province, keeping the present ridings.

Trudeau did not endorse it right away. The 1979 election was held May 22. Pierre Trudeau’s government lost its majority, even though they actually got more votes than the PCs. Even the Liberals and NDP combined were 2 seats short of a majority. Trudeau resigned as PM June 3 and announced his resignation as Liberal leader Nov. 21. Three days later, speaking at the University of Montreal, he endorsed the Pépin-Robarts recommendation to give each province fair representation from voters for each party. When Joe Clark then lost a confidence vote, Pierre Trudeau withdrew his resignation and was re-elected Prime Minister Feb. 18, 1980. Earlier that February he told CBC he still supported the Pépin-Robarts recommendation.

Those additional 60 MPs would (in 1979) have included 23 Liberal MPs, 17 from the West: 3 from Alberta, 3 from Saskatchewan, 6 more from BC where they had only 1, 3 from the Territories,.and 2 more from Manitoba, plus 4 more from Ontario, I more from Nova Scotia, and 1 from PEI. PC voters would have elected 7 more MPs from Quebec. NDP voters would have elected MPs from Quebec, New Brunswick and Alberta, and more from other provinces.

The actual 1979 election result was PCs 136, Liberals 114, NDP 26, Creditistes 6. With the additional 60 provincial MPs, the results would have been 137 Liberals, 143 PCs, 51 New Democrats, and 11 Creditistes. With 172 seats needed for a majority, the Liberals would have had to work with the NDP as they did from 1972 to 1974, or even form a coalition government. A perfectly proportional result with 342 MPs would have been 140 Liberals, 125 PCs, 62 New Democrats, and 15 Creditistes, but the governmental outcome would have been the same either way. 

Pierre’s same reasons apply today

Today, 40 years later, the Prime Minister should make his father’s argument, since the Liberals once again have no MPs from Alberta and Saskatchewan, after their Saskatchewan veteran Ralph Goodale once again lost his seat.

With the House of Commons larger now, the Pépin-Roberts recommendation could be for 72 more MPs. But even 60 more MPs, or even a modest 42 MPs, is worth looking at.

It’s a semi-proportional solution: keep the present riding boundaries, and add some additional MPs to top-up the results from each province or region. These extra MPs will give all parties MPs from each region. They will make every vote count to some extent, and will also make accidental majority governments far less likely.

It could be permanent. Or it could be a fast solution, while the discussion continues about whether to adopt full proportional representation, how a PR model for Canada would work, and whether a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform is a better way to settle these questions than holding a referendum?

Can an expansion of the House be justified? In fact, it is inevitable. After the next census, the smaller provinces will have their present seats protected again, while the growing large provinces will be entitled to more MPs. This resulted in 30 more MPs in 2015. The next census will have a similar result, maybe even more. 

The Bélanger Solution

A modest 42 additional MPs is the number of additional MPs the late Mauril Bélanger liked. He was MP for Ottawa-Vanier for 21 years, one of the Liberal MP supporters of proportional representation, and the man whose bill changed "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command." 

Does the Bélanger solution work?

Is 42 extra MPs really enough? Would it have prevented a Harper false majority in 2011? Checking the 2011 results, those 42 MPs would have been 17 Liberals, 12 New Democrats, 3 Greens, 5 Bloc, and 5 Conservatives (from Atlantic Canada and Quebec). Harper would have had 171 MPs out of 350, four short of half.

More about the Belanger solution here.


1 comment:

OhSheri said...

Thanks for this historical recounting.

It's great to know that although PET era politicians have long known the problem and had a way to fix it, their own self interest, in the unearned power accorded from FPTP got in the way. It seems like PET only supported PR when not in a position to do much about getting it done...

Does this rather cynical view explain the problem, politicians themselves? This is kinda like American politicians can't fix the grave problems with their version of FPTP, they might lose their jobs/power.

On another note, I thought the citizens' assembly would design the PR system for Canada, not necessarily supplant a referendum. Perhaps the CA should also consider the question of a referendum question and I don't think we should leave it to politicians, some of whom will demand a referendum. What about a referendum after implementation...