No one need ever accuse the Parliament of Canada with moving at too great a speed in studying the contentious issues of the day.
In March of 1909, federal Conservative M.P. Frederick Monk introduced a resolution in the House of Commons calling for the establishment of a special parliamentary committee to study the pros and cons of proportional representation. Despite the fact that Monk was an opposition member of the legislature, the Laurier government endorsed his resolution.
That same month and year, the now defunct Montreal Star supported editorially Monk’s motion, and seemingly the idea as well. “Under present conditions, the minority in a constituency is practically unrepresented, and must remain so if it does not succeed in becoming the majority. That it should not be allowed to prevail over the majority is entirely proper; but that it should be permanently gagged is not so easily defended.”
Nine months later, that identical newspaper reported that the proposed parliamentary committee had just been created and the Minister of Labour (and future Prime Minister), William Lyon Mackenzie King, appointed its chairman. The working group would first study the evidence presented before a British royal commission established in the mother country to investigate the matching subject.
Having taken nearly a year to get started, one would hardly be surprised to learn that little was heard from the federal committee thereafter.
In short, 107 years later, we still have in Canada, as part of our British constitutional heritage, the first past the post (FPP) electoral system. This practice, it must be recalled, first came into existence when there were only two political parties competing against one another. Since the 1920’s, however, Canada has had, at the national level, three or more factions participating in the electoral process. As a result, there have been some pretty strange election night outcomes.
Take the federal ballot of May 22, 1979, as just one example.
Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives ended that campaign with just under 36% of the popular vote, yet came very close to forming a majority government by winning 136 of the 282 seats that existed at the time in the House of Commons. They were just six short. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, garnered only 114 seats with a popular vote of just over 40% to their credit – four per cent more than the victorious party.
The smaller parties – the NDP and the Social Credit Party – were even less fortunate in their experience with the first past the post electoral system.
While Andrew Coyne’s recent argument in favour of compulsory voting leaves me somewhat conflicted, his enthusiastic endorsement of one form or another of proportional representation deserves full consideration.
Various forms of proportional representation (PR) are used today in many, if not most, democratic countries throughout the world. In Western Europe alone, 21 of 28 nations, including continental stalwarts Germany and Spain, employ a proportional system in conducting their national elections. The three BENELUX nations do as well, and, in the United Kingdom, Scotland holds elections within its own jurisdiction using one category or another of PR.
Proportional representation was created in response to the many problems inherent in the FPP system. It addresses, if not eliminates, discrepancies such as we saw in the 1979 Canadian election. PR affords a more precise portrayal of political parties in a national legislature. It also offers smaller factions and diverse racial minorities better representation.
All in all, with such a framework in place, voter turnout usually tends to be higher, along with elevated levels of women in parliament, and that old electoral bugaboo – the gerrymandering of ridings – becomes happily a thing of the past.
Canadians deserve such an approach to balloting and should not have to wait yet another century before attaining it.