Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP leadership race is a real snoozefest, but...

We could sure benefit from this debate

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OTTAWA -- It's hard sometimes to keep one's eyes open while reading about the NDP leadership contest.

With three months left in the campaign, thus far the race has been about as appealing as a cold cup of coffee.

There have been promises of higher taxes for the rich (Brian Topp), a national child-care program (Niki Ashton) and a tax on financial transactions (Peggy Nash). But lots of the promises sound kind of the same, and there aren't many ways yet to distinguish one candidate from the other.

But bubbling beneath the surface of the race and emerging as promises from at least two of the candidates are proposals to reinvent how we elect our governments.

At the same time, the Liberal rank and file want their party to push for electoral-system change. Several resolutions concerning this are expected to come up for debate this weekend at the Liberal convention in Ottawa.

Nathan Cullen, one of the eight candidates in the race to replace the late Jack Layton, is the most forward about his plans for electoral reform. He will be in Winnipeg this week to campaign and he brings with him a promise to hold a referendum to ask Canadians if we want to modernize our voting system.

If Canadians say they do, then he will ask us what kind of system we want. He is open to ideas but prefers a mixed-member proportional representation system. That combines both the current first-past-the-post elections of MPs in every riding with an additional number of seats going to parties based on their share of the popular vote.

Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin said he thinks almost all the NDP leadership candidates will end up with some form of proposal to switch to a proportional representation system.

At the Liberal convention this weekend, two of the top five resolutions party members picked as priorities for debate involve a preferential ballot. That is a system in which voters rank the candidates from first to last, and then the bottom candidates are dropped after each count of the ballots until someone reaches 50 per cent plus one.

Most political parties use a preferential ballot to choose their leaders, to ensure the leader of a party doesn't get chosen unless he or she can get support from at least half the party's members.

But we don't seem to care that MPs can be elected with as little as one-third of the vote, and prime ministers get total control of a majority government, usually with little more than 40 per cent of the vote.

Last May, 154 MPs won their seats with less than half the vote in their riding. Nearly 50 won with less than 40 per cent.

The Conservatives won 54 per cent of the seats overall with 40 per cent of the ballots cast.

That is nothing new. In 2000, the Liberals won 57 per cent of the seats with 41 per cent of the vote.

Both parties got all of the power but less than half the electorate wanted them in government.

Once a government wins a majority there are very few, if any, checks on its power.

Few sitting governments or parties with the ability to become a sitting government want to talk about electoral system change because -- obviously -- the current system works for them. The NDP in Manitoba, which has won four consecutive majority governments, doesn't talk about proportional representation with the same gusto as its federal counterparts.

Last October, the provincial NDP won an additional seat in the legislature despite getting fewer votes overall.

If that doesn't say the system is messed up, nothing does.

Canadians are less and less interested in their government and many feel their vote counts less and less for anything. As a result, voter turnout is paltry and governments are becoming accountable only to some of the people -- i.e., the ones who voted for them. Canada is one of the last countries to use a first-past-the-post voting system.

No electoral system is perfect but Canada could really benefit from an intense and substantial debate about what we can do to make our government the best it can be, and make voters as interested and influential as possible.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2012 A6

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