Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/5/2010 (3504 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Canada and Britain share the dubious distinction as the only two parliamentary democracies in the western world still clinging to the antiquated and unrepresentative first past the post voting system.
Its premise that two contending parties can effectively reflect the public will may have been true in a bygone simpler era of ethnically and geographically homogeneous societies. But FPTP serves only to frustrate the popular will and undermine democracy in today's world of multiracial, multicultural and often geographically diverse nations.
In a multi-party system, FPTP routinely, even capriciously, over-rewards parties with specific geographic bases and unfairly penalizes those with broad but not concentrated appeal. In other words, it rewards regionalism — certainly not a healthy development for an already highly sectional and fractured country like Canada.
Look at the Liberal party. It governed throughout most of the 20th century and earned the sobriquet of the most successful political party in the western world because it had a hammerlock on Quebec's 75 seats. Today, the Conservative party appears poised to repeat that feat well into the future thanks to its hammerlock on the 92 ridings in the four western provinces.
Now look at the 2008 federal election. With just 37 per cent of the vote, the victorious Conservatives captured a near-majority of seats — 47 per cent of the 308. The Liberals were slightly under-represented, 27 per cent of the vote and 24.6 per cent of the seats. The New Democrats were far worse off: 18 per cent of the vote but just 12 per cent of the seats. The Greens' seven per cent won them not a single seat. But the geographically concentrated Bloc Québécois walked away with 15.6 per cent of the seats although they won just 10 per cent of the vote.
Last week's British election produced a roughly similar distortion. The victorious Conservatives obtained a near-majority, 47 per cent of the 650 seats, with only 36.1 per cent of the vote. The governing Labour Party was tossed out — but with a consolation: only 29 per cent of the vote gave it 40 per cent of the seats, leaving it still in the running to stay in office. The Liberal Democrats took 23 per cent of the vote but just 8.8 per cent of the seats.
Electoral reform, replacing FPTP with proportional representation, is one of the Liberal Democrats' bottom-line conditions for forging a coalition with either Conservatives or Labour. If the coalition talks in Westminster succeed, Canada will be completely isolated among western parliamentary democracies as the only jurisdiction left still regarding PR and its frequent outcome, coalition government, as bad, undemocratic, and as of last year, downright sinister.
FPTP's proponents argue that the fact it produces "stable" and "strong" "majority" governments able to take "tough decisions" is worth the sacrifice of the democratic principles of making every vote count and ensuring equal representation for every citizen. But most democratic societies now recognize "majorities" elected by often far less than half the voters are false and there are more important values than simply guaranteeing the trains run on time.
Riven by linguistic, cultural and geographic schisms that grow deeper and wider every year, Canada, particularly, cries out for PR and coalition government. But generations of Canadians have been taught that PR produces "pizza" parliaments — unstable, fractious and routinely crisis-ridden, with no direct connection between the voter and the MP. But unstable, fractious and routinely crisis-ridden is now an excellent description of Canada's unruly and often puerile parliament — elected by supposedly "stable" FPTP.
There are many different forms of PR, one of which retains FPTP's main strength: the right of voters, not parties or party leaders, to choose their MPs.
The alternative vote is used in Australia and favoured by the British Labour Party. Voters rank each candidate on the ballot in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first place ballots on the first count, he or she is elected. If no single candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, the second choices for the candidate at the bottom are redistributed and the process repeated until one emerges with an absolute majority.
It is a majoritarian system, not true PR. However, it has one huge advantage over FPTP: all MPs end up with the support of an absolute majority of their constituents. Gone would be outcomes such as the 2005 British election, when 19 million Britons — fully 70 per cent of all who voted — cast irrelevant or "wasted" ballots, playing no role at all in choosing their MP.
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.