How Would Proportional Representation Change Canadian Politics?

Some people have suggested that Canada’s democracy would work better if Canada elected its parliament using some form of proportional representation. How would this affect Canadian politics? I published an earlier version of this article on-line in 2009. When time permits, I will update the article to include information on the 2011 election.

Why is this an Issue?

Currently Canada uses a “first past the post” election for each parliamentary riding. The candidate with the most votes is elected, even if they do not have a majority. With three or more major parties, this can result in a government getting a majority of seats with as little as 38% of the popular vote. The various proportional systems try to bring the proportion of seats a party gets closer to the proportion of votes they get.

A major argument for proportional representation is that it would encourage co-operation between political parties rather than concentrating on gaining an advantage over other parties. The idea is that this would make the government more democratic.

In the current parliament, the Conservative party has close to a majority of the seats. If they can gain the support of another 4% or 5% of voters, which is a realistic possibility, they could have a majority government. Under proportional representation, they would need the support of another 12% or 13% of voters, which is not as likely. If Canada had proportional representation, the Conservative party would likely not gain any greater power in parliament with a new election. This would encourage them to cooperate more closely with the opposition parties.

Who Would Lose Power Under Proportional Representation?

Under proportional representation, the Conservative party would have been the biggest losers with 27 fewer seats leaving them with 116 seats. In the 2008 election, they won 143 seats out of 308 total seats, just short of a majority. The other big loser would be the Bloc Quebecois, who would drop 18 seats from 49 to 31. This would dramatically reduce the political influence of the Bloc.

Who Would Gain Power under Proportional Representation?

The biggest winner would be the Green party. In the current parliament, they have no seats, but under proportional representation, they would gain 21 seats. This would change the Green party from a footnote in the election results into a party with real political influence. The New Democrats would gain 19 seats, again giving them a stronger political influence. The Liberal party would gain a few seats, but this would not have much effect on their political power. The Christian Heritage Party would have gotten one seat. While this does not give them much power, it would give the party greater credibility.

The End of Majority Governments

A proportional representation system in Canada is likely to result in more minority governments. Canada has had 40 elections since confederation, only five resulted in one party getting a majority of votes cast. These were the Liberals in 1900 and 1904, a wartime coalition in 1917, and the Progressive Conservatives in 1958 and 1984. In all other elections, no party gained a majority.

Coalitions

In countries with proportional representation it is common for several parties to form a coalition government. This does not seem likely in Canada. In late 2008, a proposed Liberal – New Democrat coalition was very unpopular with Canadians. In New Zeeland, formal coalitions were unpopular and more recently parties have created temporary informal agreements on an issue-by-issue basis.

How Would Proportional Representation Change the Way People Vote?

Studies of proportional representation show that supporters of minor parties are more likely to vote under proportional representation because their vote has a greater impact on the results. For example, in 2008 the New Democrats received 67,981 votes for every seat they won, while the Conservatives received 36,427 votes for every seat they won.

In Canada, a higher turn out for minor parties would most likely benefit the Green, New Democrat, and Christian Heritage parties. These parties would all gain more political influence beyond what they would gain from increased seats from proportional representation.

Canadians often vote strategically. That is, they vote for their second choice since they believe that voting for their first choice would benefit a party that they would not like to see elected. Under proportional representation there is less value in strategic voting. This could shift some voters away from the two major parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, to minor parties, such as the Green, New Democrat, and Christian Heritage parties.

What Would Happen to the Political Parties?

Introduction of a proportional representation system will almost certainly result in a realignment of political parties over time. Political parties are often coalitions. For example, the Canadian Conservative party is composed of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Under proportional representation, there would be more incentive to split up into smaller parties, which would give these two factions greater political influence.

During the late 1990s there was a strong push to “unite the right” because right wing politicians saw their chances at political success ruined by vote splitting between the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives. In a proportional representation system, there would be no need or value in “uniting the right” since the right wing parties would not lose seats because of vote splitting. They could coordinate voting in parliament after the election.

Under a proportional representation system, the catastrophic collapse of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993 would have been much less drastic, leaving the Progressive Conservatives almost as strong as the Reform party. The Progressive Conservatives would have continued to be an important political party.

How Would Canadian Politics Change?

Since 1962, if Canada had used proportional representation, most of the elections would have resulted in a Liberal minority government that relied on the New Democrats for support. This actually did happen in 1963, 1985, and 1972. It almost happened in 2004. These situations resulted in a shift toward the left politically in Canada.

In the 2006 and 2008 elections the Liberal and New Democrat parties would not have been able to gain a majority between them. The growth of support for the Green party would have meant that the Liberals would need to gain their support to become the government. This would have resulted in greater emphasis on environmental issues.

The Conservatives are less likely than the Liberals to collaborate with the New Democrats or the Greens, although, in late 2009 the New Democrats were supporting the Conservative party. Not having a minor party it could collaborate with would make it harder for the Conservatives to form an effective government. In some provinces, the Conservatives have relied on the Liberals for support against the New Democrats. In some cases, the two parties have, in effect, merged. Seeking Liberal support at the Federal level is a viable option for the Conservatives.

Sources

The Realities of Electoral Reform: Voter Behaviour Before and After Electoral Reform in New Zealand by Evan Wilson and Brenda O’Neill. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/237641070_The_Realities_of_Electoral_Reform_Voter_Behaviour_Before_and_After_Electoral_Reform_in_New_Zealand

I got the results of past Canadian elections from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Canadian_elections

I combined these observations with my own speculation.

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