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Proportional representation a fair voting system denied Canadians

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Elections Canada sign at an advance polling station in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on October 11, 2019. Image: Coastal Elite/Wikimedia Commons

The inherent unfairness of Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system has been displayed many times in previous federal elections, but never so blatantly as in the recent voting farce.

Its outrageously skewed outcome starkly exposed the inequitable result of our country's failure to finally switch to some form of proportional representation (PR) -- one that would be best suited to Canada's federal political system.

In such a truly democratic voting process -- already favoured by 90 other countries -- there are no "wasted" votes. Every vote counts and contributes to an equitable allocation of seats.

If some form of PR had been used on October 21 -- as Justin Trudeau mendaciously promised it would be during his campaign for office in 2015 -- the outcome would have been fair for all the contending parties and voters. There would be an appropriate connection between the votes cast and the seats won.

Instead, under first-past-the-post, the Liberals won 157 seats with 33 per cent of the vote, and the Conservatives won 121 seats with 34.4 per cent. Much more unfairly skewed were the 32 seats won by the Bloc Québécois with just 8 per cent of the vote, and the 27 seats won jointly by the NDP and the Greens with a combined 22.5 per cent of the vote.

As columnist Andrew Coyne noted in a recent op-ed, these inequitable results demolished the myth that we live in a democracy in which everybody gets a vote and every vote counts.

Surely not when it took 386,000 votes to elect each Green MP, and just 43,000 to elect each Bloc MP.

There are many forms of proportional representation, but they are all based on a distribution of seats related to the percentage of the vote won. Under one popular PR process, if it had been deployed on October 21, the NDP would have wound up with 50 seats and the Greens 22, with the Conservatives winning 115 and the Liberals 114.

Over 90 countries, including nearly all of them in Europe, conduct their elections under some form of PR. Of the advanced nations, only Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States still cling to the egregiously unfair and antiquated first-past-the-post system.

In Canada, this undemocratic way of casting our ballots was not quite so objectionable in the past, when there were only two major political parties splitting the vote. But now that we also have the NDP, the Greens, and the Bloc competing for seats, any semblance of electoral fair play is gone.  

There have been a few provincial referenda on electoral reform held in Canadian provinces -- three in British Columbia and one in P.E.I. -- but all failed to achieve the stipulated level of success needed to switch to proportional representation. The second referendum in B.C., however, did receive a majority of votes, but fell short of the unjustly required 60 per cent of support.

Two huge barriers to fair voting

These provincial failures to move to a democratic voting process were disheartening, but we have to take into account the two large barriers to gaining majority PR support from Canadians.

The first obstacle is the comparative complexity of many PR methods. There are a dozen or more different ways to achieve proportional representation. It's not simply converting the percentage of votes cast into the number of seats won. Several other factors have to be considered, including the number of votes cast for each party in a riding, and their transformation into a proper apportion of federal seats. The outcome of some PR system elections is a combination of seats won on a percentage basis and those won on a riding basis.

There was little consistent effort made during the run-up to the provincial referenda to explain the intricacies and benefits of the chosen PR method to the voters. This communication lapse was not the fault of the electoral reform advocates. They did their best to distribute informative leaflets and hold explanatory meetings. But their efforts were drowned out by the pundits and editorial writers in the business-owned newspapers and private radio stations.

The scorn and vituperation they heaped on proportional representation deluded many people who, had they been effectively and veraciously informed, would have voted for PR. 

Canadians surely are no less capable of grasping the superiority of the PR voting process than the voters in the 90 other countries who have enthusiastically embraced it.

This brings us to the second reason why the iniquitous first-past-the-post system continues to be favoured in Canada. It prevails because the country's corporate plutocrats want it prevailed. First-past-the-post serves the rich and powerful by ensuring that political power always alternates between the Liberals and Conservatives. Both these parties are primarily committed to serving the interests of the multinational corporations, and only secondarily the interests of the Canadian people as a whole. 

This political subservience is slightly diminished during minority governments, but never to the point of seriously impairing the power and avarice of the corporate overlords. 

They obviously had no trouble persuading Trudeau to renege on his promise to convert to proportional representation. The CEOs found that pledge to be especially alarming, because it meant that Trudeau could make the conversion to PR without even holding a referendum. The voters, after all, had effectively given him that mandate. And the consequent switch to PR, when enacted, would have significantly weakened the corporations' political power -- as it has to some extent in other PR-practicing countries.

Hope for the adoption of proportional representation in Canada has now been effectively dashed. It's unlikely that the NDP will give this electoral issue any priority while wielding its not-so-strong balance of power. Even if they did, and even if Trudeau agreed to renew his broken pro-PR pledge if he wins another majority, it would almost certainly be broken.

Divide between democracy and oligarchy

My reference to Canada being ruled by a plutocracy rather than a democracy is a claim I have often made in the past. It's interesting that the same assertion is now being made by some progressive journalists in the United States.

Robert Reich, for example, in a recent blog, contended that "Today's great divide (in the U.S.) is not between left and right. It's between democracy and oligarchy." He prefers the word "oligarchy" to "plutocracy," but their meaning is basically the same: "rule by a wealthy and powerful group."

Reich is a former U.S. secretary of labour in the Clinton administration, now a professor of public policy at the University of California.

In his latest column in The Guardian, he notes that:

"As wealth and power have moved to the top and the middle class has shrunk, more Americans have joined the ranks of the working class and poor... They have become politically disempowered and economically insecure. The frustrations today are larger than they were in 2016. Corporate profits are higher, as is CEO pay... The oligarchy is in charge."

Reich says that (despite Trump and his propagandists on Fox News) "a large majority of Americans -- right and left, Republicans as well as Democrats -- could get excited about moving toward a real democracy, and an economy that works for the many (instead of a powerful few)."

That depends, of course, on the increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party -- and, more precisely, on the rising popularity of Democratic frontrunners Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. It will be interesting to see how their prospects fare over the next several months.

Meanwhile, we can ponder how Canada, too, has fallen under the sway of oligarchs and plutocrats. Ours, too, has become a country ravished by poverty and inequality, by a massive maldistribution of wealth, and the swelling number of families struggling to survive on meagre paycheque-to-paycheque incomes.

As the recent federal election revealed, our main difference from the United States is that we lack progressive political leaders of the stature of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: Coastal Elite/Wikimedia Commons

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