Democratic reform. Do your eyes glaze over when you read those words? If so, I’d invite you to think again.

The need to reform our electoral system has never been more dramatic.

The most pressing issue is the need for proportional representation — a system employed by more than eighty of the world’s democracies, whereby seats are distributed according to actual percentages of votes earned.

While by no means a cure-all (and certainly not without problems of its own to be worked out), proportional representation would be good for what ails our political system.

Only 61.2 per cent of those eligible to vote exercised their right to do so in the November 2000 federal election (that was down from 75 per cent in 1988).

The Liberals won 57 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons in 2000, but they achieved that “majority” with just 41 per cent of votes.

At the same time, 147 Members of Parliament (half of the total number of MPs) received less than a majority of the votes cast in their ridings.

This means that the majority of voters in half of the ridings in the country do not have their views represented in Parliament.

In fact, not since the Diefenbaker sweep in 1958 has a majority government been supported by a majority of voters.

“The voters did not elect the majority government we have. The voting system put that government in power,”says Larry Gordon, executive director of Fair Vote Canada — a multi-partisan organization devoted to bringing proportional representation to Canada.

Fair Vote’s advisory board includes diverse voices: from Walter Robinson to David Suzuki to Hugh Segal.

“The voting system actually drives the nature of politics in a democratic society, because it sets out the rules of the game by which the political parties play to gain power,” says Gordon.

Globe and Mail columnist Hugh Winsor says that:

“Obviously, a PR system would produce a Parliament [that is] more reflective of the parties’ actual support and [it would] reduce the impact of regional blocks. That in turn could diminish the sense of helplessness for all but the governing party and thus encourage more participation. But it would also virtually guarantee minority coalition governments. On a PR basis, the Liberals, for instance, would have been 28 seats short of a majority in the 2000 election, and 35 seats short in 1997. Minority coalitions may well be a fairer, more democratic way to govern. But the dominant party, in this case the Liberals, who revel in their majority, are unlikely to ever embrace it.”

Laval University political scientist Henry Milner describes the current situation this way: “Frankly, if I was teaching in any other country in the world, I would say if you want to see an example of how the first-past-the-post system works poorly, Canada is a textbook case. As long as we have a one-party state in Canada, it’s going to be difficult.” Moreover, he says, “the Liberal party hasn’t the slightest interest in having it discussed in any way, shape or form.”

Still, there is significant pressure for reform. The Progressive Conservative Party adopted a strong electoral reform position at their recent national convention that calls on a Tory government to immediately strike a commission to “hold public consultations on the most appropriate electoral system for Canada.” Provinces such as Quebec, PEI and British Columbia are discussing political reforms that may include proportional representation.

In early 2001, the federal New Democratic Party forced a debate (but unfortunately, not a vote) on a motion calling for an all-party committee to examine electoral reform. As then-party leader Alexa McDonough said at the time:

“The motion says that we need to have a debate, not just a debate in the House but a debate that will involve getting out and talking to Canadians about what the various forms of proportional representation could be; what it would actually mean for Canada; what a system of proportional representation would do to strengthen national unity so that we do not end up with regional divisions in the House which threaten the unity and future strength of the country; and what it would mean to ensure that caucuses are more representative and that in every caucus there would be some representation that would allow for a more national view of what the country is, what people want to see in their parliament and what they want their government to do on their behalf.”

This fall, the NDP will dedicate its “opposition day” motion (which must be voted on) to a call for a national referendum on proportional representation. This occasion will mark the first time since 1923 that Parliament has voted on proportional representation.

If you care about the state of Canada’s democracy, call your MP now and ask for a chance to cast your own vote on the matter.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...