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Changing Our Electoral System Would Renew Democracy

Why Tyee columnist Tieleman is wrong to criticize NDP support for proportional representation.

By Anita Nickerson 20 Dec 2014 |

Anita Nickerson is Fair Vote Canada's action coordinator.

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Our current first-past-the-post system fosters a 'get nowhere' dynamic that winner-take-all voting brings: an endless cycle of 'strategic voting' campaigns, while millions of voters in 'safe' ridings are ignored by political parties.

In his latest column discouraging the federal NDP from pursuing election reform, Bill Tieleman deeply misunderstands the importance of renewing democracy in Canada. Making votes count is not a side issue: it means empowering voters to elect governments that reflect how we voted and rebuild a democracy we can trust.

In the past four years, Canadians have become acutely aware of the consequences of a voting system which hands a single party100 per cent of the power to do what it wants, with only 39 per cent of the popular vote. For four years, we have seen the powerlessness of opposition parties representing more than 60 per cent of voters to influence anything.

Tieleman wonders why the NDP is pushing proportional representation when it would not have "helped" them in 2011 -- by which he means, it would not have disproportionately benefited their party. NDP MP Jean Crowder answered him in the House of Commons Dec. 3: "Our objective should be to ensure that the values of Canadians are adequately represented in this House."

Maybe we will elect a government of a different stripe in 2015. Polls show most Canadians would prefer that, but nobody knows what the first-past-the-post voting casino will actually deliver.

Do we really want to see a new government elected next year, then four years from now have the next government of a different stripe undo the positive changes the previous government brought in? That is the "get nowhere" dynamic that winner-take-all voting brings: an endless cycle of "strategic voting" campaigns, while millions of voters in "safe" ridings are ignored by the political parties.

39% isn't a majority

But what about the economy, oil prices and energy policy, our veterans and a host of other "bread and butter" issues Tieleman rightly points out that Canadians care about? Aren't those important issues for a political party to be campaigning on?

Of course they are, and the NDP is campaigning on them. But they're also campaigning on making votes count -- so that in the future, Canadians have a proven mechanism to have more influence over those issues we care about and the chance to see sustainable change in Canada.

All we can count on with more winner-take-all elections is each party continually striving to achieve or maintain the gold ring -- their own 39 per cent "majority." This is the kind of adversarial politics that holds back progressive policy development over the long term.

Making votes count is a necessary step towards improving the ability of voters to be heard on bread-and-butter issues. Canadians would prefer MPs were able to work together to move these issues forward.

Research shows the main result of proportional representation is to produce governments that better reflect the views of the median voter. This is another way of saying: When our votes count, we get governments that represent a genuine majority of voters, and those governments produce policies that better reflect what Canadians want.

Pro-rep countries are healthier countries

Decades of research shows that countries with more proportional systems score higher on the United Nations Index of Human Development (which measures health, education and standard of living) and have better environmental performance, plus they have lower income inequality. Why? Because when votes count, voters have more power. Research that looked at 107 countries over almost 200 years showed that countries with proportional systems outperformed winner-take-all countries on economic growth.

In our representative democracy, about half of all voters cast votes that elect no representation. That's about seven million wasted votes each federal election. That's not how most modern democracies, including 85 per cent of OECD countries, work.

When the incentives are built into the system for our politicians to show they can work together for the common good, they will rise to the task or be left behind.

When MPs and parties step up to the plate -- like Thomas Mulcair just did, to say, "No matter where you live or who you vote for, your vote should count, and I commit to making that happen," -- they should be encouraged, not ridiculed. Ten non-partisan commissions and assemblies in Canada and 14 years of public opinion polls on PR show that 70 per cent of Canadians agree with them.

The campaign to make every vote count is gaining momentum.

In the House of Commons Dec. 3, we experienced an historic first: every NDP, Green and Bloc MP, three independents and half the Liberal caucus voted YES to an NDP motion for proportional representation. Our politicians are building that multi-party consensus we need to get the job done.

If Canadians elect a majority of MPs in favour of the principle of proportional representation in the next federal election, 2015 could be the last winner-take-all election in Canada. And that will be an accomplishment that brings a long-term, positive change to Canadian democracy we can all be proud of.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics,

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