Proportional representation has worked well in many European countries. But to take an electoral system that works in countries that are geographically small, relatively homogeneous and, in many cases, non-federated and cite them as examples for Canada to follow would be a mistake. In fact, proportional representation in a Canadian context would be extremely problematic in a number of ways. Two deserve closer examination.
First, under PR, Canada could see an increased number of regionally based political parties. And second, PR is likely to lead to weaker federal governments and an even more decentralized federation. In both instances, the cohesion and unity of the country would be threatened.
Canada is a geographically large country, whose citizens have strong regional loyalties. Under the current first-past-the-post electoral system, we have seen the rise of regionally based parties throughout our history. However, in most cases, these regional parties eventually merged with one of Canada’s big tent national parties. If Canada adopts proportional representation, there would be little incentive for regionally based parties to become part of a national party, as they could exert significant influence on minority or coalition governments, which are the norm under proportional representation. An increase in resilient regionally based parties would be harmful to the social and economic cohesion of Canada, and ultimately, the unity of the country.
Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world. Adopting an electoral system that could result in an even more decentralized country would be shortsighted. In the past, the balance of power between the federal government and the provinces swung back and forth between the two levels of government depending on the social and economic needs of the country. Federal governments were able to resist the centrifugal forces of confederation (regional loyalties coupled with demanding provincial governments) thanks to the presence of strong majority governments in Ottawa. Proportional representation — with its attendant minority or coalition governments, plus regional parties — would weaken this check on the provinces, and the balance of power would end up permanently weighted in favour of the provinces. Again, over time, this could represent a significant threat to the cohesion and unity of the country.
To be fair, proportional representation would have some benefits for Canada. For one, it would put an end to some of the regional distortions we experience under first-past-the-post. In each election, it seems, a national party fails to elect members of parliament from one of Canada’s regions. In 2015, for example, Conservatives and New Democrats failed to elect a single MP from the Atlantic region. Historically, Liberals have had difficulty electing MPs in the West. In these examples, political parties have no representation from different parts of the country, despite the fact that they may have significant support from voters in these regions. PR would ensure that political parties and governments would have members of parliament from all of Canada’s regions and provinces.
So the question becomes: How can Canada reform its electoral system in a way that discourages the creation of resilient regional parties and preserves the capacity of the federal government to deal with strong provinces while, at the same time, ensuring that the views of Canadians of all political stripes and regions are represented in the House of Commons?
The case for a parallel voting system in Canada
A parallel voting system (PVS) is a semi-proportional system where members of parliament are selected using two distinct voting systems.* In the Canadian context, for example, the House of Commons might have 80% of the MPs selected using a preferential ballot,** and 20% selected according to a proportional system. Unlike more fully proportional systems, such as mixed member proportional (MMP) or single transferable vote (STV), there is a greater probability that a single party will form a majority government under a parallel voting system. This would preserve a flexible balance of power between the federal government and the provinces. Furthermore, because majority governments are more likely with PVS, the potential for resilient regional parties is diminished. On the other hand, like MMP and STV, parallel voting in Canada would increase the likelihood that all of Canada’s major political parties will have some representation from every region and province.
The primary responsibility of any Canadian government is the unity of the country. Adopting a proportional electoral system would exacerbate existing stressors on the social, economic and political cohesion of the Canadian federation. It is, therefore, in the best interests of Canadians and the Canadian government to adopt an electoral system that preserves a flexible federal-provincial balance power and ensures that the differing political views of Canadians from all regions and provinces are represented in the House of Commons. A parallel voting system would achieve these goals.
* As is the case with most of the electoral reforms being considered, PVS would likely require an increase in the number of MPs.
** A preferential ballot has its own benefits, since it encourages political parties to be less divisive and results in MPs who have the support of a majority of voters in each electoral district.