The case for a parallel voting system in Canada

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.

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* 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.

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Is Tom Mulcair planning “side deals” with Quebec to achieve Senate abolition?

Six months after Tom Mulcair became leader of the New Democratic Party, he appeared on the September 16th, 2012 edition of Global’s West Block. When asked by host Tom Clark about the prospects of reopening the Constitution, Mulcair said that “reopening the constitution, when we look at the disaster that was Meech and Charlottetown, is the last thing we should be thinking of.”

But by the time the legal and ethical problems of a handful of Senators started making headlines at the beginning of 2013, reopening the Constitution to abolish the Senate moved up significantly on Mulcair’s list of priorities. And by the spring, Mulcair had launched the Roll Up The Red Carpet campaign to rally Canadians behind the NDP’s policy to get rid of the upper chamber.

Because Senate abolition requires the unanimous agreement of the provinces, Mulcair has repeatedly faced questions about how he would get all the premiers on board. In particular, how would he satisfy Quebec’s traditional demands for more powers and constitutional recognition of its unique status within Canada? The same issues, in fact, that led to the disastrous Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. In response, Mulcair has been adamant that as prime minister his discussions with the premiers would be limited to abolishing the Senate.

But on June 7th, during an interview with Robert Fife on CTV’s Question Period, Mulcair raised the possibilty of what he called “side deals” with individual provinces, including Quebec, to get them to sign off on Senate abolition.

Using bilateral agreements between the federal government and Quebec to meet some of that province’s traditional demands is not a new idea. In 2009, professors David R. Cameron and Jacqueline D. Krikorian published an essay in Policy Options that advocated “dealing with constitutional issues concerning la belle province in a bilateral rather than a national context.”

Cameron and Krikorian point to section 43 of the Constitution which “allows for a province and the federal government to address constitutional issues particular to one province without involving the rest of the country.” This is the same amending procedure used to change Quebec school boards from religious based to linguistic based, which Mulcair refers to often when he talks about abolishing the Senate. If he’s planning to reach similar bilateral agreements to get Quebec’s okay on Senate abolition, it may explain why Mulcair regularly mentions his role in getting the Quebec school board amendments passed.

As for the substance of the bilateral side deals with Quebec, New Democrats outlined a constitutional offer to Quebec when they tabled a bill to repeal the Clarity Act. Section 9 of the NDP’s so-called “unity bill” proposes the following:

For greater certainty, the question concerning the constitutional change may include proposals to implement recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada, such as proposals relating to

(a) the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework;

(b) the limitation of federal spending power in Quebec;

(c) permanent tax transfers and associated standards; and

(d) the Government of Quebec’s opting out with full compensation from any programs if the Government of Canada intervenes in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

(For more on these proposals see Paul Wells here and here.)

In addition, during Mulcair’s appearance on Question Period, he specifically referred to the Quebec government’s concern regarding its “proportion of representation in parliament as whole.” In the Charlottetown Accord, this concern was addressed by guaranteeing Quebec 25% of the seats in the House of Commons forever, regardless of the size of its population. In 2011, New Democrats tabled a private members bill with the same measure except it would have guaranteed Quebec 24.3% of Commons seats in perpetuity. Could this be part of a quid pro quo to get Quebec’s approval for Senate abolition?

Interestingly, a few days after the Fife interview, Mulcair appeared on CBC’s Power and Politics, and despite a direct question by Rosemary Barton on how he’d get Quebec to agree to Senate abolition, Mulcair was silent on the prospect of side deals.

Whether you agree or disagree with abolishing the Senate, if Tom Mulcair is planning to offer Quebec (and other provinces) “side deals” in exchange for going along with Senate abolition, he has a duty to explain to Canadians exactly what he’s prepared to put on the table. Would these side agreements include constitutional amendments under section 43? Would they be non-constitutional bilateral agreements between the federal government and Quebec? Could some be legislated by the federal government alone?

Regrettably, Canadians don’t know the answers to these questions because Tom Mulcair has not been straightforward about his intentions over the past two years. What we do know is this: Based on legislation put forward by New Democrats, these potential “side deals” with Quebec would significantly change the Canadian federation.