Last weekend, Stéphane Dion took to the pages of the National Post to suggest that Canada needs a new voting system. It’s not the first time such suggestions have been made, and it certainly won’t be the last, but that doesn’t make each new suggestion any better than the last, and Dion’s suggestion is certainly problematic.
Dion proposes that Canada adopt what he calls a “P3” voting system – proportional-preferential-personal. The theory is that there would be the same number of ridings, but super-sized to have three to five MPs per riding, which voters would select party preferences by means of preferential ballot, while at the same time choosing one of the candidates put forward by each party. The proposed method of counting is that first seats are apportioned according to the preferential ballot, and those seats are assigned by highest-ranking candidates for those parties.
Dion’s rationale is that this will diminish what he terms the “distortion” effect that seems to concentrate party power in certain regions, making it appear that certain parties hold monopolies in some regions or that they’re absent in others. But we need to remember that these appearances are just that – appearances. They are borne out of flawed readings of election results, and indeed of the way the electoral system actually works currently.
I will remind you that much of this apparent distortion is a result of looking at the national numbers when general elections are in fact 308 individual elections taking place simultaneously, and the distortions are a result of the aggregate. It’s not an accurate reflection of the way in which votes are actually counted, and yet it is a number that we have come to rely upon. It shouldn’t be used as a justification to distort the system to better reflect what is actually a distorted figure. Also, I will remind Dion – and every other proponent of proportional representation – that every vote already counts, and they count equally. To suggest otherwise is not only false but also misleading.
There is no guarantee that the proportional aspect will substantially change the party seat count that this hopes to achieve. Is it frustrating that some parties seem perpetually shut out of certain areas? Sure. But it’s also incumbent upon the parties themselves to ensure that outreach continues, that riding associations respond to the grassroots members and community organisations, and that they connect them to the party’s MPs and ministers or critics that are engaged on the issues that concern the community. That’s the way our system works, and the way our parties are supposed to work. If the party isn’t doing that currently because they feel the area is somehow “hopeless” or “lost” to them, then that’s a problem for the party to solve – not the electoral system.
This proposal also seems tone-deaf to the rural and remote realities of many of the ridings in the country. If Dion proposes we keep 308 (or 338, as it will be in the next election) seats, but simply to super-size the ridings to accommodate having multiple members each, it makes the size of many ridings untenable. There are already rural ridings larger than France that a single MP is expected to serve, while combining three to five of these ridings becomes untenable. Imagine having the entire North as one three-member electoral district. It’s an outrageous proposal. It means that major urban centres would have a mere three or four ridings to deal with diverse concerns, and that smaller cities and their unique concerns would be swallowed up entirely in a gigantic rural or hinterland riding. The only way such a proposal would at all be tenable is if it meant substantially increasing the size of the House of Commons, which the Liberals – and Dion in particular – have a stated aversion to. And that’s not what is being proposed.
Dion also believes that this complicated system will reinforce “the level of cooperation that should exist between parties.” And it might also increase the distribution of unicorns to little girls across Canadian households too. That’s a certain amount of wishful thinking considering that there is zero guarantee that the perpetual minority governments that proportional systems produce would either enforce cooperation or stability. In fact, recent history has shown quite the opposite – that parties became even more hyper-partisan because they had to be continually on guard for a potential election. The current political discourse has poisoned the well for coalition governments, and even if one were to happen, it is hard to see how cabinet solidarity and secrecy would be enforced given some of the players involved. Given this reality, I find it hard to take this goal of a system creating and enforcing cooperation seriously.
I will also say that changing the voting system will do nothing to address the more systemic problems of civic literacy and the disengagement that stems from it. In fact, it only serves to complicate the system, which would only serve to frustrate an electorate, which already does not understand the mechanics of a straightforward electoral process. It’s not a solution to any of the problems we actually face, but simply an invitation to create more instead.