House of Commons Hansard #67 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was young.

Topics

Presence In Gallery
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Some hon. members

Hear, hear.

The House resumed consideration of the motion.

Proportional Representation
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Scarborough—Rouge River
Ontario

Liberal

Derek Lee Parliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, Canadians are justly proud that their country has one of the most stable and democratic political systems in the world. It is a model for many countries.

This has not happened on its own. Rather, it is the result of the commitment of Canadians from every region to ensuring that all citizens can express opinions on important issues and cast votes for the candidate of their choice. To translate this commitment into reality we have developed an electoral system which provides the flexibility needed to keep up with changes in our very dynamic country.

Of course, even the best system has its critics. It is natural that from time to time people and groups will come forward with suggestions for improving our system. Today's private member's motion, with its call for the introduction of a new electoral system based on proportional representation, is a good example of this. The Green Party of Canada has also brought a challenge before the courts to look into the same issue.

If I may, I will take a few minutes to discuss some aspects of the motion. I will discuss how it might impact on Canadians and why it arguably represents a risky gamble which might not be warranted under present circumstances.

To begin with, it is important to note that proportional representation is not a new idea. It has been tried in various forms in a number of countries over the years with varying degrees of success. It is currently used in one form or another in a number of countries, most notably France, Germany, Israel, Ireland and New Zealand.

While all these systems fall under the heading of proportional representation, they vary enormously and use very different approaches. Some use a two ballot runoff system where marginal candidates are eliminated in the first round of voting. Others have true proportional representation systems where the entire country is treated as one constituency and members are selected from party lists based on the percentage of the popular vote received by the parties. Others have mixed systems where some members are chosen on the basis of first past the post contests while others are chosen from party lists.

This is a complex situation involving many different alternatives, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. While proponents of the system claim it leads to better representation, particularly of minorities and regions, and that it encourages higher voter turnout, the experience of those using proportional representation suggests there can be negative impacts as well.

For example, proportional representation can lead to more minority governments. It can make governing more difficult, increase political instability and force parties to engage in lengthy political deal making to cobble together coalitions with very different interests.

As well, small one issue parties can sometimes find itself in the position of king maker which may allow it to force its own agenda on the nation as a whole. Proportional representation also sometimes gives a voice to extremist groups which would have been shut out in the normal course under a first past the post system.

Some countries have found that proportional representation can exacerbate regional differences and cleavages within a society and make it more difficult to reach national consensus on important issues. That could be particularly true of Canada where there exist and have always existed huge differences regionally, culturally, linguistically and religiously.

Finally, some countries have found that the use of party lists in selecting members of legislatures can strengthen the power of the unelected party insiders responsible for deciding who will be on the lists and in what order of precedence.

In Canada a proportional representation system could involve a change to the provisions in our constitution which require that provinces be proportionally represented in the House of Commons.

One of the strengths of our current electoral system is that Canadians are represented at the constituency level by a specific member of parliament. This provides a specific point of contact for Canadians at the constituency level. In other words, our current system ensures that members of parliament must be in ongoing contact with specific groups of Canadians.

Clearly, this is a difficult and complex issue where caution might be urged. Because of this and the fact that the issue is currently before Canadian courts in a constitutional challenge, it is my view that it would be unwise to go forward with the proposal shown in the private member's motion.

In the meantime however, this is not to say that no action should be taken. There are always many things that can be done now and in the future to improve the functioning of our existing electoral system. This was demonstrated recently by the passage in the House of a new elections act. As well, the chief elections officer will lay his report on suggested amendments to the Canada Elections Act before parliament this fall, and a committee will study and discuss these recommendations.

In conclusion, I commend the very experienced member moving the motion for his demonstrated and continuing commitment to improving Canada's electoral system. It is a commitment I hope that is shared by all members in the House and by the government. I urge him and other members to work within the House as we all seek new ways of ensuring that our electoral system can continue to do the best possible job of serving Canadians.

Proportional Representation
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Bloc

Stéphane Bergeron Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to take part in the debate on Motion No. 21, presented by the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, which reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should work towards incorporating a measure of proportional representation in the federal electoral system, making use of a framework which includes: ( a ) a report on proportional representation prepared by an all-party committee after extensive public hearings; ( b ) a referendum to be held on this issue where the question shall be whether electors favour replacing the present system with a system proposed by the committee as concurred in by the House; and ( c ) the referendum may be held either before or at the same time as the next general election.

I will have occasion a little later to come back to each of the points of this motion, but first, we must, as the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader has said, acknowledge the dedicated continuing commitment and consistency of the ideas of our colleague from Regina—Qu'Appelle. For a number of years, he has regularly raised in the House the need to reform the Canadian electoral system.

Why should we reform it? For a number of reasons. First, intrinsically speaking, our first past the post system has a number of advantages to it. The advantage for voters is they can identify directly with the person they elect, to get any jurisdictional problem that may arise dealt with by the elected member.

The system has a number of minor anomalies as well. It can lead to certain distortions, to certain problems that may be due to the fact that the candidate elected is the one receiving the most votes. This is not, however, an absolute majority. Very often an MP can get elected with, who knows, 38%, 40% or 42% of the votes. Thus the majority of the people in the riding will have voted for a candidate other than the person who will be representing them in parliament for four years.

Beyond the intrinsic nature of our political system, our electoral system, there are certain things that have to be acknowledged. On many occasions during the various debates in this House, particularly those involving the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle and the hon. member for Halifax, when I have had the opportunity to speak to this matter, I have stressed the point that, despite the efforts of the election officials and by the chief electoral officer to make voting more accessible, we are forced to conclude to our great surprise, and I must add that this is cause for concern, that voting is on a downward spiral. There is a downward trend. Fewer and fewer people seem interested in public affairs and the electoral process.

This must be of concern to us, because in a democracy, regardless of our efforts to make voting more accessible, fewer and fewer people are exercising their right to vote. This has to be a cause of concern.

Obviously, there are most certainly grounds for a parliamentary committee to address the matter. In the coming months, following the tabling of the chief electoral officer's report dealing with the last election and containing his recommendations, we will have the opportunity to consider the advisability of reforming our electoral system to better meet the expectations of the public.

This time, I hope the government will be more willing to make in depth changes to our electoral system.

Let us now go back to the motion put forward by the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle. The motion specifically refers to a system of proportional representation.

At first glance, the motion seems to be somewhat restrictive. The member for Regina—Qu'Appelle himself talked earlier about implementing a two vote electoral system, which would ensure that any candidate who is elected in a riding got the majority of the vote. However that does not seem to be one of his major concerns, at least from what we see in the motion now before the House.

That might somewhat limit the scope of any debate we could have on the reform of the Canadian electoral system.

Of course, I find the suggestion to set up an all party committee to consider the issue quite attractive. However we already have the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that would normally deal with such an issue. Perhaps we could then go through the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs or a special committee struck for the occasion.

We now wish to pass reforms following a referendum, during which electors, citizens of Canada and of Quebec would be asked to vote on the model defined by the committee charged with examining the matter.

I think that the Canadian Alliance member made it clear that we would also have to reflect on the referendum process used to approve the model proposed by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

Here again, I find that the framework given us here is, in essence, relatively limiting because the desire seems to be to propose only the model which would be defined by the committee charged with examining this matter. We presume right off the bat that the model proposed would be proportional representation.

In closing, I wish to address one final point. The referendum in question should take place before or at the same time as the next general election. We obviously have no objection whatsoever to this last recommendation.

Let us return briefly to the issue of the referendum. One of the concerns we should have as members of this federal parliament is to recognize the federal nature of this country, a federation composed of very different provinces. Therefore, in the event that we go ahead with a system of proportional representation, we must ensure that we take this federal nature of Canada into account, both in the results of the referendum and in the implementation of a proportional system.

This motion, which refers to a proportional system, has already been debated in the House, at which time the member for Laval Centre laid out the position of our party most eloquently.

We said at the time that, because of the current system's limits and despite its benefits, the introduction of a proportional component could ensure better representation for minority groups, as I always say when we debate this issue, which would be an improvement over the present situation.

I am thinking about groups such as cultural communities, the disabled, women and also young people, who are underrepresented in parliament.

Such a system would also better reflect the various ideologies found in our society, which are not well represented here. Indeed, people who vote for small parties often have the impression that their vote is lost because is it very unlikely that a candidate for a small party will be elected to parliament.

The introduction of a proportional component would give small parties the opportunity to be represented in parliament, so democracy in general could benefit from their input.

Incidentally, this may prevent the distortions inevitably brought about by the current system where, for example, with only 38% or 40% of the votes, a government, and specifically a Prime Minister holds in his hands 100% of the power over a certain period.

This could also further greater co-operation between the various political parties represented in parliament and prevent that system enhancing confrontation and antagonism.

Or course, we have to recognize that, despite all that, a pure proportional representation system or one with a proportional representation component has some drawbacks, notably the political instability associated with pure proportional representation systems and also the creation of two classes of members in a system with a proportional representation component.

For all these reasons, I would say that the motion before us is very interesting. It has some limits, and it is unfortunate that we do not have the opportunity to vote on the motion to follow up on the very commendable intentions that we have heard today in the House.

Committees Of The House
Routine Proceedings

May 29th, 2001 / 6:35 p.m.

Scarborough—Rouge River
Ontario

Liberal

Derek Lee Parliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, after full and comprehensive consultations with all parties in the House, I think you would find consent for the following motion which would propose an amendment to the first report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration tabled yesterday. I move:

That the first report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, tabled on Monday, May 28, 2001, be amended by adding the following amendment to clause 94: a ) by adding after line 10 on page 39 the following: “(b.1) in respect of Canada, the linguistic profile of foreign nationals who became permanent residents;” b ) by replacing lines 22 to 24 on page 39 with the following: “any; (e) the number of persons granted permanent resident status under subsection 25(1), and (f) a gender-based analysis of the impact of this act”.

Committees Of The House
Routine Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Does the House give its consent for the parliamentary secretary to table the motion?

Committees Of The House
Routine Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Committees Of The House
Routine Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Is it the please of the House to adopt the motion?

Committees Of The House
Routine Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

(Motion agreed to)

The House resumed consideration of the motion.

Proportional Representation
Private Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, I look forward to taking part in this debate. I want to congratulate the member from Regina—Qu'Appelle, who is almost my seat mate now with the close proximity, on this issue. I know he has spent a lot of time on this.

For the viewing public to understand what the motion is, it states:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should work toward incorporating a measure of proportional representation in the federal electoral system, making use of a framework which includes: (a) a report on proportional representation prepared by an all-party committee after extensive public hearings; (b) a referendum to be held on this issue where the question shall be whether electors favour replacing the present system with a system proposed by the committee as concurred in by the House; and (c) the referendum may be held either before or at the same time as the next general election.

Again, I commend the member for this. It is very insightful. I know the member spent a lot of time on this.

By the way, the other day we were stranded together at the Ottawa airport heading east to Atlantic Canada. With the way the air service was to that part of the country, we were both delayed by six or eight hours. However the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle was on his way to Prince Edward Island to speak to students at the University of P.E.I. on this very subject. Although he was late and did not arrive until something like 10 o'clock at night, they waited for him. He gave his speech and had a number of interviews with the P.E.I. press on this very topic.

The reason I mention that is I was able to pull something off the Internet today regarding P.E.I., what it is doing and how it is responding to some of these new ideas floating around on proportional representation.

The headline reads that P.E.I. is now investigating proportional representation. It states that Prince Edward Island's chief electoral officer says he hopes to have some options on proportional representation ready later this year. It speaks of a legislative committee on the elections act which has tabled a report in the legislature. Therefore P.E.I. is looking at the situation and how it can be improved.

One of the things I point out is that in P.E.I. the ruling party is the PC Party. I guess I should not be the one arguing with the success of the Conservative Party in P.E.I. However the fact is it has 96% of the seats, and received about 58% of the vote in the last election. The Liberal Party and the NDP received about 42% of the vote between them, but only one opposition seat in the P.E.I. legislature. I think that points out quite effectively the problem with our system as it now exists.

I only have to look at my home province of New Brunswick. In 1987 Premier McKenna won every single seat in New Brunswick. He won 57 out of 57 seats, yet received less than 60% of the vote. The Conservative Party at the time received somewhere in the area of 40% of the vote, but did not elect one single member to the New Brunswick legislature. If we asked Frank McKenna what one of his biggest handicaps was as a premier, it was the fact that he held all the seats. How does one practise democracy in a forum where one holds all the cards?

I will point out how our party has suffered under that system. Let us go back to the election of 1993. Of course, Mr. Speaker, as you well know, I was part of the class of '88 as were you. The only difference was, you won your election and I did not. The Conservative Party went from the party of power to having two seats on the opposition side.

Proportional Representation
Private Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

NDP

Lorne Nystrom Regina—Qu'Appelle, SK

At least you had gender parity.

Proportional Representation
Private Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Incidentally, the member has so much information that he wants to throw out that he can hardly resist. However I hope I touch on some of the things that we spoke about privately.

In 1993 the Conservative Party had approximately the same number of votes as the Bloc. The Bloc sent 54 members to the House of Commons with the same number of votes that sent only two Conservative members in all Canada to the House.

The 1997 election is another example of how the system has to be fixed, changed or modified in some fashion. The then Reform Party had within 100,000 votes, the same number of votes the Conservative Party had.

Yet in 1997, if memory serves me correctly, the Reform Party sent approximately 60 members to the House of Commons and the Conservative Party sent only 20. Although we received approximately the same number of votes within 100,000 or so, the Reform Party had 40 more seats in the House of Commons. So on the story goes.

Let us take a look at British Columbia. In its recent election of a week or so ago the NDP sent three members to the legislature. The governing Liberals who won the election had approximately 56% of the vote but again some 90% of the seats. The system in some ways is patently unfair.

Not to be unkind to the Liberal Party and the government of the day, the truth is there are many members on that side of the House and on this side of the House, to be fair, who are sitting here with far less than 50% of the vote. In the last parliament nationally the Liberal Party received about 39% of the vote and formed the government. Clearly over 60% of Canadians voted against the very party that formed the government. It simply means that the system has to be examined and changed.

We can look at many examples around the world where the system has been changed and is working quite well. The problem in Canada is that once a party forms the government there is reluctance on the part of that prime minister and the government to change the system. Why would they change a system that is working in their favour? Hence the problem.

We cited the case in P.E.I., of which the hon. member for Regina-Qu'Appelle is quite aware. It has gone through successive elections where this has happened and now the Conservatives are the beneficiaries of a system which hurt them in two previous elections. This flip-flopping back and forth in some sense hurts all of us because it basically destroys what democracy is all about.

We support the member's initiative. It is thought provoking. This is a place where new ideas have to be brought in, where new ideas have to be encouraged. We have to examine better ways of doing things.

I cannot speak for the Prime Minister, but the downside of the motion is that I do not expect the Prime Minister will want his caucus to support it or his party to support it. The truth is that they are in power and I guess the intent of the game politics is to ensure that they continue to keep power.

In conclusion we support the member. We support the initiative. I look forward to debating the issue and fleshing out the details as we go along.

Proportional Representation
Private Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Liberal

Clifford Lincoln Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, in a sense the debate points to the weaknesses of our system in regard to private members' bills and motions. It underlines very clearly that the system needs a basic reform because of the anomaly of finding today that we are debating a motion which is not votable and will die in a few minutes when before the election the same motion was deemed votable by another committee and was debated fully until acceptance or rejection. Perhaps we should reflect upon why the same motion is votable one day and non-votable today.

I have a lot of reservations about strict proportional representation because of the instability it has caused in so many countries where it has been tried as a pure system. I also have reservations about a referendum that would decide on a question with either a yea or nay without a huge amount of study as to what is the best system.

I congratulate the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle for bringing the motion before us. I wish it was votable because I believe these fundamental questions should be debated and studied by us. I believe that for us to say our present system is the best of them all without looking at all the others and finding out what improvements can be made is short term. We should not close our eyes to possible improvements that could make our democratic process far more effective and far better for Canadians at large.

The members before me have quoted obvious examples. In the last B.C. election three New Democrats were elected but no Green Party members were elected in spite of having gathered 12% of the vote. B.C. now has a government with all the seats except three. This obviously will create problems because a government cannot govern without an effective opposition to put pressure on it to perform over the years.

We also have the example of New Brunswick and of our own party. Although I rejoice in that, when I look at it objectively and fairly I have to admit that it was a quirk of history which gave us most of the seats in the province even though we did not get a majority percentage of the votes.

I look at what the Australians have done and admire them for their grit, daring and courage in having looked at different systems. They have realized that first past the post is not the perfect system. They have devised a system where the person who wins truly wins an overall majority.

I look at various European nations that have tried different systems and have decided that pure proportional representation does not quite work but have adopted a mixed system of runoffs and different types of proportional representation systems. Today certain countries in Europe, such as Germany, Finland and France are showing very stable democracies and all have various segments of their populations duly represented by elected representatives.

I wish the motion had been made votable because I would have voted for it. I believe we must study these questions. During this quiet debate I felt there was a consensus or a feeling among us that nobody had the perfect answer but that everybody wanted to seek out a way to make democracy fairer and more workable.

I congratulate the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle. I invite him to bring his motion back to the House but to perhaps leave out the referendum and strict proportional representation. Perhaps he could look at fixed term elections every four years. I wish he would bring it back because I for one would love to vote on it and have the matter studied further.

Proportional Representation
Private Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

NDP

Lorne Nystrom Regina—Qu'Appelle, SK

Mr. Speaker, I want to follow two themes in conclusion. First, I thank the member for Lac-Saint-Louis for his remarks. I had exactly the same motion before the House last fall and it had been deemed votable. We had two hours of debate and were about to have a third hour when the Prime Minister called the election.

Since the election there has been growing popularity in looking at the idea of PR. A court case has been launched by the Green Party and it is now before the courts. However, all of a sudden the private members' committee decided not to make the motion votable even though it is exactly the same motion as the one I introduced last fall. This motion too will die in about four minutes time.

I appeal to the House to look at the idea behind this. All the motion is asking is that we strike an all party committee to look at the various models of proportional representation or various measures that could be mixed into our system. It does not call for a pure system of PR but leaves it very wide open. This all party committee could hold public hearings to look at improving our electoral system.

At the end of the process, if we agree in parliament, we would go to the Canadian people in a referendum with our recommendations and the status quo so that they could choose between the two. The people would be sovereign and would choose want they want to do, as they did in New Zealand a few years ago. That is all the motion calls for.

I hope we could look at new ideas. It is a radical new idea in the country but we as parliamentarians should be looking at new ideas and new ways to do things.

There is a national organization called Fair Vote Canada which is trying to organize across the country a push on voting reform and proportional representation. It is not trying to push a particular model but a principle of having a system where the people's votes are accurately reflected in the House of Commons so that we do not get the great distortions we have had over the years.

The last thing I want to say is that we may have some initiative on the provincial level. I was in Prince Edward Island three weeks ago, as the member for Fredericton said, and I met with Premier Binns. I wish to commend him publicly. They are looking now at bringing in a blend of PR in Prince Edward Island. A legislative committee there recommended some options. The chief electoral officer of Prince Edward Island is saying that he hopes to have some options for proportional representation ready later this year.

The last four election campaigns in Prince Edward Island resulted in very lopsided parliaments. In three of those four elections there were only one or two members of the opposition. Today there is only one member despite the fact that 42% of the people voted for the opposition parties. I was there for their question period. There was one Liberal member in opposition to the leader asking question after question for over half an hour. That kind of system does not function properly.

Premier Binns has made Canadian history by being the first premier in the first province, just like it was a cradle of Confederation, to bring in a blend of PR. My conversation with the premier has led me to believe that he is very sincere about putting the question to the people of Prince Edward Island in a referendum as to whether they want to try a blend of proportional representation.

We have so many distortions. In the last provincial election in Quebec, Jean Charest and the Liberals got more votes than Lucien Bouchard and the Parti Quebecois, yet Bouchard formed a majority government. In my own province of Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow of my party got 38% of the vote and the opposition Saskatchewan Party got 39% of the vote, yet Mr. Romanow formed a majority government. In British Columbia five years ago, to show I am not partisan because it is not a partisan issue, the provincial NDP led by Glen Clark got fewer votes than the opposition Liberals, yet Glen Clark formed a majority government.

I could go on and on about these great distortions but the time has arrived for us to do something about them. I will keep on pursuing this matter. All I am saying is that we should set up an all party committee to look at the various models that might be relevant to our country and to design in the end a unique Canadian model that would be good for Canada, that would be more inclusive, empowering, democratic and accountable. Part of that model, I say to my friend across the way, is a fixed election date. I believe in that and I always have. We need parliamentary reform to make our country more democratic, more inclusive and more accountable.

The debate has now died. I appeal to all members on all sides of the House, because of the alienation people toward the political process, to consider in the future an all party committee to look at the important area of voting reform. I thank members for their participation.