Thank you. I thank the committee for inviting me to speak tonight.
At the very dawning of political science, Aristotle observed that the primary challenge for democracy is to produce a government that reflects and aims towards the common good; that is, it serves the whole community or polis, and not just a particular faction, not even the majority.
Does the way we elect our representatives serve the common good of the whole community? In Canada, I believe the answer is no. A majority government in Canada may have as little as 39% of the votes cast in an election in which only two-thirds of eligible voters even vote; thus you wind up with governments that have acquired the active support of a subset of 25% of the total electorate claiming practically all of the power.
The problem is our outdated, distorted, and inequitable first-past-the-post system or single-member plurality electoral system. That awareness of the problem has reached new levels in Canada is demonstrated by the fact that at least three national parties ran on an election platform in the last federal election, a year ago, that included electoral reform. The proportional composition of this committee reminds us that any meaningful reform must have, if not complete consensus, at least bipartisan or multipartisan support.
The problem is clear, and so too is the solution. Canada needs to adopt an improved electoral system based on the principle of proportional representation. My preferred option is a mixed member proportional, or MMP, system that combines a certain proportion of first-past-the-post seats with an established number of top-up seats. Examples of MMP are found in Scotland, New Zealand, and Germany, as well as in the proposals advanced by the Ontario Citizens' Assembly in 2007 and the Law Commission of Canada in 2004. As this diverse array of examples shows, MMP is a flexible system that is easily adapted to the unique features of Canada's complex federal system.
The basic outline of my preferred model is as follows: we reduce the first-past-the-post ridings to between 60% and 70% of the current number. The remaining 40% to 30% of the seats will be filled by candidates elected from a regional list. Large provinces will be broken down into distinct regions for electoral purposes.
For example, Ottawa and the surrounding area would form part of an eastern Ontario region for electoral purposes. For smaller provinces, dividing into distinct regions may also be an option. For example, Saskatchewan could be a northern half and a southern half. In smaller Atlantic provinces, especially PEI, perhaps the regional top-up list would be for the entire province. These are details that could be settled in legislation or by the federal electoral boundary commissions of each province.
Either way, I think two things are clear: first, determination of regions should reflect the principle of community of interest; second, the regions should respect the contours of Canada's complex federal apportionment formula. As such, it's unlikely that the regions will be perfectly equal in size and number of MPs.
Voters would have a two-part ballot. On the first part, the voter will select the candidate running in his or her riding. On the second part of the ballot, the voter will select the party. It's the results of the second part of the ballot that will allow correction for the disproportionality produced by first past the post.
How will MPs be selected from the regional list? There are several possibilities. A closed list is determined by a process internal to political parties, whereas an open list allows the voters to select from a list of candidates provided by the parties in a manner similar to a U.S.-style primary contest.
Scotland uses a closed list. The Law Commission of Canada proposed an open list. However, my preference is a runners-up model, in which the slate of elected members the party gains for the regional list is drawn from the best runners-up of that party's candidates in that region.
I like the runners-up model for a couple of reasons.
First, these are candidates who have some electoral support in the community; they are not appointed by party leaders. In some cases these best runners-up may have acquired many thousands of votes.
Second, the runners-up model would help parties attract good candidates to run in ridings that are not considered winnable under the current system. It would give candidates and parties incentive to really invest time, energy, and resources in what would have otherwise been considered marginal ridings. The best runners-up can also provide the mechanism to replace the regional list MP who resigns.
I follow the Germans, who have a 5% threshold for regional list representation, but I agree with the Ontario Citizens' Coalition that we accept so-called “overhang seats” rather than compensate other parties, as is done in the German system.
In the discussion period, I would be happy to answer any questions about the details of mixed member proportional, the distribution of seats, open lists, thresholds, overhang seats, or how constituencies and regional MPs could balance constituency work and work together.
In the brief time I have left, I'll focus primarily on the philosophical, psychological, and normative dimensions of Canada's electoral reform debate.
In the 19th and 20th centuries the democratic movement was animated mainly by the battle to expand the franchise of previously marginalized groups, especially the poor; racial, linguistic, and religious minorities; women; and young adults.
In the 21st century there's a new challenge confronting democracy, which is a struggle less heroic than the suffrage movements of the past but in some respects no less important. Our task is to transform an electoral system we inherited from past centuries when these ideals of equality were only dimly perceived and to redesign the great electoral machine of democracy in order to give substantive, concrete meanings to the democratic principle of treating every vote equally. In the past we strove to expand the orbit of democratic rights; now we live in an age of enhanced social technologies that make possible the practical realization of these rights in an electoral system that empowers our citizens.
I believe mixed member proportional satisfies all of the guiding principles outlined in the public statements of the committee's directorate. It would ensure effectiveness and legitimacy by reducing the distortions of first past the post and better translate voter intentions into seats in Parliament. Mixed member proportional will also ensure a greater sense of democratic engagement, as voters will feel that every vote counts, because for all intents and purposes practically every vote will go toward electing a member of Parliament.
Mixed member proportional also promotes accessibility and inclusiveness, because under-represented and marginalized groups will be more likely to be elected to Parliament. If they are not elected from the single-member riding, then there's the additional opportunity of being elected as the candidate in the regional top-up format.
Moreover, mixed member proportional avoids undue complexity in the voting system, as it would require nothing more than adding a second party-only ballot to the traditional candidate ballot.
As for integrity, mixed member proportional would practically guarantee a power-sharing government of some kind, unlike first past the post or ranked ballot in a single-member constituency, in which efforts to compromise only a small number of votes can reward a party with total victory in a riding.
Finally, mixed member proportional enhances local representation over any electoral model that relies solely on single-member constituencies, because with mixed member proportional the typical Canadian would have more than one member representing his or her community.
I applaud the committee directorate's statement of principles guiding our examination of the various options available for reform. My one criticism is that the stated principles of effectiveness and engagement are perhaps a little too timid.
I urge the committee to consider the principle of empowerment in your deliberations. Empowerment goes beyond engagement and effectiveness. It is a radical and profoundly democratic principle. It means literally every single voter having the power to elect a representative of choice and every citizen experiencing the subjective feeling of being part of the sovereign general will of society.
This lies at the heart of my problem with the idea of a ranked ballot being used in a single-member constituency to produce a fabricated majority, which is sometimes called the “instant runoff” method. In this model, if your first choice does not have sufficient support, then the voter is told, “Don't worry; the system will take your second or even third preference and reassign it to another candidate.”
This certainly requires a greater degree of engagement for the voter, who now has to ponder the intensity of personal preferences ranging from “Great, I love this party or candidate“ to “Well, this crowd at least doesn't make me violently ill.” This may be engagement of a sort, but how is this empowering? I don't feel empowered when I go to a store to buy something only to be told I can't have what I want, but they can sell me something else I don't like as much. I feel disappointed or annoyed in that situation.
The only system that empowers the voters is one that ensures, to the greatest extent possible, every individual's vote—their first choice, their real choice—will help elect their representative in Parliament.
Parties lose elections and candidates lose elections, but the voter should win every election. The electoral system that most contributes to this sense of empowerment is PR, whether it produces proportionality through regional top-up seats or some other way.
In conclusion, now is the time to take seriously the new creed of innovation that is sweeping through all of our political, economic, and social organizations. On every university campus in Canada, we see signs heralding innovation and transformation. Can it really be the case that we are thoroughly unsentimental about every aspect of our communal life, except the way we elect our members of Parliament?
The principles of justice may be eternal, but the mechanical structures and the social technology of democracy need to be revamped and improved periodically. Canadians are ready for a more consensual and inclusive form of political representation.
Future generations will say we did a good thing in introducing proportional representation. They may just wonder what took us so long.
Thank you very much.