Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today on the motion moved by the hon. member for Halifax, which states:
That this House strike a special all-party committee to examine the merits of various models of proportional representation and other electoral reforms, with a view to recommending reforms that would combat the increasing regionalization of Canadian politics, and the declining turnout of Canadians in federal elections.
I listened attentively to the hon. member for Halifax and to the hon. member who spoke afterward. I must say that I am not at all convinced by these proposals.
Our election law is fundamental to our system of parliamentary democracy. Since confederation our electoral system has been based on geographically bound constituencies, each generally electing a single member to the House of Commons. This provides a clear chain of accountability from an individual member of parliament to his or her constituents.
When I go to my constituency office, I am the person who was elected by those people to represent them, not chosen from a list, not knowing whether I was the first, second, third, fourth, fifth or whatever on that list of preferences. The elector, of course, has a right in a subsequent election to directly remove a member if such is the wish at that time. That is direct accountability.
Similarly, and on a grander scale, Canadians can remove the government and replace it with another government if they chose to do so at a particular point of time, as the Canadian electorate so wisely did in 1993.
As the sole representative of his or her constituency, a member of parliament is directly responsible to his or her constituents on any issue with which parliament may be dealing. Our current arrangement is such that an MP is exposed to a broad range of issues and does not merely speak for his or her party. As the sole representative for an area, he or she must seek redress for all matters or grievances and take into account the concerns and views of all constituents.
All members of this House, including me, spend a considerable share of time responding to specific interests within a constituency on issues ranging from immigration to agriculture to everything else. I held constituency office yesterday morning before coming to Ottawa to discharge my functions both as an MP in this House and as a member of the Canadian cabinet. Consequently, an MP is encouraged, in very practical ways, to fulfil the basic requirements of any political system and that is the reconciliation of the wide variety of interests within each constituency and then right across the country.
I believe that Canadians want to be represented by someone from home, someone who knows them and someone they can talk to and see in the House of Commons. If such was not the case, why do people who do not come from the particular constituency or from a district or from a city, in the case of an urban area where the boundaries are a little hard to determine, or from the riding have a much more difficult time getting elected than those who are? It is because people want to be generally represented by someone they know. That is only normal and, as far as I am concerned, that is only appropriate.
As the hon. member across the way indicated, proportional representation raises many issues. Our current electoral system allows much greater scope for the voters to judge the merits of a popular candidate than do countries with a proportional representation system where in some cases, and granted I will agree not all cases, voters have little choice but to support a party list as presented.
Another issue is political stability. We have seen examples in countries with proportional electoral systems where, after an election, it has taken weeks to form a government. After the government is formed, a coalition often involves narrow special interest parties and the government is often unable to continue to maintain the confidence of the legislature. That has been the case many times in places like Israel and Italy and in France, where they had a system like that which they later abandoned. France of course did away with proportional representation several years ago and, as far as I know, at the national level there is little appetite to bring it back.
Proportional electoral systems frequently require the formation of a coalition between parties of different political allegiances. As a result, proportional representation can mean that the government is formed by coalitions made through backroom political negotiations rather than through the ballot box. I believe that is a far less appropriate way of governing than the system we have now.
Proportional representation therefore allows small one-issue parties to become kingmakers of a sort, which enables them to sometimes force their own agenda on a nation as a whole, again, as has happened in some cases recently.
Some countries have found that proportional representation exacerbates regional differences and cleavages within society and makes it more difficult to reach a national consensus on key issues.
Proportional representation can also reduce MPs' independence and of course their ability to serve their ridings. Our first past the post system, however, encourages the formation of major parties around a coalition of members representing different regions, different language groups, different ethnic groups and so on.
In his motion the hon. member claims that a system of proportional representation would remedy voter apathy. Where is her proof of this? There is none, of course.
The decline in voter turnout in Canada and other western democracies, for this is not a solely Canadian phenomenon, relates to a number of factors. We are not the only ones to have seen such a decline.
As I have said, it is obvious that there is no proof that proportional representation would have any effect on voter turnout. I am not aware of any country that has adopted proportional representation and seen an immediate improvement in voter turnout. Personally, I would venture to say that it might reduce participation, as I have already said. Proportional representation is bad for political stability and parliamentary effectiveness, and particularly bad for MPs' accountability to their electorate. There is no doubt that this is the price to be paid.
Devotees of the proportional representation system have maintained, and continue to maintain, that it favours representation of the major segments of the population or of certain groups, such as women.
Contrary to what certain people have stated, international experience has demonstrated very clearly that such an improvement is the result of the adoption of quotas, for example parties setting themselves the obligation to increase the participation of women or some other specific group. This improves the participation of women candidates or candidates from other target groups in society.
Finally, our electoral system is characterized by direct suffrage. All that the voter needs to do is indicate his or her preferred candidate. That is it. Nothing complicated. The voter participates, makes his choice quickly, and that choice is clear.
Our system makes it possible to reduce the number of invalid votes. As well, the votes are counted quickly in Canada. In general, Canadians know, within hours of the polls closing, who will form the government and who the opposition.
Need I remind the House that last fall there was an election in Canada and another country at the same time. In Canada, 17 million ballots were opened in the space of 90 minutes, or so. We knew the first and second place winners, the losers, and so on. This was done in 90 minutes.
A democracy south of us with a system that is not proportional, but is much more complicated than ours, took over two months to establish the winner in its election campaign.
This leads me to conclude that our system is better than many others. Of course, it may not be perfect, but it is better.
A paper on electoral reform released today by the Institute for Research on Public Policy notes some of these problems that other countries have experienced. IRPP still concludes that proportional representation, in its opinion, is a good idea, but even it argues that, and I will read from its press release, “the chief downside” of proportional representation is that large multi-member electoral districts “would be less suited to constituency work as Canadian MPs have traditionally practiced it”. So even the group that likes proportional representation thinks that it is less accountable than what we have now. I believe that to be a major downside.
In my view, the IRPP paper understates the serious problems that other countries have had with proportional representation. It downplays the negative impact although it even states that there are some. It ignores the fact that there is little interest among Canadians for proportional representation, and let us not forget that either. It was not exactly an issue raised during the last election campaign as I canvassed door to door. As the hon. member for Durham said so astutely earlier, Canadians were asking about health care, child poverty, taxes, agriculture and so on and so forth. Very few people, I do not remember any, have raised with me the issue of proportional representation in Glengarry—Prescott—Russell.
The paper also states that there is no consensus among academics as to how to implement a proportional system.
Of course, even the best of systems has faults, including ours. We must not forget, however, that Canada may be proud of having one of the most stable and democratic political systems in the world, a system that is used as a model and has in fact been exported to a number of other democracies.
The Canadian International Development Agency, Elections Canada and others—even parliamentarians in this House—have been involved in forums on democratic process around the world. We all have, of course, in the belief that our system is the right one, and I think so too.
Our electoral system has stood the test of time, being sufficiently flexible to allow us to change it as circumstances required.
In 1991, the Lortie commission, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and the Party Financing, recommended that the existing system of single member constituencies be retained. So this is not just anyone.
The question of the proportional representation and of the entire electoral system is of course a difficult and complex one. However, caution is at the heart of courage, especially since the public has shown almost no interest, as I mentioned, in proportional representation and since a national system of proportional representation would necessitate all sorts of changes, including changes to the Constitution.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. member for bringing this issue to public attention. However, I do not share her enthusiasm for proportional representation. Our current electoral system provides for clear accountability at constituency and national levels. It has a proven track record that is recognized around the world and it allows members of parliament to represent a specific and identified group of constituents, those living within the geographical boundaries of the area they represent.
Finally, having listened to the speech from the member across the way, I note that it has as a premise that each party purports to want to be a national party. That is not always the case. There is a case of a political party in the House of Commons, the orientation of which I do not share, which wants to represent a region, not the entire country. The Progressives of Manitoba did at some point in the past. The United Farmers of Ontario and a number of others wanted, by definition, to be regional parties. I do not share that view, but it is certainly their right to think so and to run with that premise if that is what they want to do.
All this is to say that I believe we should continue to modernize our electoral system, as we did in the last parliament with the adoption of the new Canada Elections Act. The House will be doing more of that this Thursday when it responds to election law pursuant to a court decision. Probably later in this parliament we will have another bill pursuant to the contributions of the chief electoral officer, which he always does before the committee, and we will strive to modernize our election laws again.
The government's gradual modernization of our election laws is, in my view, a prudent and balanced approach to a complex issue that is at the heart of our system of democracy. I believe it is the course that Canadians wish all hon. members to support. That is why I cannot agree with the motion put before the House today.