Madam Speaker, a former Indian affairs minister, Ron Irwin, had a great expression that caught my attention one day and I have never forgotten it. He said “Canada is a country that should not work in theory, that Canada is a country that works in practice”. I think that is a very appropriate remark in the context of proportional representation, because proportional representation seems to make so much sense.
The idea is that people cast their ballots for a particular party, and when those ballots are counted, the leader of their various parties gets to name to this House, to Parliament, the number of members of Parliament that match the percentage of popular vote that his particular party got. Indeed, it makes so much sense that if we put that question to a referendum across the country, most assuredly people would probably support it because it seems very commonsensical that in a democracy, the makeup of this House should exactly reflect the will of the population.
However it is like so many things. What seems simple to the people at large, when one has experience in this House, one realizes that the working of democracy is much more complicated than that. In fact our system, the system that we operate under, which is a constituency system in which Canada is divided into 301 territories across the land, each politician has to run in that particular territory and has to get a popular vote in that territory. Of course the result is, as we know, that often there is quite a disparity between the number of MPs that a party returns and the percentage vote that party gets. What we do know is the system we have tends to return majority governments rather than constant minority governments, which is the case with proportional representation.
I guess my most fundamental objection to proportional representation is the power it gives to the leader. What we have there is a situation where the leader has absolute power over the members of his party, so when the election is finished, the leader gets to name the individuals who will serve in this House.
Now, Madam Speaker, I know you are liable to react in a very peculiar way when I assert this, but I am a living example of why proportional representation does not work. It does not work for those MPs who might want to have an independent voice in this House and still be a member of a particular party, a maverick MP. If I can indulge your attention for just a little, Madam Speaker, I will tell the story of my own election in 1993.
In 1993 it was the end of the Mulroney era and there was a lot of feeling against the Tories of the day. That was also the era of the Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord. I was a journalist on leave of absence, working on a book on a military subject. I had just finished work on the book when the Charlottetown accord came up. I broke from my work and studied the Charlottetown accord. I was absolutely appalled by what I read about the accord because what I thought would occur was there would be such an erosion of federal power, the whole Charlottetown accord was going to give a lot more power to the provinces, that I felt Confederation could not possibly work.
As a former journalist, that is one business or one profession in which one is not allowed to mix partisan politics, so I had never in my entire career had anything to do with partisan politics for any party. Nevertheless, at the time of the Charlottetown accord, or shortly thereafter, Mr. Mulroney was about to call the election. On impulse, I went in and put my name in for the nomination for the Liberals in my local riding.
It was an impulse and my kids said “Oh, Dad, you don't want to be a politician”. My wife said “Oh, I don't want that, I've got enough problems”. Nevertheless, it was a gesture. I did not know anyone in the riding association nor anyone in the Liberal Party but I knew that on nomination night I would stand up and make a brief speech about how I deplored the Charlottetown accord, and especially the fact that the Liberals were so tame as to get on side with the Tories on the Charlottetown accord. After I did my little speech I knew I would sit down and that would be the end of it.
There were three other candidates for the nomination and they were out selling memberships and all those kinds of things. However I had no idea that the process involved selling memberships. I was a complete neophyte. At any rate, I just sat back until nomination day approached and suddenly all the other candidates for the nomination quit and a new person appeared on the scene. He was actually a former active Tory member but he had lined up with the Liberals.
When I went to the other candidates and asked them why they had suddenly quit they said “well, we had to quit because this other guy, this latecomer, has the backing of the leader of the party”, the now Prime Minister. He has the backing of the local Liberal Party machine. He had everything so they quit.
Well, I am not much of a quitter. I do tend to hang in there. Shortly after that happened, the riding association had a meet the candidates meeting. I had never met any member of the riding association up until that time. It was held in the basement of the local town hall. I went along to at least explain to the riding association why I wanted to be a candidate and all this stuff about the Charlottetown accord.
I arrived there and all these strange people were sitting at a big table and around the room. This was the riding association executive, I learned later. I did not know who they were and there were a few other people in the audience. I stood up and made my little speech but in the middle of my speech this other guy, this other important candidate, came in along the back of the room.
I had never had this experience before but we all are practised politicians here, and I am sure you, Madam Speaker, have had an occasion where you have been speaking and thinking at the same time. Sometimes it has peculiar results here but, nevertheless, there I was talking and this guy came in with signs already printed. He did not even have the nomination but his signs were printed. They were all clapping and cheering and all these kinds of things. I was a little put out but I finished my speech and sat down. This guy stood up in his turn to great applause and all the rest of it. What he basically said was that he had been approached many times by the Liberal Party leadership in the area riding to run as a candidate for the nomination but that he had always held back because there was another possible candidate who might come forward for the nomination. He was alluding to the then mayor of the city of Hamilton and the then president of the local university. Then he said the fatal words. He said that late last week he had learned that those two important people had dropped out, that they were not going to stand for the nomination and that because there were no other worthy candidates he allowed his name to stand.
Well, I waited for him out in the corridor. He came out with his crowd and all the signs. I shook his hand and I said “Meet your unworthy opponent”.
I was born in town but I lived in a rural village for 30 years. Even though I commuted back and forth to Toronto for my journalist job, I had lived in the village for a very long time and knew a lot of farming folk. My wife was a local librarian in two places. The upshot of this is that when the nomination meeting occurred this guy was out there with his machine. He had everything. He had the signs printed and he had the buses. He had the whole thing going. He had all the money in the world. All I had were the local people.
Nomination night was held in an armoury in one of the towns in my riding. His people were on one side of the hall and my people were on the other side of the hall. To make a story short, despite all his power and the fact that he was being backed by the Liberal Party machine, I beat him and I am here today.
The reason I told that story is that throughout my career as a member of Parliament in the House I have never taken one dime from the party nor have I asked for one favour from the leader, and I have always spoken my mind in the House. The point is that if the leader were upset with me for speaking my mind and expressing myself, he would have to contend with the fact that I have support in my riding. I am not beholden only to the leader. I am beholden to the grassroots people who brought me to this place.
If we were to have proportional representation, people like me would disappear. Naturally all leaders, no matter how open they are or how much they might want to democratize the House, the reality is that if a leader gets to choose all the MPs in the House, then inevitably we would not have the kind of dialogue that occurs in the House. We would not have the kind of independent speaking out that occurs among Liberals on this side of the House and, perhaps more rarely, on the opposition benches, because I have to note that my experience in 10 years here is that in fact there is a tendency in opposition to conform to the will of the leadership. Whereas here, as we see time and time again and as a matter of fact is becoming a bit too common in my opinion, we see Liberal backbenchers expressing very independent thoughts. Sometimes they do not vote with the government.
It is relevant, even now, because we are in a period where we are about to change leaders in the Liberal Party. A very instructive and very important part of our democratic process is that the Prime Minister, the leader, has to hold his side together based on the confidence the members have in him. That confidence is a delicate balance between his ability to summon their allegiance based on the policies that he has and also their obligation to their constituents. All that disappears with proportional representation.
For those who complain about party discipline being too much, if we were to have proportional representation party discipline would be absolute.
There are other problems with proportional representation and some of these are very obvious. I should point out that our constituency system has worked well for 136 years, give or take a year, and has held together a country that is 10% larger than the United States--I believe it is the second largest country in the world--and has 10% of the people. We are spread out all over the country.
I would submit that we cannot compare our system, which obviously works and has worked for such a long time over this huge land mass, with a system that might be used by Israel or Italy. Either of those countries could form one-quarter of one constituency that we have in this country. The present Indian affairs minister is fond of reminding people that his particular riding is the size of France.
One of the things about having ridings and constituencies is that not only are we loyal to the party but we become loyal to not just the people in our constituency but to the concept of that corner of Canada that we represent.
When I first came here in 1993 we had a day of debate in which every MP had the opportunity to describe his or her riding. It was marvellous. It gave us a sense of who and what this country really is, because each MP bragged about the beauties or the unique characteristics of his or her corner of Canada.
In my particular riding I have seven waterfalls, which is probably more waterfalls than any other riding in the country. I can go on. When we go around this room we find that each member of Parliament celebrates the character of this country by representing a particular constituency.
All that would disappear with proportional representation because the leader can take members from anywhere. He can take members based on wealth. He can take members based on some sort of demographic profile. In other words, the people are marginalized in the final selection of the candidate.
Then we would get this terrible problem of what actually would happen in the House and what happens so often in countries like Italy or Israel. The reality is that in most democratic debates opinion divides roughly evenly. We saw that rather famously recently when on a motion by the opposition on upholding the traditional definition of marriage the House split on one vote, 134 to 134. It then split 137 to 135, I think it was, on the next vote.
That is a classic example of what happens all the time in proportional representation where major parties sit facing one another and very small minor parties hold the balance of power.
In that particular vote that I just described, the two smallest parties in the House, the New Democrats and the Tories, could have affected the outcome of either of those votes.