12 February 2014

Electoral reform—PR is not a voting system

Observing debates about electoral reform online and elsewhere, I notice one error cropping up consistently: the notion that proportional representation, like first-past-the-post, is a voting system. It isn't, of course. It is a goal, something you try to achieve with your voting system.

They are two different things and the difference is important because one frequently encounters the argument that PR doesn't work well in some country or other—Israel is commonly mentioned—therefore we wouldn't want it here. The problem with this argument is that we would never adopt the Israeli voting system. It is indeed proportional, but it's designed for a homogeneous country and Canada is anything but that.

We have been a nation for almost 150 years and yet we have never seriously asked ourselves what would be the best voting system for the unique society we are. When we created the country, we simply adopted the system at hand, and being born out of the British Empire that was of course first-past-the-post. It was never a good system, particularly for a highly regionalized country, and since 1867 we have become even more regionalized—adding the West, for instance, a highly regionalized place in itself.

It is long past time that we asked ourselves what the most appropriate choice would be, or better yet, how do we tailor-make a system that meets our needs. We might start start by asking just what our needs are. The list would undoubtedly be topped by a system that provided a legislature that satisfied the will of the people. The need for this is exemplified by the current government—a political party that a solid majority of Canadians did not want running the government is doing exactly that. That may be electoral but it isn't democratic. The number one priority, therefore, would indeed be a system that provided proportional representation.

Other goals would include answering to our highly regionalized nature and providing equal representation for women (women make up half our population but only 22 per cent of the House of Commons).

Once we established what a truly Canadian voting system would require, we could then create it. But to do that we have to keep systems and goals separate.

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