I’ve been thinking of late about what we might be experiencing if our current Parliament had been elected under one or another of the proportional representation schemes that have been bandied about. So far, I’ve only drawn three conclusions:
We’d probably still be trying to form a coalition that would have and hold the confidence of the House;
We probably wouldn’t be experiencing the “it’s a crisis” : “no, we can wait” series that’s made the news this week: it would be a crisis, and the issue would be how much to spend and on what, not whether to spend yet;
The resulting Government would probably not last as long as this one will, as the tussle over spoils would topple it.
Nevertheless, there are attractions to choosing the right system of proportional representation to update our system, for as long as first past the post remains our method of election — and appointment remains the way we get Senators (and they stay in office until 75 years of age) — our Parliaments are likely to remain dysfunctional. (FPTP elects an indigestible lump of BQ members, for instance, in Québec; Senators reflect far older Governments and lack the electoral legitimacy to thwart the current one for partisan reasons, yet do.)
However, what works for people in one region may not work for another. So why not allow some experimentation to take place?
To do this, simply put each province in control of federal elections in its territory.
Alberta, for instance, might want to define rules for Senatorial elections — including the expectation that an elected Senator will stand down after so many years and either run for re-election or be replaced by a newly elected Senator.
BC, for instance, which votes on the single transferrable vote system of proportional representation next May, might want to apply STV to federal elections as well — and ask that seat counts and riding boundaries be adjusted to facilitate this (perhaps the provincial legislature might have two MLAs for every MP).
Other parts of the country may wish to try mixed member proportional representation — as was voted down in Ontario a year ago — or still other ideas.
The Federal Government, in turn, could simply choose to double the number of MPs — so that each province keeps its current share of the House, but there are added members available to make various schemes work better. (This would also seriously weaken Prime Ministerial control over a caucus and lead to more free actions: a good reason to do it. MPs are cheap compared to effective democratic control by the citizens.)
This would allow, for instance, the endless debate about complexity (between different systems of PR voting and between different systems of voting in federal and provincial politics) to be tested. It’s not, after all, as though different provinces haven’t tried other voting systems provincially in the past — and federally we have previously had multi-member ridings. We would, in other words, be able to see what results, and either leave it the way it is, or standardize on a particular scheme based on results after three or more elections.
Then, too, provinces that wished to experiment with mandatory voting, Australian style, could do so. Those that wanted plebiscites to express popular will — or, in provincial mattes, referenda to bind legislative action — could do so.
We are so used, in Canada, to having decisions about our future made for us that this probably all sounds radical beyond belief. Yet the enabling legislation for it can have a built-in sunset provision that returns us — without debate — to first past the post unless formal changes are permanently made. We could even put a clause in that eschews renewal of the temporary measures or an equivalent bill being passed, thus safeguarding our current traditions.
But let’s try something new. Minority Governments are likely to be common in our future. We need to find ways to make the system work better with more than two major parties contending.
(While we’re at it, I’d put into effect the German rule that a confidence motion only fails if another motion establishing confidence in an alternative Government passes. This, more than anything else, would avoid the fragility of government found in an Italy or Israel.)
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