On August 18, 2012, invited by Ms. Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, I presented my proposal for a new voting system for Canada (the P3 vote) at the Green Party Convention, held in Sidney, British Columbia.
Please find below the text of my speech. I hope you enjoy your read and as always, welcome any comments you might have.
“P3: A Voting System for Canada”
A speech by the Honourable Stéphane Dion, to the 2012 Green Party Convention
Sidney, British Columbia, August 18, 2012
The Honourable Stéphane Dion, P.C., M.P.
(Member of Parliament for St-Laurent / Cartierville)
House of Commons, Ottawa
I am here for Canada. I stand here before Canadians whose political affiliation is different from mine – although we do agree on some points! – but who care deeply about Canada. The speech I am about to deliver here today is the same speech I would give, word for word, whether I were speaking before the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party or before my dear Liberal friends. But it is the Green Party that has invited me, and I thank you for being so open-minded – although knowing Elizabeth May as I do, this comes as no surprise.
In a democratic country, there are some issues that require parties to cooperate despite their political rivalries. Such issues include the fundamental rules that are the very expression of democracy. And this includes our voting system. Ideally, all political parties should agree on the voting system. And to achieve this, the parties need to talk to one another.
A voting system is more than just a way of tallying votes. It sets the ground rules that, for better or for worse, have a profound influence on voter’s choices, the behaviours of politicians and political parties, parliamentary proceedings and government operations.
Since my quest is for a voting system that best suits the interests of the entire nation, I do not wish to focus on the individual interests of any given party, whether it be a small party that wants to grow, or a formerly large party that wants to return to its former strength!
Federally, Canada has had the same voting system since Confederation. So why change anything, when Canada works relatively well overall? Why change our political traditions and adopt a new voting system, which would inevitably be more complex than the one we already have? Indeed, it is hard to beat the first-past-the-post voting system in terms of simplicity.
In response, I would argue that our voting system is weakening Canada’s cohesion. That is why I want to change it. That is not the only reason, but it is the main one.
1. Our current voting system is weakening cohesion in Canada
Our voting system weakens Canada’s cohesion. It artificially amplifies the regional concentration of political party support at the federal level. It makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are. With 50% of the vote in a given province, a federal party could end up taking almost all the seats. But with 20% of the vote, it may end up not winning any seats at all. This is how Ontario appeared more Liberal than it really was, Alberta more Reform-Conservative, Quebec more Bloc, etc.
This regional amplification effect benefits parties with regionally concentrated support and, conversely, penalizes parties whose support is spread across the country without dominating anywhere. A party able to reach out to voters across the country is at a disadvantage compared to another whose base is only in one region. For years, these dynamics worked against the Progressive Conservative Party and the NDP, and favoured the Reform Party and the Bloc.
The next federal election, expected in October 2015, will be held under our current, first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system. This means that once again, on election night, we are likely to wonder which region of our country will be virtually shut out of the executive branch. Will it be the West? Or perhaps Quebec? In 1979, it was Quebec; in 1980, the West. Between 1993 and 2005, the Liberals were fortunate to have Ralph Goodale and Anne McLellan. If they had not won their seats, often by a very thin margin, Saskatchewan and Alberta would not have been represented by strong ministers for a period of 13 years. Today, the federal Cabinet includes four of the five Conservative MPs elected in Quebec, which hardly ensures that these ministers will be outstanding.
I have no problem with regional political differences, but what I do have a problem with is their harmful political amplification that is artificially created by the current voting system. For example, as long as Quebeckers who wish for independence are numerous enough to elect MPs, they must be fairly represented in the House of Commons. But it does nobody any good if they are overrepresented in the House. During all the years that the Bloc dominated Quebec’s representation in the House of Commons, they never received a majority of votes from Quebec.
My main concern with all this is national cohesiveness, not to say national unity. I do not see why we should keep a voting system that artificially exaggerates our political divisions and leads to regional marginalization within the government. This is the main reason why I recommend replacing our voting system.
The challenge now is to come up with an alternative.
2. Pure proportional representation is not the answer
It would be unrealistic to think that we will agree on a solution by 2015. What I do think is achievable, is for parties – the Greens, the Liberals, the NDP and even the Conservatives should they be so inclined – to have in their electoral platform a commitment to conduct meaningful studies and consultations on voting system reform – perhaps via a Royal Commission. This commitment must be as assertive and official as possible, in order to avoid the usual pattern whereby parties are open to voting system reform when in opposition, but much less so once they have seized power under the current rules.
In the meantime, we should not be afraid to continue the debate and investigate what kind of alternative system we could propose to Canadians in lieu of the current system.
In my opinion, the solution is not pure or full proportional representation. That voting system promotes a proliferation of political parties and does not encourage them to aggregate preferences and interests, including regional interests. Pure proportional representation is not recommended, especially in a country with strong regional identities. We do not want to create a situation here in Canada like the one in Belgium, where parties no longer even bother trying to elect officials across the country. In Belgian federal elections, all parties – including the Greens – try to get elected in a single region, where they anchor their positions, only then to face tremendous difficulty trying to forge together a stable, cohesive national government for the country. Similarly, here in Canada, pure proportional representation could lead to the advent of provincialist parties, elected to defend only their province’s supposed interests.
We therefore need to temper proportional representation in order to prevent the proliferation of political parties and to encourage parties to aggregate the regional interests of such a diverse country as Canada. To achieve this, we need rules that apply to all across Canada during federal elections. We must not establish rules that vary from province to province, since this might encourage Canadians to look upon a federal election as an addition of provincial elections.
In my opinion, this is the main disadvantage of the proposal that was made in 2004 by the Law Commission of Canada (“Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada”, 2004). The Commission proposed achieving proportional representation by electing a third of MPs from compensatory lists created at the provincial level, and at the regional level for Quebec and Ontario. Thus, the House of Commons would be made up of MPs elected in ridings, just as we have today, as well as provincial and regional MPs elected from lists. The number of candidates per party included on these lists would vary immensely, from just one in Prince Edward Island to about a dozen for some regions in Quebec and Ontario. This would effectively divide Canada up into several political microclimates. I would find that worrisome.
Instead, I propose a moderate form of proportional representation, one that does not create different categories of MPs or huge regional differences in terms of rules. We can achieve this by increasing the size of our federal ridings.
3. Achieving moderate proportional representation by creating five-member ridings
We would elect five MPs by riding, or perhaps four or three when a low population density warrants it. There would be some exceptions – such as for the territories, which, for practical reasons, would remain one-member districts. But the standard would be five-member districts. The number of seats would remain the same; what would be reduced is the number of ridings.
This would give Canada a type of proportional representation that would reduce the artificially amplified regional concentration of seats won by the various parties. Indeed, any party obtaining the most votes in a given riding would be unlikely to win more than three out of five, or two out of three seats. Thus, seats would be truly up for grabs in all ridings, even in the most Conservative ones in Alberta and the most Liberal ones in Toronto and Montreal.
True, larger ridings would comprise several communities and not only one. But it is also true that with the current system, not every community has its own riding. In fact, all too often, the boundaries of our small ridings split our communities into two or three parts. Every time the electoral map is revised, I have to fight to make sure this does not happen in Saint-Laurent or Cartierville, the two communities that form my riding. With larger ridings, it would be easier to guarantee that each community remains intact within the same riding.
True, this means that individual MPs would no longer hold a monopoly position in their ridings: they would have to co-exist with the four other MPs in the riding. But this can only benefit their constituents. Today, voters have no recourse when they are stuck for four years with a lazy, incompetent or absentee MP. Under the new system, constituents would be able to deal with a different elected official. Healthy competition among the five MPs in a given riding would provide Canadians with better territorial representation.
A House of Commons elected this way would likely be more representative of women and cultural diversity, as the parties would have an incentive to diversify their offering of candidates in each riding.
Also true, the proportional representation resulting from five-member ridings would be less likely to elect one-party majority governments. We would probably have coalition governments made up of two or three nation-wide parties. Such ridings – made up of multiple seats – already exist in other countries and represent what political pundits call “the electoral sweet spot” – a balance between the representation in Parliament of various political movements, the parties’ ability to aggregate interests, and the opportunity to maintain stable, responsible governments (John M. Carey and Simon Hix, “The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low-magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems,” American Journal of Political Science, 55(2), April 2011, pp. 383-397).
Electoral reform could very well stop there: five-member ridings would represent a vast improvement for Canada, its cohesion and its democracy. However, at the risk of being accused of complicating things, I am also proposing adding preferential voting to our electoral system. This would encourage our parties to cooperate and form effective, cohesive coalition governments, when needed.
4. The proportional-preferential-personalized voting system
Under preferential voting, voters are asked, when casting their votes, to rank the parties in order of preference. The great advantage of preferential voting is that it promotes cooperation among the parties, because it is actually in each party’s interest to persuade those who support other parties that it represents a second acceptable choice. The parties are thus encouraged to highlight similarities in their objectives and platforms, as well as mutual respect among party leaders.
After an election, MPs would know to which combination of partisan votes they owe their victory. The makeup of coalitions would be influenced by the expression of voters’ preferences, and as a result, the coalitions are more likely to be coherent. Accordingly, preferential voting would mean a healthy improvement for our national cohesion and, more broadly, for our political culture.
If we put my proposals together, we get an overall picture of what I call the proportional-preferential-personalized vote, or “P3.” A Quebec think tank on federalism, The Federal Idea, published my proposal in April 2012 (http://ideefederale.ca/documents/Dion_ang.pdf)(http://ideefederale.ca/documents/Dion_fr.pdf). I take sole responsibility for the views expressed in that article, although it was published with the consent of Liberal leader Bob Rae.
Concretely, this is how the P3 voting system would work.
Remember that a typical riding would consist of five seats. At the ballot box, voters would first rank parties according to their preferences. They would then select their preferred candidate from among those put forward by the party they selected as their top preference. Let’s say that a voter chooses the Green Party as his or her top preference: this voter would therefore choose one candidate from among the five Green candidates.
This is how the ballots would be counted:
First, the voters’ first-party preferences would be counted. If one or more parties failed to obtain enough first choices to win at least one of the five seats, then the party that got the smallest number of these first preferences would be eliminated and its voters’ second choices would be transferred to the remaining parties. The second and subsequent choices of the eliminated parties would be allocated until all of the parties still in the running obtain at least one seat. This produces the vote percentages that determine the number of seats obtained by the various parties.
Then, the voters’ choices as to their preferred candidate among those affiliated with their preferred party are counted. If a party obtains two seats, that party’s two candidates who received the highest number of votes would win those two seats.
That’s it. That’s the way P3 would work. Granted, it is more complex than the current system. But I would argue that P3 is no more complicated than most electoral systems used around the world.
Under P3, coalition governments would likely be stable governments formed by two or three national parties, ready and able to govern together, with support spread across the country.
Parliament would be made up of MPs who would all have a home territory and would have been chosen personally, not through lists.
Because candidates of the same party would compete for seats, party cohesion could be affected. But with this new kind of competition, candidates of the same party would still have to act as team members. They would have to show cohesion for their own party to be able to rally the votes needed to obtain seats. Those parties best able to combine cohesion and internal competition would have the best chances of winning – to the benefit of Canadians.
Wilfred Day, of the organization Fair Vote, did a simulation of a P3 vote using the results of the 2011 election. He noted that this voting system would have improved the proportionality of the results, but to a lesser degree than what would have resulted from pure proportional representation. He regrets this. But that is precisely the point of P3: to enhance the expression of opinions and reduce regional distortions, without encouraging the multiplication of parties.
As Mr. Day acknowledged, the kind of simulation he did does not take into account the changes in political behaviour that P3 would promote. For example, under P3, voters would be able to vote for their true preferences instead of juggling random strategic calculations. They would no longer have to wonder whether they should abandon voting for Party A and instead vote for Party B in order to block Party C. They would simply rank these parties according to their preferences. I am willing to bet that this would have garnered more votes for the Green Party and the Liberal Party in 2011, and for the NDP in the past.
Furthermore, with P3, prominent candidates, the ones who draw votes, can run in larger ridings. People like Elizabeth May on Vancouver Island and Ralph Goodale in Regina would have probably garnered more votes for the Greens and the Liberals.
Lastly, it is almost certain that voter turnout would have been higher than with the current voting system. Indeed, with P3, Canadians would be more motivated to get out and vote, because in five-seat ridings, where seats are at stake across the country, and with preferential voting, voters would be in a better position to influence the final results, either through their first choices or through their second and subsequent choices.
With P3, we would get a voting system that enhances the presence of our political parties Canada-wide, reinforces the degree of cooperation that should exist between parties, makes every vote count and ensures that seats are truly at play across Canada. P3 voting would be a customized voting system for Canada, a set of ground rules that fit the characteristics and need for cohesion of our vast, decentralized, pluralistic and diverse country.
My formula may not be the best solution, and I keep an open mind. I am ready to discuss this issue with Canadians of all political hues – green, red, orange and blue – and with anyone who is looking for ways to make Canada a more democratic and more unified country.