Proportional Representation: Why aren’t we winning?

If we want to ever get a proportional representation referendum in this province we’re going to have to rethink our strategies.

If there is one good thing that came out of the federal government’s electoral reform fiasco, it’s that it invited Canadians to envision what kind of parliamentary democracy we would like to have.

Most people know from media reports that the overwhelming majority of respondents recommended the implementation of some sort of proportional representation (PR) system. In other words, they wanted a parliamentary system in which the percentage of seats a party held in the House matched the percentage of votes the party received in the election.

What is less known is that several contributors to the Electoral Reform Committee, including three from our province, went as far as to design and submit their own version of what they thought a good proportional representation system should look like. This was an important breakthrough, because up until that point, discussions about proportional representation had almost exclusively focused on systems developed in countries with much denser populations than Canada.

Mixed Member Proportional may work well in Germany with its population density of 231 inhabitants per square kilometre. Single Transferable Vote may suit Ireland where there are 67 people per square kilometre. However, these systems have serious limitations when applied to sparsely populated regions of our country — regions like Newfoundland and Labrador with its population of only 1.4 people per square kilometre. We need a PR system that suits our unique demographics.

Fortunately, we now have some good, made-in-Canada models to choose from. But, here’s something to consider. Why does government have to make a decision about which PR system we’ll have before a referendum is held?

A new referendum concept

Three local groups, Democracy Alert, the Council of Canadians and the Social Justice Cooperative are advocating a two-step approach to electoral reform in our province.

Step 1 is a referendum attached to a provincial election with a simple choice:
______ I would like to continue with our current system for electing MHAs.
______ I would like to change to a proportional representation system.

Step 2 comes later. If voters select proportional representation it would be the responsibility of the incoming government to strike an all-party committee coupled with some sort of Citizens’ Assembly. Their responsibility would be to research, deliberate, consult with the public, and then select the PR system that best suits the demographics of our province. That system would be put in place for the following election.

Why this different approach to a referendum?

This simplified referendum doesn’t just avoid rushing into a decision about the kind of proportional representation system that would best suit our needs. It would also enable Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to argue for or against proportional representation on its general merits, rather than getting bogged down in explanations of exactly how the system would work.

That can be a significant issue. In the 2007 Ontario referendum lack of knowledge was repeatedly acknowledged as a reason for why Ontarians were voting against the initiative. Not all of that should be blamed on inadequate information being available to the public, although that was certainly the case.

Understanding the fundamental concept of balancing seats and voting share is reasonably easy. Unfortunately, understanding the mechanics of how proportional representation is achieved – and this is true of virtually all PR systems – is complicated. People’s eyes invariably glaze over when we start explaining the implementation steps related to a particular system.

Yet, concerns about the mechanics of PR implementation don’t seem to have been an issue for New Zealanders, nor for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, all who have switched over the last 25 years to proportional representation systems. Why not?

Success in New Zealand: What was different?

In contrast to here in Canada, proportional representation was given enthusiastic support from respected high profile groups in the above jurisdictions. In New Zealand it was the Royal Commission on the Electoral System that was a game changer. The Commission recommended that the country change to MMP, arguing that this would lead to better government. The mainstream media, in stark contrast to the Ontario referendum, also came out in favour of change.

Voters trusted what they heard, even though many didn’t understand the mechanics of MMP. And they wanted change. They were disillusioned with the performance of their two major parties, which had been lurching interchangeably from one majority government to another, never cooperating with each other.

Why the push for proportional representation in our province now?

Our Muskrat Falls crisis has led to an unprecedented breakdown of public trust and confidence in the decision making capabilities of political leadership in this province. Like New Zealanders thirty years ago, we know government needs to change the way it operates. But will that happen? What are our chances of getting a referendum on proportional representation in this province if it’s left entirely up to volunteer civil society groups to mobilize the public?

What’s badly needed is support and leadership from groups with status equivalent to the New Zealand Royal Commission. A stand taken by the NL Law Society would be an important start. There’s even a precedent for such action. In 2004, the Law Commission of Canada issued a report recommending that the federal electoral system be changed to a proportional representation system. Like New Zealand they chose MMP.

Support from Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador also makes sense. And, who knows? Maybe even leadership at Memorial University might see the merits of electoral reform.

The time is now right to push for a paradigm shift in politics. Even the staunchest defenders of the political status quo will have a hard time denying the extraordinary failure of the political process to assess and correct the group think that led to our Muskrat Falls disaster.

Addressing the arguments of the nay-sayers

But, will potential allies accept proportional representation as a viable alternative? Or are they biased by misconceptions often repeated in corporate media. Proportional representation, we’re told, produces minority governments and minority governments are weak. Very little gets accomplished.

Wrong! We Canadians got both our health care system and Canada Pension Plan under “minority governments”. Proportional representation produces coalition governments where major parties work in collaboration with smaller parties to serve the greater good.

As for Europe, coalitions have given EU citizens a lot of things that Canadians would really like to have – affordable Day Care, national Pharmacare, stronger environmental regulations. There is also less inequality in most European countries than here, and a much higher voter turnout at elections.

Let’s think strategy!

So how do we get that positive message out to those who are in a position to influence decision making? We need lobbyists. More precisely, we, the people, need to become lobbyists. We need people across the province prepared to contact and engage with potential allies in government, in the business community, in the legal profession, in academia and elsewhere around the province.

The message would be straightforward.

We are a province in the midst of an enormous economic crisis caused by a political system that has malfunctioned. Now is the right time to consider the benefits that changing to proportional representation might bring too Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. There are many.
Let’s offer the people of our province a referendum on the concept of proportional representation. If voters choose change, let’s then take the time to decide on the very best system for our province.

Care to become a lobbyist?

Marilyn Reid is a member of Democracy Alert and the Council of Canadians. For information on how to become involved in electoral reform, contact [email protected]

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