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Editorial

by Archives October 14, 2008

Canada’s electoral system needs an overhaul.
And while most critics favour the easy option of a purely democratic system, restructuring our Senate is a much fairer option.
For most Concordia students, life under a majority government is a purely academic concept. Most have spent their entire adult life under either the Harper or Martin minority governments.
But in practice, life in Canada under a minority government is an exercise in either frustrated expectations or giddy wishing, depending on whether your party is or isn’t in power.
As this paper goes to print, it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper has convinced Canadians to give him his majority. But Canadians (and Concordians) would do well to start thinking about majority government, because sure as minorities are unstable, there’ll be another vote; probably sooner than later.
And so before this election has come and gone, it’ perhaps worth reconsidering some of the problems tied up in our current system of voting.
Of all the problems with our current system, the most serious is that it awards virtually unchecked power to any government lucky enough to win a majority.
In and of itself, this wouldn’t be such a bad practice – there must, after all, be winners and losers in Canadian politics. But when a majority can be won with the functional minimum 38 per cent national support, the effect of our first past the post voting (FPP) system is to disenfranchise almost 62 per cent of the population.
Canada’s system increases regional tension – actively undermining national unity.
Because seats in parliament are assigned according to how many ridings a party wins, and not based on the national level of voter support, parties that appeal to broad national issues will always come in second to parties that trumpet regional demands.
This is the reason why, although both the Greens and the Bloc have polled around 10 per cent, the Bloc can expect to walk away from this election with as many as 50 or 60 seats, while the Greens will be lucky to squeak through with one or two.
But while our regional focus causes problems, the manner in which we practice it exacerbates an already serious problem.
Canada’s FPP system also distributes seats based on an anachronistic system of regional preference – both between provinces and within them.
Between provinces, Canada’s current division of seats means the votes of citizens are of vastly different worth, depending on where they live. Thus, PEI, with a population of 139,818, has four MPs, while Ontario, with a population of 12,928,996, has 106. This means, in effect, that a vote cast in PEI goes almost four times farther towards electing an MP.
Within provinces, our current system ensures rural regions hold the balance of power. Though the vast majority of new immigration occurs in one of four Canadian urban centres, and although Canada is becoming an increasingly urban country, the farm will always be king while we choose our leaders based on our neighbourhoods and not our ideas.
As a solution to these problems, parties like the NDP and the Greens often suggest proportional representation (PR), which picks MPs based on each party’s share of the national vote. Certainly, this system has its benefits – it’s clearly more democratic, it lessens regionalism and allows greater focus on national issues. At the same time, proportional representation systems bring with them a series of their own problems: without any constituency participation in selecting delegates, PR systems tend to centralize power with an unaccountable party leadership. These systems also tend to ignore the needs and local concerns of individual voters; most importantly, they tend to create highly unstable systems.
But if both systems have benefits, and both systems have problems, you say, what a sham we can’t have both systems.
Well, as it turns out, we can. Because by coincidence, Canada has at present a nearly inoperative second house of government – the Senate.
If the Canadian system must be made more democratic then the place to start is in the upper house. A re-jigged Senate, elected with proportional representation, would offer a national vision to balance out the parliamentary parties’ regional focus. At the same time, a restructuring of the Senate along these lines would grant it new, democratic legitimacy, allowing it to act as a real check on the power of majority parliaments.
If Canadians want to live surrounded by a system that is democratic, accountable and, most importantly, fair, the place to start is with reform to the most inevitable chamber of our government.

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