Will Canada ever change to proportional representation?

This thread on Canadian politics – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=321627 – got me to thinking about the prospects of proportional representation (at the national level) in Canada. My personal interest in this is the same as my interest in PR in the UK: If it happens there, the U.S. media would have no choice but to give at least some coverage, which might spark a debate on the topic in the U.S. (where most people don’t even know what the phrase means).

From the website of the pro-PR organization Fairvote Canada (http://www.fairvotecanada.org/):

  • At the national level, on June 16 Parliament’s Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs “tabled their report” (which I gather, in Canadian political parlance does not mean “filed it away to be forgotten”) on a federal electoral reform process. “If adopted by Parliament, a Parliamentary committee and a citizens’ consultation committee would be established to concurrently engage Canadians in an electoral reform discussion. The Parliamentary committee would then make a final recommendation to the House by February 28, 2006.” The question then becomes whether any recommended change would be decided on by Parliament or by a national referendum; Parliament seems to be inclining to making the decision itself.

  • There will be a “plebescite” (same thing as a referendum) in Prince Edward Island in November on changing to a mixed-member proportional system for the provincial parliament. If it passes, that will make PEI the first province to switch to PR.

  • The Ontario legislature has passed enabling legislation for a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform.
    My thoughts on this, based on what little I understand of Canadian politics: For purely strategic reasons, the Liberals should be against PR (because they’re doing so well out of the existing winner-take-all system) and the NDP and Conservatives should be for it (because their share of seats in Parliament could only be greater under a PR system). But I don’t know whether these parties would have different positions on the issue based on their principles.

I don’t think we’ll see it, for the reasons you mentioned. The west has tried to move a triple-E Senate for years, but this would move the balance of power a bit towards the smaller provinces, so the large provinces have no interest in it. If Canada had more smaller provinces such that the aggregate population living in the smaller provinces was greater, it might have a chance.

We’re heading for some interesting times, though. If oil really has peaked or is close to it, and we’re looking at permanent oil prices of $50/barrel or more, Alberta is going to become an economic powerhouse, and it’s also going to grow like crazy. This will slowly change the dynamic and force change, but it could take decades.

Alberta’s producing 3 million barrels of oil a day, and our production is forecast to increase for the next 20 years. At $60/barrel, that’s 65 billion dollars a year in revenue. That’s about half our entire current GDP.

Good Article in McLeans about the upcoming tensions that are likely to rise and the possible shift in political power.


Elected, equal, and effective. A “Triple-E Senate” was one of the founding planks of the Reform Party. They wanted the senate to cease being a rubber stamp that’s only purpose is to provide cushy retirements for political cronies and become an actual legislative body, which requires first of all that it be elected. And second, they want regional representation in the senate not to be entirely proportional to regional population (i.e., they want the west to be able to veto legislation) - that’s the “equal” part.

“Elected, Equal, and Effective.”

Canada’s Senate is not elected, it’s appointed. It’s also a sort of bizarre mix of representation from the various regions of the country. As a consequence of not being elected, and being largely populated by old political cronies and P.R. friendly appointments, the Senate rarely has the guts to hold up anything the House of Commons does.

There has long been a desire in the West for the Senate to have an equal number of Senators from each province, as this would swing more Parliamentary power to the West out of proportion to their population, and to have them elected, this being an understandable sentiment.

Proportional representation in Parliament is a rather absurd thing to discuss (and I don’t like it for other reasons) when we have such a ridiculous Senate contruct. It’s like talking about having plastic surgery to make your nose prettier when you have a ruptured appendix.

Why not just scrap the Senate entirely?

[QUOTE=RickJayProportional representation in Parliament is a rather absurd thing to discuss (and I don’t like it for other reasons) when we have such a ridiculous Senate contruct.[/QUOTE]

:slight_smile: Now we’re getting somewhere! What would be those “other reasons”?

Governing parties aren’t interested in scrapping the Senate, because retiring MPs often get appointments to the Senate, which are, as I said, cushy.

Anyways, scrapping it means amending the Constitution, which because of the Quebec situation isn’t likely to happen. Moving towards an elected Senate, on the other hand, can be done informally without changing the Constitution, by means of having the government only appoint people who happen to have won elections.

I don’t know much about Canadian politics, but I do know that the US media gives next to no coverage of it. Maybe the latter is the cause of the former. :slight_smile:

What was the last political change that we imported from Canada?

None I can think of, but we do sometimes import ideas. Would national health care even be an issue here if Canada hadn’t done it first?

Related thread from last year: Resolved: “First Past the Post” Elections Undermine Canadian Unity

If you Canadians are thinking of reforming the Senate, you might take a look at the Australian Senate. It’s got two of the E’s: it’s elected by PR, with the same number of senators from each state (so Tasmania gets way over-represented), and it’s effective (because it generally does not have a majority from any party, and it can amend and reject government legislation). However, it is not equal to the lower house: it has less powers over money bills, because they cannot be initiated or amended in the Senate.

The fact that it is not equal is a good thing, in my opinion and in the opinion of many. To understand why, you might want to go back to events around 11th November, 1975, when the Senate effectively rejected a money bill, and the Governor-General dismissed the Prime Minister (who had a majority in the lower house) and appointed the Leader of the Opposition as a caretaker PM. After that, there was a general election, which the former Leader of the Opposition’s party won.

Thirty years later, the whole thjing is still controversial, and you’ll get various lessons drawn from it, depending on who you talk to. However, you do need to be careful about creating a situation where a government can be broiught downb in either house. Let the Senate reject all the bills that ity wants to (as long as it is an elected body), but don’t let it bring the government down: that’s the job of the lower house.

Bear in mind that proportional representation is not inherently better than “first past the post”, just different. It can lead to fragmented legislatures such as Isreal and Italy suffer from, where miniscule fringe parties wield power out of all proportion to their electoral support simply because the larger parties can never form an absolute majority and have to ally with other parties to form a government. (In Canada, this would probably lead to a permanent Liberal&NDP government, as the NDP would never ally with the new Conservatives, and the Bloc is unlikely to be interested in any arrangement that actually made Canada work.)

IIRC, there was an earlier post on this topic with a link to a site where the last election was analyzed under various proportional and transferable vote (my preference) systems with very little change to the actual results.

The NDP, I believe, wants to abolish the Senate. But of course, as Gorsnak said, this requires a constitutional amendment, which always creates problems since there’s always be someone who will disagree with the proposal. In this case, I’d say that the Westerners would be unhappy: as I understand (and it seems to be what Sam Stone is saying), they want an American-style Senate to increase their representation in Ottawa and counter-balance the perceived dominance of Ontario and Québec in federal politics.

No Canadian wants the government to start constitutional talks again. (Well, actually it wouldn’t displease me, but then again I’m one of these odd creatures who feed on abstract political debates.)

As for proportional representation, it won’t be applied to federal elections anytime soon for the same reason, but it could become a reality in provincial elections. Here in Québec, there is some talk (coming mostly from the left) about reforming our election system, and the idea is slowly gaining some speed. It could become a reality some day, especially if other provinces start doing the same thing.

On the other hand, something I don’t agree with is the idea that PR would in itself solve the democratic deficit problems. I don’t like our current first-past-the-post system, but at least it ensures that every riding has a representative. I can send mail to my MP, and he/she should consider it if he/she wants to have my vote come next election. With PR, this is not as obvious, so we’d probably have to go with some kind of hybrid system. It’s certainly doable, but again we have to remember that no voting system is perfect.

Personally, I kind of like instant-runoff voting. But I’m sure that there are many flaws with this as well.

If you guys haven’t read the article I linked above, you really should. Whether the predictions come to pass or not, it’s pretty fascinating. Basically, here’s what it’s saying:

  • As oil prices rise, Canada’s influence is going to grow. We’re one of the only major oil producing nations that will be increasing production for the foreseeable future, thanks to Alberta’s oil sands. The article talks about ‘the power of the spigot’ replacing the power of guns at some point in the future.

  • As of last year, the estimate of the amount of economically recoverable oil in the tar sands was upgraded to being the 2nd largest reserve in the world, behind Saudi Arabia. I believe that was under an assumption of oil being around $30/barrel. If it doubles in price, the amount of economically recoverable oil will at least double and maybe triple, making Alberta the largest oil producing region in the world.

  • The stability of Canada, coupled with the increasing difficulty of importing oil from the middle east, is going to push the U.S. towards more and more consumption of Canadian oil. At the same time, countries like China will be negotiating for that oil, and Canada will be in a great negotiating position. Everything from trade deals to security arrangements will be bargained with the weight of Canada’s oil supply behind it. But all of that depends on Alberta, making Alberta the power player for Canada on the world stage.

  • As oil revenues increase, Alberta will become increasingly powerful within Canada. This creates a strange mix, wherein the economic power lies in Alberta, but the political power in the East. Probably an unstable situation.

  • As fuel costs increase even for Canadians, there will be more and more pressure on the government of Canada to demand a larger share of Alberta’s oil wealth for the rest of Canada. Alberta will naturally resist this to some degree. My feeling is that Alberta might be williing to share a little bit more than it already is, but if Albertans sense a power grab by Ottawa, the blowback will make the furor over the NEP look trivial.

  • Another area of increasing tension will be Kyoto. Albertans are against it due to economic interests, whereas Ottawa is for it.

  • Alberta’s population is going to grow dramatically. The oil patch alone will be creating over 100,000 primary and secondary jobs in Alberta over the next five years.

  • Another area of concern is that Aberta already has a per-capita GDP 40% greater than the rest of Canada (and higher than the U.S. average), and the gap between Alberta and the rest of Canada is going to continue to grow. Alberta is attracting investment like crazy due to the demand for labor coupled with the lowest taxes in Canada, a business friendly political climate, and reasonable real estate prices. Almost every Canadian province has a net outflow of people moving to Alberta.

Getting back to the notion of a triple-E senate, it seems to me that Alberta will be in a position to demand certain reforms, and the political dynamic may require that Ottawa cave in to this and start offering more regional representation. If Ottawa doesn’t, and instead tries to steam-roller Alberta with a new National Energy Program, new oil tariffs, or an offloading of the costs of Kyoto onto Alberta, you could see a strong resurgence of separatism here.

The next 20 years are going to be very interesting.

Although from 1 July this year, for the first time in 24 years, the Government **will ** have a majority in the Senate.

Thise quote just came back to me last night…

…Sam, 65 billion dollars isn’t even close to half the GDP. Canada’s GDP is about a trillion dollars.

I think if it ever came up to a vote, it would go through. There’s a general disatisfaction that I perceive among Canadians with the voting system and the recent referendum during the BC election was enlightening. 58% of the populace, and a majority in 77 of the 79 ridings voted in favour of moving to the Single Transferrable Voting system. This, despite surveys before the election showing that only about 40% knew what they were voting for! Unfortunately, it needed 60% to pass, so it wasn’t immediately adopted. However, Premier Gordon Campbell saw the writing on the wall and has said that they will still consider adopting it.

I think he meant Alberta’s GDP.

I did indeed mean Alberta’s GDP.