Sunday, July 04, 2004

On Proportional Representation

Proportional representation... it seems to be gathering political capital yet again with this potential 'central role' of the NDP in the upcoming parliament and their platform stressing its implementation. But, has anyone stopped to weigh the consequences? PR as being currently proposed would hinder the connection between the local voter and parliament. It would also effectively shut many areas of the country out of the system and promote increased decision-making and policy centralization.

The riding system currently used today works on the premise of electing a local person to take local views, concerns and grievances to parliament. After each census, Elections Canada goes through a lengthy process to avoid gerrymandering and determine ridings based on shared geography, economic spheres of influence and built form. Hence, urban and rural ridings are generally separated and individual ridings share similar characteristics. The first-past-the-post system promotes each local area to send their own representative through local elections to fight for the issues which are important to that specific constituency and to govern a federal government akin to their values and principles.

Proportional Representation as proposed reduces local input and discards area and regional distinctions by collecting and distributing votes evenly across the entire country or Province. Urban, suburban and rural votes are lumped together into one number and then redistributed according to total votes nationwide regardless of why voters chose a certain party. Voters in Huron-Perth did not elect a liberal MP for remotely the same reasons as voters in Trinity-Spadina and neither did for the same reasons as Thunder Bay, yet their votes are lumped together for party headquarters to dole out through a list posted before the election. This is basically how things are done in Germany and New Zealand. How would these representatives be determined or allocated? Who would create the list and who would they represent? Would MPs and potential MPs spend more time courting party officials than the electorate? If the German system were implemented, how big would our ‘Regions’ be? Would they encompass entire provinces? If so, former comments regarding Thunder Bay and Trinity-Spadina certainly apply.

The current riding system elects candidates locally through riding associations. How would PR proponents ensure local representation if ridings are disbanded and replaced with provincial or national associations? Under a system where no one has been directly elected locally, who would I call to speed up my passport application or complain about poor VIA service? Who would fight for federally sponsored locality specific improvements such as cleaning up industrial brownfields or lakeshore erosion controls?

Give this a thought. Imagine that resistance to proportional representation (or any other issue) is especially high among NDP supporters in my constituency. Under the riding system, we can in theory elect a candidate to run for the NDP who supports our position and will take that message to Ottawa and the federal party if they win. Under the PR system, this could never happen as the Provincial or ’regional’ arm would establish a list of regional candidates who would surely support the centralized party platform.

Representation. One complaint of PR fans is the allocation of seats across the country. Is it really absurd that the one seat in Nunavut has a population of 27,000, while a riding in the GTA has over 110,000? Consider this… Nunavut is spread out over 1,000,000 square kilometers while Newmarket-Aurora can be driven clear across in twenty minutes. If we considered them on par with a southern riding, the Nunavut riding would have to be expanded to include NWT, Yukon, Northern Quebec and the northern parts of the Prairie provinces - an area nearly 2,000,000 square kilometers with a juxtaposition of cultures, issues and needs. Is this truly effective? Does it really level the ’democratic playing field’? What really is the relation between Carcross, Yukon and Fort George, Quebec?

While by no means this excessive, on average ridings in rural and northern areas have somewhat lower populations. The rationale being that a balance needs to be struck between equal distribution, low population density and effective representation. The same principle applies to the Maritimes and PEI in particular. Currently there are four seats allocated to the Province. Simple national equal redistribution would only allocate them one. A province with only one seat out of 308. How are their interests going to be forwarded? Our votes in the larger provinces count for less simply because there are so many more of us. Despite having the largest populated ridings in the Country, Ontario endures this 'injustice' by maintaining a third of all House of Commons seats. The current system ensures equality and ‘fairness’ by redistributing seats to the smaller provinces and lesser populated areas of the country which otherwise would be severely underrepresented and have restricted access to parliament. This works on the same principle as transfer payments to the ’have not’ provinces. Equal redistribution is not always fair redistribution.

And what about combined first-past-the-post and proportional representative system as is the case in New Zealand? First, would the House of Commons be doubled to 616 reps to accommodate these new regional members or would ridings be amalgamated to free up the necessary room? What would happen if ridings have to increase from 110,000 to over 200,000? How effective would that be in rural areas using the Nunavut example? How does this serve and enhance ‘local representation‘ as Jack claims?

I can’t agree with any system which proposes taking decision-making out of local hands and redistributing it provincially or nation-wide. The recent amalgamation exercises undertaken in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario show that reduced local representation severely affects government responsiveness, accountability and effectiveness - to the detriment of democracy. It also breeds increased apathy in the electorate as local issues are pushed aside in favour of ‘national issues’ which the majority of the nation doesn’t give a damn about.

If progressive reform is to be truly undertaken, it should take the form of an increased role for individual MPs. The real problem is that over the past 30 years, political parties have centralized policy, responsibility and decision-making. Avenues should be created to allow MPs - regardless of position - to express the needs and desires of local constituents rather than being forced to tow the party line on issues decided by command central. Proportional representation will not solve that - it will only serve to perpetuate the Ottawa political machine by stymieing the only mechanism available to advance local demands.

The real difference between PR and the Riding System is this - do you favour local involvement and input in the federal government or do you favour centralized, party-appointed representation? I personally favour a system where my area gets to send my local representative to parliament to represent and promote the majority of my areas interests - whether I agree with them or not... and even if it means my party gets 20 less seats than potentially under proportional representation.

Ed. -You’d think Mr. Layton - a former adherent of local representation and the ward system - would be sympathetic to such a position. Apparently not.

1 Comments:

Blogger Rob Drimmie said...

From what I understand of NDP policy -- and it should be made abundantly clear that I am not speaking from a position of great knowledge; I've read Layton's latest book and the NDP site but can't be arsed to reference either -- Layton et al are looking to address the drop in local representation associated with PR by increasing the role of municipal governments.

A strong theme in Layton's book was that municipal governments need increased, if not complete, independance from the provincial governments. Unfortunately, he addresses the rural vs. urban split only with comments like "and what's good for big cities is good for small cities!" (not at all a real quote).

I am very fond of all the discussion PR is getting though. If nothing else getting Canadians to think and talk about what our vote means has tremendous value.

(I've rambled more on the subject on my site, but didn't want to bog down your comments)

8:40 AM  

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