Stephane Dion’s Shiny New Voting System

Stephane Dion

Did I read that right? Did Stephane Dion — former head of the Liberal Party, almost Prime Minister of Canada — just come out in favour of proportional representation? Better late than never!

Well, that’s not entirely fair. Dion has shown a willingness to consider electoral reform in the past, as he did by backing the resolution in favour of alternative voting at his party’s most recent convention (not proportional representation but still not bad). Earlier on as party leader, on the occasion of his non-competition agreement with the Green Party’s Elizabeth May in 2007, he promised to explore different electoral options if he became Prime Minister.

But now, in the National Post and, in more detail, in a publication of the Quebec think tank The Federal Idea, Dion is supporting a specific alternative much more forcefully than ever before. One that, on the spectrum between proportionality and plurality/majority, clearly leans heavily towards the former.

So what exactly does Dion propose? What he calls the proportional-preferential-personalized vote, or P3. It would achieve proportionality by enlarging ridings across the country to elect between three and five MPs each. The seats would be distributed to parties roughly in proportion to their respective shares of the vote in each one of these ridings. Sadly, the resulting proportionality would only be partial because of the relatively small size of the multi-member districts. There is a well-known correlation in proportional voting systems between district magnitude and proportionality (although, interestingly, the opposite is true in non-proportional systems). Dion prefers this “moderate” proportionality to the “pure” stuff we see in Israel and the Netherlands (a somewhat confused distinction, but I’ll let it slide).

P3 would also be preferential. In selecting their parties, voters would not simply choose their favourite and leave it at that. If they wanted, they could rank their second and third and fourth choices as well. The smallest parties — those that do not have a large enough share of votes to win seats — would be eliminated and their second-choice votes distributed to other parties. This procedure would continue on to progressively larger parties — redistributing third- and fourth- and fifth-choice votes if necessary — until the only parties left are those with enough support to win seats.

Finally, although voters would primarily be choosing parties, P3 would also be personalized in the sense that they would have the option of selecting a favourite candidate running for their first-choice party. Seats would be distributed to individual candidates on the basis of these selections.

(The faint of heart are advised to please skip the next paragraph.)

To my ear, Dion’s proposal sounds a lot like open-list proportional representation — just with smaller-than-usual electoral districts and a slight preferential element (slight because the vast majority of ballots’ second and third preferences would likely not come into play). I see no reason to prefer P3 to any of the other proportional systems commonly recommended for Canada, such as mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) or the single transferable vote (STV). All three should be just as good at achieving local representation, but MMP surpasses P3 in terms of proportionality and STV surpasses it in terms of preferential and personalized features. In fact, with the institution of the alternative vote for constituency elections, MMP could surpass P3 by all three of its signature criteria. And a simple threshold, something included in most MMP systems, could help it elude concerns about instability due to the proliferation of smaller parties.

Nevertheless, what Dion proposes is in almost every way far superior to the first-past-the-post system Canada is currently stuck with. It is, on balance, a reasonable proposal from a reasonable person. On those few occasions when Dion still makes his way into the news, I cannot help but wonder what could have possessed the Liberals to give him up as their leader. He is green, he is thoughtful, and he is committed to democratic reform. I would take him any day over his right-wing predecessors Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, or his warmongering heir Michael Ignatieff.

How to Win

This is a seating plan of the Canadian House o...

Amidst the cacophony of Harper government threats — seemingly a new one each week — to dismantle what remains of Canada’s proudest progressive achievements, there can be heard a faint buzz of debate in centre-left circles on what to do about it. Some of these voices even dare to suggest that perennial political non-starter — cross-party cooperation. (Don’t they know this is Canada? Leave coalitions to those unholy socialists in Europe!)

The latest timid foray into this territory comes courtesy of youth-flavoured democracy group Leadnow.ca. It has begun polling its members on whether or not it should call on New Democrats, Liberals, and Greens to work together in the next election to defeat select Conservative incumbents and, assuming they succeed, reform the country’s electoral system. This idea of an ad hoc pre-election alliance is far more attractive than the common proposal for a merger of the parties. The NDP, Liberal Party, and Green Party, despite their occasional common ground (and commoner enemy), each have distinguished histories and represent different ideologies and concerns. To permanently paper over these distinctions and create an American-style two-party system would diminish the political choice and diversity on offer to Canadian voters.

But wouldn’t a limited electoral alliance do the same thing — albeit on a smaller scale? Wouldn’t there be some ridings in which voters are denied the full range of progressive options? The short answer is yes, but only as a temporary measure. If the three parties manage to form a coalition government and put in place a new electoral system that eliminates vote-splitting, then they can go back to fully competing against each other in all subsequent elections without handing victory after victory to a Conservative Party voted against by a consistent 60 to 70 percent of Canadians. And let us not underestimate the lack of voter choice represented by our first-past-the-post electoral system and the incentives it provides to “strategically” ignore parties we may agree with the most in deference to those we hate the least.

The major hurdle on the way to cooperation will be convincing those involved. The Greens will probably be the easiest, considering Elizabeth May’s history of openness to such ideas, as in her 2007 non-competition agreement with then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion. In the current NDP leadership race, however, only second-tier candidate Nathan Cullen supports joint nominations with the Liberals and Greens in some ridings, a crime for which his fellow contenders, normally loathe to criticize each other publicly, have attacked him (although not too harshly — they are still brothers and sisters after all).

I can understand NDP hesitancy towards any rapprochement with the Liberals. As is often noted, the latter have a long history of campaigning like New Democrats and governing like Conservatives. But just as commonly observed is the uncharacteristic good behaviour of Liberal governments held to account by constructive partnerships with the NDP. Canada’s health care and pension systems are testaments to the positive influence that progressive parties can have on the Liberals, just as the Harper government’s current moves to turn the clock back on these very accomplishments are testaments to the effects of division in the centre-left ranks.

The Liberals will likely be hardest of all to sway. To convince the people only recently considered Canada’s “natural governing party” to cooperate with those most responsible for their downfall is like asking Americans not to resent the growing economic might of soon-to-be-superpower China.

Moreover, at their recent convention, Liberals endorsed the alternative vote electoral system, whereas Greens and New Democrats have a long-established preference for proportional representation. How do they find common ground on this front? Ideally, in the event that they form government, the three parties could hold a national referendum asking voters to make the choice between electoral systems for them. And even if the Liberals succeed in convincing Canadians to choose the far inferior reform of the alternative vote, it would at least be just as effective as proportional representation at eliminating vote splitting, and would thus vindicate the NDP-Liberal-Green alliance.

So what are we waiting for, progressives? Why are we so afraid of cooperation? Just one pre-election deal to work together, form a coalition government, and ditch first-past-the-post; and Harper’s Conservatives are history. We have nothing to lose but our chains. We have a world to win.

(New Democrats, please explain that line to the Liberals.)

Update 09/02/2012: Leadnow.ca has now moved beyond internal polling, and has set up an online petition open to the public. Please sign it!