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POSTED AT 2:55 AM EDT Thursday, Sep 2, 2004

David Beatty

If we were a real democracy, we'd get past first-past-the-post

Globe and Mail Update

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By almost any standard, proportional representation does the best job of giving voters a voice, says law professor

We are about to experience one of those moments when we define ourselves as a people. The opportunity will present itself at the end of the debate about whether we should change our election laws, by adopting the principle of proportional representation that has slowly been building momentum across the country.

The question has been studied by governments and think-tanks, and British Columbia and Ontario will hold referendums on the issue in the near future.

For some people, casting the issue of PR in such highly charged terms is hugely overblown. As a practical matter, they say PR is simply one way of counting votes and allocating seats in a parliament. "First past the post" (FPTP), the system we use, is another.

As they see it, every rule has it own strengths and weaknesses. Choosing between them is simply a matter of preference of the different tradeoffs that come with each.

So, for example, everyone agrees that PR's big advantage is how it matches the percentage of votes each party receives in an election with the number of seats it is allotted in parliament. Its weakness, however, is said to be a predisposition to unstable governments of shifting coalitions doing the nation's business behind closed doors. Italy and Israel, where governments come and go like a revolving door, are the examples to which reference is most often made.

Critics of PR say election laws that use the FPTP rule just reverse those effects. So, while FPTP is capable of grossly over-representing some parties and under-representing others, it fosters, as our history shows, stability and transparency in government.

To think that the choice between proportional representation and first-past-the-post is just a matter of personal preference, between two more or less equally balanced alternatives, is a serious mistake. It ignores the enormous differences between the two systems in their allegiance to the most fundamental ideals of democracy and basic human rights.

PR's greatest virtue is that it provides an ironclad guarantee that our election laws will respect the equality rights of all Canadians. In PR elections, all voters are treated alike. Each and every vote counts the same, which is why each party gets the same percentage of seats in a legislature that it wins in the popular vote.

Election laws based on the principle of FPTP are highly discriminatory by comparison. In the June federal election, for example, it took 31,000 votes for supporters of the Bloc Québécois to elect one of their own, 37,000 for the Liberals and 110,000 for the workers, farmers and fishermen who voted for the NDP. People who think the environment should be the government's highest priority cast half a million votes for the Green Party, and yet it didn't get a single seat.

These numbers are not exceptional. Virtually every federal and provincial election ever held in this country has been marred by similar distortions. Some, in fact, have been much worse.

The Progressive Conservatives never recovered from the 1993 federal election when, even though they received more votes than the Bloc, won only two seats compared to 54 for the separatists. Within the past 15 years, we have experienced two provincial elections in which the party that won the largest share of the popular vote actually lost the election.

Showing equal respect for the views of each vote is not PR's only virtue. Women also do better.

More women run and more are elected in PR countries than in Canada. Because women have a harder time winning seats representing geographic constituencies, in PR countries all parties recognize the need to put a lot of them high up on their candidate lists.

Studies also show that PR invigorates democracy by encouraging greater citizen participation. Not surprisingly, if people know their vote really counts, they are more likely to show up at the polls.

As well as generating a more active engagement by ordinary citizens in the governing of their country, PR also guarantees a more representative and less divisive politics. National parties that appeal to voters from coast to coast, like the NDP and the Tories of old, do much better under PR than FPTP.

Amending our election laws to respect the principle of proportionality would mean that the disproportionate influence that regional parties such as the Bloc now have in Parliament would become a relic of our colonial past. The voices of consensus and national unity, on both the left and right, would finally get the representation they deserve.

On every criterion, PR makes for better democracy. Even the charge that it produces unstable governments that lack transparency is belied by the facts. Germany is widely regarded as having developed the most sophisticated system of PR, and its postwar governments, headed by Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, have been as stable and open as any in the world.

Because of PR's overwhelming superiority, there are very few countries that still use first-past-the-post. To deliberately choose to remain one of them would make a mockery of our claim to be one of the world's great democracies.

David M. Beatty is a professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, and the author of The Ultimate Rule of Law (Oxford), published earlier this year.

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