When Prime Minister Stephen Harper talked about the clear show of support in the last election the reformers of Fair Vote Canada scoff.
“Right now, the federal government talks about their strong mandate. But, in fact, it’s a weak mandate,” said Don Hepburn, one of a small group of organizers behind Fair Vote’s fledgling Red Deer Action Team.
At just under 40 per cent of the popular vote voting for the Conservative Party, six out of 10 Canadians picked someone from another party, yet the Tories hold 163 of 308 seats.
“People get elected with 30 to 35 per cent of the vote, which means two-thirds of the people didn’t vote for them,” Hepburn said.
Fair Vote Canada wants to change our traditional first-past-the-post system to one in which political parties gain seats in close proportion to their popular support.
As a kick-off meeting for the new group on Tuesday evening, retired University of Alberta political scientist Paul Johnston was invited to discuss the merits and shortcomings of proportional representation versus our current electoral system.
Johnston makes it clear from the outset that changing the system won’t be easy. Polls have shown two out of three Canadians are fine with the status quo.
“So you’ve got a barrier there to start with when you talk about electoral reform,” said Johnston in his talk at the Red Deer Public Library’s Snell Auditorium that drew about 20 people.
Fairness is the biggest benefit of proportional representation.
If a party wins 40 per cent of the votes, it gets 40 per cent of the seats.
It also creates more exciting electoral races because smaller parties have a shot at winning seats.
Adding more parties to the mix also takes attention away from leaders of the big front-running parties and opens the field to more discussion on the policies of each party.
The knock on proportional representation is that it is complicated and hard to understand.
Johnston dismisses that as an insult to the intelligence of voters, noting the system works perfectly well in many countries.
World-wide, about 90 countries use some form of proportional representation.
However, it does make it harder for a party to attain an outright majority, he acknowledges.
Those who support the first-past-the-post system often argue it creates stable governments because it allows for “manufactured majorities,” in which a party doesn’t have to win more than 50 per cent of the votes to hold more than half the seats.
Since 1921, Canada has only had four natural majorities — two each for the Conservatives and the Liberals — when one party picked up more than half the votes.
There have been 14 manufactured majority and 10 minority governments in that span.
Johnston said the current system’s origins have little to do with stable government and much more to do with centuries of British tradition that simply got passed down to former colonies.
Hepburn said the local group hopes to spread the word that another electoral system is worth considering.
“We see this as an ongoing educational approach to help people understand what the possibilities are.”