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Expert: Proportional representation might require constitutional change

Sen. Serge Joyal said adopting some form of proportional representation could make majority governments less likely


 
Voters enter a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a federal election on Monday. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Voters enter a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a federal election on Monday. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

OTTAWA – The federal Liberal government was warned Wednesday that its plans to overhaul Canada’s electoral system could wind up plunging the country into constitutional wrangling — a spectre Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to avoid.

Sen. Serge Joyal, an independent Liberal and acknowledged constitutional authority, said adopting some form of proportional representation could make majority governments less likely and require two or more parties to come together to form less stable minority or coalition governments.

That in turn could necessitate clarification of the Governor General’s prerogative to decide which party leader becomes prime minister and, if a coalition collapses, when to dissolve Parliament.

And, Joyal noted, any change to the Governor General’s powers would require a constitutional amendment approved by all 10 provinces.

“Anyone who will look into, seriously, to really implement proportional representation … we have to review those things, those powers, because otherwise we will discover suddenly that we have created a nightmare and we won’t know how to address it,” Joyal told an open caucus meeting held by independent Liberal senators to hear from experts on electoral reform.

Joyal noted that an attempt to form a Liberal-NDP coalition government in 2008 led to a “crisis” in which then-prime minister Stephen Harper persuaded the Governor General to prorogue Parliament to avoid defeat of his minority Conservative government. The propriety of the Governor General’s decision has been hotly debated ever since.

However, York University political science professor Dennis Pilon, who has researched electoral systems around the globe, said it’s incorrect to assume that proportional representation (PR) would automatically lead to less stable governments. Indeed, he said Canada’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system produces more instability than PR systems.

Canada has produced “many more minority governments” than other Westminster-style Parliaments, Pilon said, in part because FPTP encourages political parties to be highly partisan and adversarial. By contrast, he said proportional systems encourage parties to be more collaborative.

Currently, the candidate who wins the most votes in a riding is elected, frequently with considerably less than 50 per cent of the vote. Majority governments are routinely elected with as little as 38 per cent of the national vote.

PR systems aim to ensure a party’s share of the vote is more accurately reflected in its share of the seats in the legislature.

Trudeau has promised that last fall’s election will be the last conducted under FPTP. His government is preparing to create an all-party committee to examine alternatives, including PR and ranked ballots.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef said Wednesday that the government has no intention of reopening the Constitution, that whatever it does on electoral reform will be “within the constitutional framework.”

The Liberal Senate caucus also heard from former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who said electoral reform is long overdue.

FPTP made sense early in Canada’s history when there were only two main parties and one of them emerged from elections with more than 50 per cent of the vote, Kingsley said. But it no longer makes sense when there are five or more parties vying for election, all but guaranteeing none will gain true majority support.

The Conservatives are demanding that the Liberal government commit to holding a national referendum on any proposed electoral reform. But Kingsley, Pilon and Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, all argued that there are other ways to consult Canadians.

Pilon said a referendum would be an “opportunity for mischief.” And he warned politicians not to get caught up in “fake populism,” noting that some groups, including the Conservative party, will try to orchestrate opposition to reform.

Liberal MP Mark Holland, Monsef’s parliamentary secretary, said the all-party committee should do more than traditional, formal hearings and give all Canadians a chance to be heard.

“This needs to be historic engagement, it needs to be something the likes of which we’ve not seen before.”

Nevertheless, Holland later said the government has not ruled out holding a referendum.


 

Expert: Proportional representation might require constitutional change

  1. From Wilf Day: Joyal suggests clarification of the Governor General’s prerogative to decide which party leader becomes prime minister and, if a coalition collapses, when to dissolve Parliament. Yes, but it can be done as New Zealand and others have done it, with no constitutional amendment, by adoption of a cabinet manual like this one:
    http://www.cabinetmanual.cabinetoffice.govt.nz/6.36

    • I also fail to see why a constitutional amendment would be needed to implement PR. Some simple common-sense rules should apply to coalitions: the PM comes from the party in the coalition with the most seats (same as for minority governments); Parliament dissolves when the PM loses a vote of confidence (same as now, more-or-less).

      As for Dennis Pilon being worried about a referendum being an “opportunity for mischief”; BC, Ontario, and PEI all had referendums on electoral change, somehow these provinces managed to get through; I think Canada would as well. [Just because one may not like the outcomes of those provincial referendums doesn’t invalidate them in any way].

      And for ****’s sake, of course some groups (almost certainly including the CPC) “will try to orchestrate opposition to reform” – that’s a feature, not a bug. An important aspect of a referendum is to make opposing viewpoints known so as to aid voters in coming to a decision.

  2. Once again, mainstream media has disgraced itself. I feel sorry for self-respecting journalists who are just trying to make a living and get their stories so badly distorted

    After listening to the Liberal Senate audio file, I now see that Joyal lays his entire premise on the fact that Canada already has flaws that in its constitution that can be exploited when we have minority governments such as we saw in 2008 with Harper and the King-Byng affair in 1926.

    Then he goes on to say that since proportional representation will result in more unstable governments (untrue), that Canada will experience more constitutional crises.

    The media has taken this bit of misinformation, twisted it further, headlined it and spewed it out in dozens of publications.

    http://chirb.it/aC3xI9

  3. Whether a constitutional amendment to fundamentally change how Canadian government is formed is a secondary issue. The primary issue – are the Liberals prepared to submit a reference question on electoral reform to (essentially) the same SCC that flat out rejected the Harper government’s various proposals for Senate reform. Whereas one can never be sure anymore whether the SCC will decide a similar issue the way they did last week, it would be bizarre, to say the least, for the SCC to find fundamental changes to how the federal government is formed to be less constitutionally disconcerting than how Senators get picked.

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