Quebec toys with electoral reform

The year 2004 closed with some tentative steps toward electoral reform in Canada, but no guarantee of real change. In December, Quebec became the first provincial government to submit a draft bill for mixed member proportional representation voting, although the legislation is considered weak by critics of the current “first past the post” system.

The province has proposed a draft bill to elect about 50 members of the 125-seat legislature. The new system would reflect the popular vote while preserving local representation in the legislature, according to Jacques Dupuis, minister responsible for the reform of democratic institutions.

The Quebec Liberals, whose support is largely centered in the Montreal area, won the popular vote but lost the election to the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in 1998. The liberals would have won a minority government under the proposed new system, which will face several levels of public scrutiny and will not be in effect before the next provincial election expected in 2007.

“This is a significant step,” said Fair Vote Canada Wayne Smith, “but the current draft certainly requires improvement and the timeline for implementation is excessively long.”

Smith noted that since the proposed system tilts toward the larger parties, it would not ensure that voters are fairly represented. While most other mixed member systems give voters one ballot for their constituency representative and another for district representative, the Quebec proposal unnecessarily limits the voter choice.

There are “fatal flaws” in the Quebec proposal, according to Paul Cliche, spokesperson on democratic reform for the Union of Progressive Forces (UPF), and Andrea Levy, a Montreal political activist. In a recent commentary, the two said that “the Dupuis draft bill ... does not go far enough in the direction of proportional representation to truly mitigate the distortions of our electoral system.”

Voters will have only one ballot, not two, as in mixed member proportional systems. They will not have an opportunity to rank candidates in order of preference, as in the single transferable vote system. The minor reform will benefit the Liberals and Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ). Smaller parties like the UPF in Québec and the Greens will face an effective threshold of 15 percent, which is too high to encourage genuine electoral pluralism. Because of its narrow scope, Dupuis’s proposal falls fall short of the reform needed to energize the democratic process and ensure that a greater diversity of political opinion is reflected in government.

Of the provinces formally considering voting reform, Quebec is the only one not using a referendum process. British Columbia (BC) established a randomly selected independent citizen’s assembly, which recommended a single transferable vote system (STV) to be decided by a referendum in the May 17 provincial election. Prince Edward Island Premier Pat Binns has announced a new electoral reform commission to work toward a referendum. The Ontario government is expected to announce more details soon on the Ontario citizen’s assembly and referendum.

In BC, however, the STV recommendation faces a tough uphill battle. The BC proposal is based on dividing the province into a smaller number of constituencies, which elect from two to seven members, depending on the population. Parties can nominate up to the number of members to be elected in each district, and voters will rank all candidates (including independents) in order of preference.

Citizen’s assembly members say they want to reduce the power of big political parties in the electoral process, a feature not calculated to earn the backing of the Liberals or NDP. The STV proposal also lacks a strong element of proportional representation, making it less appealing to the Green Party, which won almost 14 percent of the vote in the 2001 election.

Since the citizen’s assembly recommendation needs the support of 60 percent of the voters, it faces the obstacle of opposition (or, at best, lack of support) from the parties that have the ability to mobilize large numbers of campaign workers. Add to this a steady stream of media criticism against STV, and it appears that a huge groundswell of grassroots support will be needed for the proposal to make the 60-percent hurdle.

Reprinted from The People’s Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada. Kimball Cariou is the editor.