After you, please, Ontario

Quebec would be wise to wait and see how its neighbour copes with a reformed system

Réforme électorale

The March 26 election has changed the face of Quebec politics but, for some, the transformation should not stop there.
For the past three weeks, activists and commentators have filled the media with a campaign to introduce some degree of proportionality into our old electoral system.
The coalition of groups and personalities who are calling for reform in Quebec have managed to attract as much attention to their cause as did the citizens' assembly commissioned by the Ontario government last fall to study the subject and make recommendations.
This is not a new debate in Quebec, where there have been calls for electoral reform for several decades, and the current coalition of reformers is a Who's Who of activists, artists, intellectuals and former politicians.
The timing of the current surge in demand for reform is a little odd, as the relationship between the distribution of votes and the distribution of seats in the National Assembly has never been closer than it is now.
The current near-perfect match between votes and seats, advocates of electoral reform observe, is a fluke. For several decades, imbalance between votes and seats has been the norm, which, reformers argue, calls into question the democratic nature of our system.
Yes, most Quebec elections have yielded an imbalance between votes and seats, but changes of government, on the whole, have adequately reflected shifts in the prevailing winds of public opinion, with the added bonus – until now – of stable majority governments alternating between distinct alternatives.
It is also true that governments in the past have taken advantage of their majority in the National Assembly to invoke closure and eschew debate, but when a majority party is perceived to govern with arrogance it tends to pay the price at the polls, as Jean Charest's Liberals recently learned the hard way. This, as Ontario's Conservatives claim, can be dealt with by changing the assembly's rules, not necessarily by changing the way it is selected.
Another argument of reformers is that the current system is inadequate because it leads to a majority of "lost votes": In their view, any vote for a party that doesn't win a riding is "lost," and any vote for the winning party in excess of what is strictly needed to win is also "lost."
Similarly, reform advocates claim that all votes for minor parties that cannot succeed in electing a member are "lost," and that those voters are not represented in the National Assembly.
The notion that an elected official can only adequately represent those who expressly chose him or her is troubling. Are legislators not supposed to represent all their constituents, not just their partisans?
Of course, a mixed system, such as the one preferred by the Ontario citizens' assembly (mixed member proportional, or MMP) allows for individual members to serve their respective riding as they do in the current system, while opening the door to more diversity.
By encouraging the multiplication of small parties, however, this system could have other perverse effects besides the virtual disappearance of stable majority governments.
One effect of party proliferation might be to make each party more closed to dissent, not more open. In a system of broad coalition parties, it is the voters and militants themselves who have to accept the concessions imposed by political realism, not just the party hacks.
At the risk of oversimplifying the debate, do we want stable governments guided by coherent programs that are the result of open debates within broad-coalition pragmatic parties, or unstable governments guided by improvised backroom compromises among the ideologues?
We also need to think hard about the effects of mixing constituency-elected legislators with members owing their election to their position on a party list.
Fortunately, foreign experience can teach us a fair amount, which is why Ontarians need to open their eyes to how MMP works – or doesn't work – abroad and what it would mean in their own context. And why Quebecers should pause and look west before making their own move.
If Ontarians look at the Quebec debate, meanwhile, they would see it is dominated by small groups that have never elected a single member to the National Assembly but still manage to attract more than their fair share of media attention. Would Quebec's democracy be better served if the leaders of these groups were on the National Assembly's payroll? Maybe it would but, for now, count me among the skeptics.
Meanwhile, the new opposition leader in Quebec City, Mario Dumont, whose own party program calls for electoral reform, has been predictably silent on the subject now that he can feel a majority government within his reach – we can probably count him among the skeptics, too.
I wouldn't expect much support for reform either from Jean Charest or André Boisclair, as this would undoubtedly be perceived as a fatal admission of weakness on their part.
So please, Ontario, go ahead with electoral reform if that's what your citizens truly want. Quebecers will watch with interest, but we're not about to follow.

Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal. This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the issue of electoral reform prior to Ontario's Oct. 10 referendum on the issue.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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