Whether Quebec gets a new voting system might depend now upon whether the Charest government is re-elected.
Yesterday, the Liberals abandoned their 2003 campaign commitment to introduce an element of proportional representation into the voting system before the next election.
They did so when Benoit Pelletier, the minister responsible for reform of democratic institutions, gave chief electoral officer Marcel Blanchet six months to assess the impact of the changes he is considering.
These include the introduction of a second ballot used simultaneously with the first one to elect a second type of member of the National Assembly.
There would be fewer, larger ridings, grouped in regions. In each region, some MNAs would represent the individual ridings, and some the whole region.
On one ballot, the voter would choose a riding MNA, as at present. On the other, the voter would choose from a party's list of regional candidates, who would be different from its candidates in the ridings.
The distribution of votes on the party ballot would determine the total number of seats in the region that each party would receive.
If a party was entitled to more MNAs in the region than it had elected in the ridings, the additional ones would be elected in order of their ranking on the party's regional list.
Male and female candidates would alternate on the lists to increase the number of women in the Assembly (38 of the 125 MNAs elected in the 2003 general election were women). In addition, there would be financial incentives for parties to elect more minority members (see box).
Pelletier also asked the chief electoral officer to draw up examples of a new electoral map to show the public the effects of the proposed changes. But he directed Blanchet to do so in such a way as to maintain the relative political influence of the regions in the Assembly.
So it appears that the current under-representation of Montreal in relation to the rural regions would be maintained.
By the time the chief electoral officer produces his report, the next election might be over. The delay announced yesterday won't change much if the Liberals are re-elected, since the new system they promised to adopt before the next election wasn't to come into use until the following vote.
But the opposition Parti Quebecois is reluctant to change the current system, which works to its advantage by giving it a disproportionately large number of seats relative to its share of the popular vote. In the 1998 election, the PQ won a majority of the seats even though it received fewer votes than the Liberals. The Liberals hope to reduce such disparities.
If Blanchet is unable to succeed where the Liberals failed to come up with a proposal that gains consensus support, then the PQ would have an excuse to abandon the project. And it's hard to get a consensus for a change that would necessarily reduce the political influence of some interests in favour of others.
The government has stuck Blanchet with some difficult questions as it prepared to rush out the door of the Assembly for what might be the last time before the next election.
One of these is how to define minorities for the purposes of the incentives for parties to elect more minority members. Another is whether to include anglophones among them.
The draft bill on electoral reform, tabled by Pelletier's predecessor Jacques Dupuis, would have paid parties simply for running candidates who claimed to be members of "ethnocultural minorities."
As Pelletier noted yesterday, consultations on the draft bill showed that many people want a "precise definition" of minorities. But his ministerial statement in the Assembly said nothing about whether anglophones should be included.
So anglophones might be left as the only minority group not recognized as such for the purposes of the incentives. If so, the parties would have no interest in addressing their under-representation in the Assembly. It would even be more profitable for the parties to run members of recognized minorities in place of anglophones.
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