Sunday, July 11, 2004

5 Provinces in Canada looking at electoral reform

5 Provinces looking at electoral reform


TORONTO (CP) - Though NDP Leader Jack Layton won't have much clout to push voting reform on a federal level, changes may be on the way in five provinces, and British Columbia could have a new system by May 2005.

In B.C., the provincial government has convened the Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform, a random group of men and women to decide in the fall whether to stick to the current electoral formula, or switch to another system, most likely some form of proportional representation.

If the group decides the current system needs to be replaced, it will be put to a province-wide referendum during the next provincial election which takes place on May 15, 2005. The new system would take effect in the 2009 provincial vote.

Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are also considering some type of voting reform.

"B.C. has set the bar very high for other provinces in terms of how to do a public consultation and decision-making process," says Larry Gordon, executive director of Fair Vote Canada.

"None of the other four have gone so far as to turn it over to the public entirely."

Proportional representation basically means that the popular vote in a given election reflects the number of seats the party will receive in the legislature. About 50 countries around the world use one of the many forms of this voting system.

Fair Vote Canada was established in 2000, after the federal election returned Jean Chretien's Liberals to Parliament with a sweeping majority. Its goal was to push a voting system that would more accurately represent the voters, proportional representation.

"The questions we tended to get were, well, this is a really interesting idea, but you don't think anybody would allow this to happen, do you?" Gordon says.

"Every government of any political stripe once they're in power tend to think that the voting system is just fine."

Layton favours the proportional representation system. If it had been used to determine the outcome of the latest federal election, his New Democrats would have received a whopping 47 seats.

When it looked like the NDP might form a coalition with a minority Liberal government, Layton had voting reform at the forefront of his demands for any deal. In the end, Paul Martin's Liberals went it alone and Layton's plans were shelved for the time being.

The B.C. initiative was started by Premier Gordon Campbell, who was at one point the most prominent victim of the current system. In the 1996 B.C. election, Campbell's Liberals captured the popular vote, but ended up with 33 seats, six less than the NDP who ended up controlling the house.

Campbell promised during his next campaign that he would form a citizen's group to look for a better system. When the Liberals were elected with 98 per cent of the province's seats, the new premier came through on his promise, slowly but surely.

"It went into cabinet for four months, and you can imagine that sitting around a cabinet table, people probably say, 'Half of us wouldn't be here if there was a fair voting system,' " Gordon says.

What's unclear is what type of proportional representation will be used.

In the Netherlands, 150 representatives are responsible for all regions of the nation. In Ireland, representatives are assigned districts. In some countries, candidates are voted in through primary processes, others are picked directly by the party leaders.

"We heard presentations recommending every possible system out there," says Marilyn Jacobson, a spokeswoman for the Citizen's Assembly.

"These presentations clearly point out the problems with all of the different voting systems out there, including proportional representation, so the assembly has a really hard job in front of them this fall."

None of the systems are infallible. In Korea, where the leaders of the party appoint people to the seats they win, the current Culture and Tourism Minister was accused of bribing politicians before the last general election to gain a spot on the party's proportional representation list.

In countries like Ireland, where parties distribute their members to certain districts, parties with fewer seats are forced to give their representatives much larger geographical areas, leaving some locations with an inadequate political voice.

"There are trade-offs," Jacobson says. "There's always a downside to every system you look at. You just have to decide which downside is the smallest."

In Quebec, all three parties are in favour of a proportional representation system. The Quebec Liberals say they will introduce legislation this calendar year.

There will be a referendum in P.E.I. sometime after Premier Pat Binns sets up an all-party committee to look at alternative voting systems. In New Brunswick, the Commission for Legislative Democracy will do the same and report back to Premier Bernard Lord before the end of the year.

The Ontario Liberals say a government committee will begin working in the fall to decide whether a new system should be implemented. If it recommends a change, the decision will be eventually be put to the people of the province.

The provinces might all end up moving in completely different directions when the committees finish debating and the voters have their say. And variety throughout the provinces could be just the ticket to translating the system to the federal level.

"Fair Vote Canada isn't stressing a specific proportional voting system for Canada," Gordon says. "We think people need to discuss the options so we can figure out what would be the Canadian approach to this."

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