Canada’s 41st Parliament with mixed-member proportional representation

A few days ago I posted an article on Senate reform, an issue that gets more attention and draws out more opinions than I expected. At the same time, fellow accountant/blogger Neal Jennings was writing his own post on Senate reform. Although we worked independently and used different methods, we came up with exactly the same numbers. That doesn’t mean that either of us can say that our hypothetical Senate is better, but it reinforces the idea that the Senate we have now fails to reflect the regions of Canada it is supposed to represent, and reform is needed.

Another reality is that the House of Commons fails to accurately represent the people of Canada. Many ideas have been proposed to make the ancient Westminster system that we use more reflective of a true democracy, which I wrote about in my last post, and once again I’m going to suggest reading Dave Meslin’s article on modern voting systems. Here, I’m going to describe an idea of a mixed-member proportional House of Commons for Canada.

What’s wrong with how we vote now? In Canada, we elect our Parliament in an indirect fashion. The country is divided into ridings, and citizens who live in each riding elect a single Member of Parliament to represent them in the House of Commons. It’s important that each riding elects a local representative, since the issues that affect one area are often much different than in other areas in a country as physically large as Canada.

However, over the history of the Westminster system and our own Parliament, the influence of particular individuals has given way to national political parties, so that in our democracy, much more emphasis is put on a candidate’s party affiliation than their own views, and local issues take a back seat to the whim of the party leaders. There’s not really anything wrong with that, in my opinion, because that gives a consistency of policy to candidates in every region of the country, and we are talking about a national governing body. In modern times, voters pay attention to parties much more than individuals, and debate in Parliament very closely follows party lines. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, because people know what to expect. But since we still technically elect local representatives and not national parties, representation in the House of Commons is very unbalanced. In Monday’s election, 39.6% of voters elected one party to 54.2% of the seats in the House.

This all leads to a number of strategic voting methodologies, where a person might prefer a strong national party with a weak local representative, but will vote for a stronger candidate from a less-preferred party so as to not elect another strong candidate from another less-preferred party. For example, a Conservative voter might vote New Democrat to prevent a Liberal being elected (don’t laugh, I know a few people who did this) and the parties actively promote this behaviour. This is bad for democracy, and leads to dishonest smear campaigns like we’ve seen in many elections in Canada.

In a mixed-member proportional representative (MMP) system, voters still elect local representatives, but the national results are adjusted so that the number of seats each party fills is proportional to their percentage of the national vote. In Canada, this could be done by having a number of members-at-large who fill additional seats to balance the proportions in the House of Commons. Some countries with MMP elections have voters cast two-vote ballots (one for a local candidate and one for a “list” candidate), but this has led to voter confusion. Instead, Canada could fill member-at-large seats from lists of candidates nominated by the parties.

Here’s a hypothetical formula for a MMP House of Commons, based on the results of Monday’s election. The Conservative party were elected to the highest number of seats, 167, with 39.6% of the national vote. To make that result proportional, enough seats are added to the House total to make 167 seats equal to 39.6% of the total. That number is 110, so there are a total of 418 seats (167 divided by 418 = 40.0%, close enough). The 110 “at-large” seats are divided between the other parties which earned enough of the vote for one seat (1/110 = 0.9%) so that their proportion of the total seats equals their proportion of the total votes. Here’s how it works out:

Party Elected Seats At-Large Seats Total Seats
Bloc Québecois 4 21 25
Conservative 167 0 167
Green 1 16 17
Liberal 34 46 80
New Democrat 102 27 129

Which makes each party’s proportion of seats reflect their portion of votes:

Party Total MMP Seats % of Elected Seats % of MMP Seats % of National Vote
Bloc Québecois 25 1.3% 6.0% 6.0%
Conservative 167 54.2% 39.6% 39.6%
Green 17 0.3% 3.9% 4.1%
Liberal 80 11.0% 18.9% 19.1%
New Democrat 129 33.1% 30.6% 30.9%

The proportions don’t match exactly because of the roughly 0.7% of votes that went to an array of smaller parties that wouldn’t have been elected under any democratic system, but otherwise the parties’ seats in the House of Commons represent the voters who voted for them. Sure, it sounds complicated, but the short version is that the people of Canada get the government that they vote for, and when it comes to the party totals in Parliament, everyone’s vote is equal right across the country. And the actual process is no more complicated for voters than our current system.

About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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  • Cmstlist

    Not such a fan of this approach to MMP which would require a massive increase in the number of MPs. Also to respect the Constitutional guarantees of seat counts, the at large members would still have to come from the provinces within the prescribed seat allotment formula.

    A compromise perhaps would be to enact MMP on a per-province basis, and keep the total seats equal to or only slightly greater than today. For example maybe 60 of Quebec’s seats would be geographic constituencies, and 15 would be proportionality top up seats. Ridings would end up somewhat larger too. This would however mean that smaller provinces only get one or two adjustment seats, and the national total would be more proportional than FPTP but not completely. But that’s the type of compromise that still has to be made due to the nature of Confederation.

    • Thanks for your comment! I thought about this when I was doing the math – this is the lowest number of additional seats that balances the Conservatives’ proportion. The only way I can think of to offset that is to make the elected ridings larger, then fewer seats would need to be balanced.

      I also thought about province-based proportionality, but I stuck with a single federal adjustment because it’s a federal election, after all, and I’m trying to make all votes equal when it comes to proportionality. There would be elected members representing specific areas, and members-at-large representing all voters. Besides, any reform of this sort is going to require an amendment to the Constitution anyway. We could amend the section guaranteeing seat counts to guarantee only the elected seats, and the at-large seats are not guaranteed to any specific region. The problem of regional oversight is better dealt with by the Senate anyway
      , which I talked about in my previous post.

      • CMS

        Still, I don’t think it would be wise to have federal MPs without any provincial affiliation at all. Just look at the word “federal” – we are a federation of colonies who each made certain demands about representation in order to be included in this country. And I don’t think the provinces would ever go along with federal MMP if they feel their representation is diluted by members who are not assigned to any province.

        • CMS: The experience of MMP in New Zealand is that the parties draw up their lists with clear regional balance – something there for everyone all around the country. Once elected, the list MPs open offices in the towns they come from – often just across the street from the “local” MP. People in that town or region end up with several MPs they can approach, one local and several from the lists of various parties. I know from experience you get little joy talking to an MP who doesn’t see the world your way. MMP can give you the opportunity (and the right) to talk to alternative MPs for your area who DO see the world your way. This brings some healthy competition between parties right down to local level – even street level. Each of these MPs is competing with the other to win your vote next time around. You just don’t get that with First Past the Post…which gives the local MP of whatever flavour a monopoly in their riding….and MPs from other ridings don’t want to know you.

          What I’ve always found fascinating is how many politicians who champion “market forces” do not want market forces to operate in politics. They want voters to have as little real choice as possible so they have the best chance of getting their votes. MMP introduces market forces into politics in a big way.

          • CMS

            The problem with putting “regional balance” on the lists is, how do you know which parts of the country will need top-up members more than others? In the last election the NDP did not at first expect to win in many Quebec constituencies. Under MMP they may have therefore chosen to put a big dose of Quebec reps on a national party list. Come election time, the NDP sweeps Quebec seats. Rationally, the party does not need any extra Quebec representation at this point (it actually has too much), but MMP will see votes from outside Quebec go towards electing Quebec-based party list members.

            As for the argument that proportionality should be applied nationally to correct for the seat assignment formula, I think it’s the wrong solution to the right problem. I agree the provincial distribution of seats is distorted, but to compensate for that with a national party list is a bit of a “back-door solution”. The provinces would balk. They were guaranteed a certain number of seats and any tinkering with that formula (including adding national seats) would most certainly mean the system never sees the light of day.

            And there’s the provincial alienation argument too: If you live in Alberta and your province deserves some Liberal, NDP and Green representation, you may not see MMP representatives as legitimate enough because those Alberta votes have been thrown into a big national melting pot. If Albertans can connect their provincial votes directly to the election of these list members, they will have a lot more trust.

            I’ve never been to New Zealand but I know that they have a significantly smaller landmass. I also don’t know much about their history but I think it must be significantly different from the aspect of Canada that involved individual provinces coming into Confederation one at a time. I think the dynamics of national party lists just wouldn’t work in Canada.

    • Any federal proportional system in Canada should be applied nationally. Otherwise, votes aren’t equal everywhere. One of Canada’s problems is the value of a vote varies far too much depending on where one lives. It amounts to a gerrymander.

      Reform the senate and let it give too much weight to places where few people live. The House of Commons shouldn’t do that.

  • @CMS:disqus @google-5f60928afd69d00b642c2b43a7b64c3b:disqus I mean this as an illustration, not so much an actual proposal. There are lots of problems with MMP in a federation like Canada, like you’ve pointed out. No system will be perfect, but almost any system will be better than our current system. Since we have neither uniform geographic divisions nor uniform population distribution, trying to make one national house represent both the national vote and regional preferences would be complicated at best, and is likely to result in something not unlike what we have now. We should have one house that represents the popular vote and one that represents geographic differences; instead we have the Senate stacked with appointees of Prime Ministers over the last 30 years or so, and the House of Commons that represents a mish-mash of local preferences, but neither reflects the national vote.

    My opinion is that the House of Commons should be the body that reflects all of the voters of Canada equally. That is, if you take all of the votes from across the country and put them in one big box, and then count them all, you get the same result no matter where those votes came from. Or in other words, every vote cast has the same influence on the government. MMP doesn’t accomplish that directly but adjusts the result so that we get close, at least in terms of seats in the House. Maybe we put restrictions on the members-at-large, such as no Cabinet appointments or introduction of new bills. It’s just an idea.

    If we insist that the House of Commons should reflect regional preferences over national results, then why don’t we do away with federal elections altogether? Our current national elections don’t give us a national result anyway. We can fill the House of Commons seats from each province based on the proportions from provincial legislatures, and save a whole lot of money on these “unnecessary elections.”

    • CMS

      What’s interesting, though, is that if each province’s seats are represented internally by proportion to popular vote, then even the regional distortions of our seat allocation formula don’t end up causing us to deviate all that far from true proportionality. The distortions of FPTP carry a much higher contribution to how our national result deviates from vote proportions.

      As for having the provinces mirror the provincial legislatures, a not-too-small detail is that we don’t have the same political parties provincially 😉

  • Anonymous

    I just came across this interesting post.

    If you want to introduce MMP without any constitutional amendments or increase in MPs, you simply implement the 2004 recommendation of the Law Commission of Canada. It was under discussion in Parliament in 2005 until the 2006 election stopped that. It is a model that was never rejected in any referendum. Instead of the closed province-wide list component that Ontario voters didn’t like in 2007, it had top-up MPs elected from regional open lists: