A recent flurry of concern in the media about the irrelevance for most Canadians of what happens in Parliament has brought the only possible response from Ed Broadbent, former leader of the NDP.
He pointed out that most Canadian voters have been disenfranchised by the workings of our antiquated and undemocratic electoral system. He says that in no other country could a party with 38% of the popular vote trumpet itself as being representative of the majority, as Stephen Harper and his Conservatives do.
Broadbent could have given more examples. For instance, when Pierre Trudeau was in power his Liberal Party had only one seat west of Manitoba. But still, they had about 25% of the votes, which meant that one out of every four electors in western Canada had no one to represent them or their political views.
Similarly, before the Parti Québécois was elected in Quebec it persistently won a good quarter of all votes cast, yet only five or six seats, a mere fraction of what they were entitled to. As Broadbent points out, in the last federal election the Green Party won a million votes without being rewarded by a single seat in Parliament.
This gives me a chance to trot out a story I’ve told many times, concerning Sweden. In 1964, Tage Erlander, Prime Minister of Sweden, visited Britain to deliver a fraternal address to the annual conference of the newly elected British Labour Party. Harold Wilson had won a majority of four in a House of Commons with more than 600 members. Erlander’s first words were, “I want to congratulate you on your immense majority.” For 18 years he had been Prime Minister of Sweden and never once did he have a majority, he said.
That was one of the most interesting comments on Western democratic socialism, and on Western political systems that I ever heard. Although Erlander had governed with the support of the Centre party during all those years, he had managed to create a left-leaning consensus that made Sweden one of the best-governed and most successful countries in the modern world.
The growing complexities during those years of the modern economy and society, for example, the growth of cities, the entry of more women in the labour force, the emergence of two-income households, had created many areas that needed state intervention, and in all of them Sweden pioneered, under Erlander’s leadership.
The creation of this sophisticated welfare state relied on public support, which could only be garnered if the population was carried along by the political leaders. In almost every field of social legislation – prison reform, family support, holidays, urban development, education – as well as in the fields of culture, design and the arts, Sweden was ahead of the world, and more than able to compete with anybody.
This depended on a strong sense among the people that their political views were represented in the nation’s political discourse. Only a system guaranteeing that every strand of political opinion has its place in the political discourse can create the kind of consensus needed for this kind of marvelous change. And only proportional representation can guarantee that result.
It’s a mystery why Canada, Great Britain and the U.S. remain virtually the only countries on earth that have resisted proportional representation. We have surely had enough experience to know that our present system is unrepresentative and undemocratic. And yet, the political leaders in office, when they have flirted with proportional systems, have put them to the people – as they did recently in Ontario – in a half-hearted and unconvincing fashion that has practically guaranteed their defeat.
There is now a large body of opinion in Canada favouring proportional representation in an organization called Fair Vote Canada, and I urge everyone who cares about the nature of our system to either join, or to follow this organization’s actions in future.
Just as, in our society, every point-of-view should be represented in Parliament according to its weight within society.
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