The Calgary Herald on Friday 20 March 2015 carried two interesting articles. Peter Bowal in ‘Fixed Election Dates Matter until They Don’t’, p. A25, effectively uses the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) own words to emphasize the lack of need for an ‘early’ (pre-2016) general election. James Wood, in ‘Voters Will Need a Scorecard to Keep Track of All the Players’, p. A6, points out the present chaotic situation as want-to-be MLA’s play musical (party) chairs, changing horses mid-stream and jockeying for a good starting position to be first past the post in the race to the legislature. In the following paragraphs I argue it is unnecessary and even immoral for Alberta to hold a general election soon and that it is time for Alberta to discard the antiquated and irrelevant colonial first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system in favour of proportional representation (PR).
In the October 27, 2014 by-elections the PCs won all four seats but with only 44% of the popular vote; 56% of the votes cast elected no-one; in effect they were ‘wasted’. More than 60% of voters stayed away from the polls, probably believing their votes wouldn’t mean much. Gordon Dirks claimed his Calgary-Elbow seat with 33% of the popular vote (meaning 67% of the voters who did show up to vote chose someone else). Premier Jim Prentice was the sole candidate to win with an ‘absolute’ majority of 58% (meaning 42% of the Calgary-Foothills electorate cast ‘wasted’ votes which did not help to elect anyone; and only 36% of the Calgary-Foothills electorate chose to show up and vote).
In the last three provincial general elections the PCs obtained (on average) 48% of the popular vote even though electing on average 65 (77%) members of the legislature. These distorted results are inevitable when we use the present plurality or FPTP electoral system, suited only for two-candidate or two-party elections. There were in total nine political parties (in the last three elections) and usually four or five candidates in each electoral district. FPTP favours the party in power while ‘splitting’ opposition votes, giving the winner an unfair and undemocratic advantage.
Alberta has a reputation of being very Conservative, both federally and provincially; this is obviously false when one examines the popular vote, as the majority of Albertans who chose to vote in the last three general elections and the October by-elections voted for someone other than a PC candidate. However we don’t know how those who chose not to vote might have voted if they knew their votes would help to elect a person or political party they wanted to see in the legislature.
Even under the present flawed, undemocratic system the PCs have a legal ‘right’ – even a moral obligation, under the 2011 Election Amendment Act – to stay in office until Spring 2016. To call an early general election would be a contemptuous snub to the principles enacted in the PCs’ own legislation, even if there are ‘weasel words’ in subsection 1 which allow the Premier of the day to revert to the call-an-election-when-you-want system. The Election Amendment Act in subsection 2 sought to replace ‘at the call of the premier’.
The PCs now hold (after floor-crossings) 70 of 87 seats so they have a comfortable, albeit false, majority with which to hold on to power. To now dissolve the legislature and call a general election would be a blatant, extravagant waste of the taxpayers’ money at a time of diminished government revenue and supposed restraint. The 2012 General Election cost the Province $13,631,864 or $5.57 per elector, which was 27% more than the 2008 general election. Surely squandering perhaps $17 million on a ‘vanity’ election cannot be justified?
It is time now to start a serious and meaningful conversation about introducing a PR system, which 70% of Canadians want*, so that from 2020 (at the latest), representation in the legislature reflects the popular vote across the province. If the 2012 legislature reflected the popular vote, we could have had nine MLAs from each of the Liberal and New Democratic Parties and one Alberta Party MLA. Most interesting of all, there could have been 30 Wild Rose and 38 Progressive Conservative MLAs, which might have morphed into 19 Wild Rose and 49 PCs in December last year when several Wild Rose MLAs crossed the floor of the legislature. The PCs might still have formed a minority government in 2012, becoming a majority in 2014, but (under PR) at least the rest of the voters would be confident their votes had not been wasted in electing no-one.
The estimate above takes no account of those who chose not to vote (47% of the electorate in 2012), and those (undetermined) who voted strategically. Under a well-designed PR system, about 95% of votes are counted toward electing someone so there is an incentive for an elector to actually get out and vote. In countries using PR, turnout is usually about 7.5% more than under our present system. The ‘need’ to vote strategically is eliminated, since every vote counts toward electing someone the elector wants to see elected. PR also encourages people to run for elected office, so there is a likelihood that the legislature might better reflect the make-up of the population.
What sort of PR system should be adopted? That should only be selected in a referendum after an open, comprehensive, well-informed and public dialogue among all the voters. Politicians should not have the final say in which system is to be adopted, as they have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo (as was borne out in the BC referenda, where the politicians in power demanded a 60% super-majority to change the system – while allowing themselves to be elected with less than a simple majority!) Of the many systems available (and any PR system is better than any FPTP or preferential vote system) certain systems stand out:
✓ Mixed Member Proportional was recommended for Canada as a whole by the Law Commission of Canada in 2004, and is the system used in Germany, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales. In the Canadian context, electoral districts could be larger and fewer than we have now, and an overlying layer of regional or party votes would be added to produce a legislature or parliament much the same size at present. Electors would have two votes – one for the direct election of an MLA, as now, and another regional or party open list vote which would be used to adjust the proportion of the seats in the legislature to match the popular vote.
✓ Single Transferable Vote is used in Ireland and Malta, the Australian Federal Senate, and for municipal elections in Scotland. “STV uses multi-member districts and voters rank candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper . . . voters are not required to rank-order all candidates” (Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook, 2004, p. 71). This system produces a high degree of proportionality but can be complex to administer.
✓ ‘Pure’ or List Proportional Representation is a system in which each participant party or grouping presents a list of candidates for an electoral district, electors vote for a party, and parties receive seats in proportion to their overall share of the vote. Winning candidates are taken from party-provided lists which may be closed (party-selected candidates) or open (elector-selected candidates) Usually a threshold of (say) 5% of the votes may be required to secure a seat in the legislature. A problem with List PR is that the link of a representative to a specific district may be lost. List PR has been used successfully in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, and is the most common type of PR used world-wide. However, so far as I know, no-one has recommended its use in Canada or the provinces.
Additional information – web sites: