Skip to content

COLUMN: The great democracy debate

Columnist ML Burke casts her vote for proportional representation as a replacement for our current first-past-the-post electoral system.
Ballot for the riding of Calgary West in the 2008 federal election in Canada.

In his book Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky wrote, “Inequality is killing the American dream.” It strikes me that he’s right – the gap between the rich and not only the poor, but the middle class as well, is widening at an alarming rate.

Which begs the question: is our current democratic process failing the people it serves?

Justin Trudeau recently abandoned his flagship promise to make every vote count and reform our broken first-past-the-post system. His government’s survey asking Canadians what they wanted was so biased that the status quo was implied to be the best way to go forward. I guess he likes the power that goes with a majority government.

The different options are confusing, but we need to understand them to make an informed choice. Our current system is based on the British parliamentary model. It’s not perfect but at least it is consistent across the country.

I was surprised to learn that in the United States, each state determines its own voting rules. For example, in Oregon, they vote by mailing in their ballots. Some states, especially in the south, have made it so difficult for marginalized groups to vote that many have given up, resulting unfairly in what appears to be apathy or a lack of interest.

A party in Canada needs to have four elected members in order to be officially recognized. Elizabeth May, the only federally-elected Green Party member, is more like an independent MP, which as Vicki Huntington, Delta South’s independent provincial MLA, can attest, has its limitations.

Voter turnout in our 2015 federal election was 61.4 per cent, the highest in 20 years. Australia’s turnout is around 98 per cent, largely because they made it mandatory to vote. Non-voters can be fined up to $170 or sentenced to community service. Those choosing not to vote can simply spoil their ballot by leaving it blank, which 6 per cent did in their last election. Even so, that still means 92 per cent of Australians cast a legitimate ballot, which is impressive.

Australia, like many European countries, uses a form of proportional representation with a ranked voting system. Proportional representation, for those who don’t know, is “A method of voting by which political parties are given legislative representation in proportion to their popular vote.” Australian candidates need to receive at least 5 per cent of the vote to be elected, which protects against jokesters interfering with the serious business of governance.

I am now convinced that mandatory voting and proportional representation is probably the fairest way to go. Some argue that too many parties can slow down the decision-making process, but that would be offset by the parties having to calmly debate the issues rather than have decisions dictated to them by a ruling party.

Imagine if our contentious question periods, full of shouting and desk banging, were instead moderated debates where all the parties get to present their arguments in a manner that everyone can understand. Picture our representatives voting according to their constituents’ wishes instead of along party lines. It’s not only fair, it’s civilized.

Until we start teaching civics in our schools our young people won’t understand the value and privilege of being able to vote or that every vote really can count. Twenty-four per cent of Canadians cannot name our head of state. (The answer is Queen Elizabeth II.) Currently, Ontario is the only province that teaches civics as part of its curriculum.

ML Burke retired from the health sector to work on issues such as affordable housing. She sits on the Delta Seniors Planning Team and the BC Seniors Advocate’s Council of Advisors.