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From the archives: A (Good) case is made for Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

I originally posted this at BlogsCanada in May 2005. The subject of my posting was the Globe and Mail had published a series of articles on the failings of our current First-Past-The-Post electoral system, and then to my complete surprise and utter joy had endorsed Mixed-Member PR and published a model they felt would address the current regional inequalities they see in our present system, but still maintain the ability to have a stable strong federal government. That of course means their system did not automatically mean constant minority governments – a criticism that many have of PR. The Globe’s main point of supporting their particular model was for that exact reason:

Many proponents of electoral reform are looking not just for greater proportionality but for cultural change. They prefer minority governments, believing they will promote coalitions and consensus-building and thereby introduce more representativeness and civility into legislatures. While civility would be a welcome development, we prefer a system that, while more proportional, still allows for strong governments led by coherent parties

(At the time of my writing, I was paraphrasing the Globe’s articles, because they were behind a copyright wall. I have acquired those articles since this posting and as I have offered many times will gladly forward and attach the original articles to anyone who wants to see the more specific details of the article then what my original paraphrase was talking about.)

I’ve decided to re-post this article now, because PR seems to (finally) be getting discussed more and more by other Liberal blogs then just myself and Greg Morrow (of, and I figure while the iron is hot, I’m going to be talking about it and continue to advocate it as a proposal that the Liberal Party should embrace.

Here follows my original post at BlogsCanada, with the points I made about the Globe’s system still relevant for me today. I’ve added some comments or additions where relevant and those will be in italics.

May 7,2005

In its Friday editorial, (which I am paraphrasing since I dont have a paid subscription – I read this in the actual paper), the Globe explained why it was advocating reforms to the current system we have in Canada: while the FPTP (First Past The Post) setup has served Canada well and is not a “disaster”, it argues that it has placed too much power in the hands of party leaders, and that in today’s Canadian society, Canada needs an electoral system where accountability would be increased. The other reason argued was because we are a nation of regional fragility, having a system more reflective of the voting population would be an improvement to what we currently have.

Lets take a look at the “mixed-member” PR system of government the Globe is advocating. To be brief, how (the Globe’s model) Mixed-Member PR would work is that 2/3 of the current seats in the House of Commons would still be determined by the present FPTP system. The remaining 1/3 of the seats would be distributed to the parties according to the popular vote, provided they had received a minimum of 5% of the popular riding votes within a region of Canada. This is important: it looks at how parties do in regions of the country – not just nationally.

Therefore, even though the Green Party only received 4.3% of the national popular vote in Canada in 2004, it would have received a seat because of its 6.4% showing in BC. (Here, I think the Globe made a slight error, because according to that formula, the Greens should also be receiving a seat from their 6.1% showing in Alberta – a minor oversight, but you get the point of their system).

The Globe argues that with this proposed setup, it would produce election results more representative of both national and regional voter sentiment, but also still allow for strong governments that could make tough decisions. One of the arguments against classical PR has been that it would be a formula for permanent minority government (which some might argue isn’t a bad thing, but thats a totally different topic) but according to the Globe, that isn’t the case with the mixed-member PR it advocates. The 2004 general election would have been a minority government under either the current setup or the proposed one, but the Globe points out that in the past 3 elections prior to 2004, only 1 of the 3 elections (the 1997 one) would have resulted in a minority government rather then a majority if (their version of) mixed-member PR had been the voting system. However, the majorities of the Liberals would have been slightly reduced and there would have been a more accurate representation of Canadian popular will.

Let’s Look at the 1993 General Election where the old Progressive Conservatives were wiped out to a mere 2 seats. Under the current system, the 1993 Election results were as follows:

Lib 177, BQ 54, Reform 52, NDP 9, PC 2, Ind. 1

Under the proposed mixed-member system, the 1993 election results according to the Globe would have been as follows:

Lib 161, Reform 53, BQ 48, PC 20, NDP 12, Ind. 1

The Liberals would still have had their majority, but the system would have been much fairer to the PC’s, whose supporters were more or less disenfranchised/penalized by the FPTP system (The Reform Party received 52 seats based on 18.7% of the Pop Vote and 2.5 million votes, while the PC’s received only 2 seats based on 16% of the Pop vote and 2.1 million votes).

I have myself looked briefly at the 1988 and 1984 general elections and have come to the same conclusion that the (Globe’s) mixed-member system would not have resulted in weak minority governments but would have been a better reflection of the voting publics desires.

I have to say that the Globe has really surprised and pleased me this week with the analysis of PR and its subsequent support of this mixed member system. (It also has called for additional parliamentary reforms, such as a mechanism similar to what they have in Britain to allow MP’s unhappy with their leader to be able to trigger a leadership review) If I didnt know any better, I would have thought I was reading the NDP party platform on PR, or perhaps reading a column from one of the idealistic columnists that the Toronto Star has.

In any event, after reading these editorials and seeing what the Globe endorses and seeing the explanation of how it would work, and the defending of the soundness behind it, I would like to give my ringing endorsement to the Globe’s proposal for Mixed-Member Proportional representation. I would hope that other “progressive” people do as well, and other people of moderate and reasonable thought. It is going to be virtually impossible to reform the Senate with the stringent rules in the Constitution for doing so, so we might as well reform the lower House to try and address specific voting grievances and concerns.

(Addenum to this – some contend that party leaders would still have too much power in their hands by being able to draw up who would be on the party lists for regional MP’s, but the Globe contends otherwise as you will see:

the system would draw on regional lists decided through party primaries… MPs chosen through proportionality would represent a regional political base and would have had to win approval by party members…Moreover, these “proportional” MPs would also have to face the voting public, albeit by region rather than by riding.


21 comments to From the archives: A (Good) case is made for Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

  • Greg does good work, but he is definitely not the ultimate PR geek. That honour goes to my friend Wilf Day or maybe you know a published academic in the field, say Dr. Dennis Pilon from U Vic, Andre Blais from UQaM, but I digress …

    And just because the Globe says something it’s true, what!? Do a little bit of research on electoral systems and you’ll surely see the aforementioned distinction between mixed-member proportional and parallel systems. It’s not trivial and has real effects on the political system.

    I’ll now explain why getting behind the Globe’s proposal for a parallel electoral system is a bad idea for the Liberals, although in your last comment, you do a pretty good job of illustrating that yourself.

    I presume you’d agree with me that anytime a party is proposing a policy in a particular area, it is preferable to receive the support of the prominent civil society organizations working in that area. If the Liberals started pushing a Globe-style parallel system, they would not garner any support from electoral reformers, like Fair Vote. Why? Because it’s a not a PR system.

    If the goal of the policy is to reverse the public sentiment that the Liberals are power-hungry, I don’t think calling for a modest electoral reform would do that. Fair Vote would criticize it, the NDP certainly would and, if they has strategic sense, so would the Greens. A Liberal call for mixed-member parallel would be (and be seen as) a cynical attempt to jump on the electoral reform bandwagon, without meeting the demands of electoral reformers. Not a good way to revitalize the image of the natural governing party.

    After all, if the goal of the Libs talking PR is to make them seem principled, it might help if they you know, grounded the policy in principles. As far as I can tell, there are little to no principled reasons to call for parallel systems. In most countries that have them they were brought in to mitigate fair representation. On the other hand if the Liberals were to embrace PR, they could wrap themselves in the principles of voter equality, legitimate majority rule and cooperative government.

    Finally, if you think that Liberals won’t support PR, I don’t think you’ve talked to enough of them, especially those in the Prairies. On that, why should Western Liberals settle for getting less than their fair share of seats (as in the Globe proposal), just so Ontario Liberals can remain overrepresented?

    And if this makes me a PR purist, guilty as charged. Although I think democrat is MUCH more accurate.

  • Well.. I’ll wait till the ultimate PR geek, Greg Morrow confirms your and ALex’s account.. till then.. I’ll call it what the GLobe calls it šŸ˜‰

    I see no compelling bad reason for the Liberals not to get behind this. Mark, other then for selfish electoral reasons knowing the current system has been their electoral cow to milk for the past 120 years. There is natural resistance to change when you’re used to getting elected all the time.. but as I’ve argued… that has changed… and we need an issue to show people we have changed as a party and are prepared to support innovative thinking on electoral reform… and make the argument this is the way to go about it rather then some half-cocked sort of reform of the Senate as Harper is doing (which is nevertheless still pretty popular out there amongst the public if you believe polls – 65% I believe was the # supporting this – thats why we cant be spinning our wheels on this and protesting – it makes the party look elitist and not over its culture of attitude of expecting to be always elected).

    If you’re going at it from the stance of a PR purist, The purists of PR can cry about this all they want.. but unless you show some compromise, you’re never going to get the current system changed unless a major party goes for it… and in this case.. I believe this setup offers the compromise.

  • Scott, thanks for sending me those Globe editorials.

    Sorry to burst your bubble though, Alex is dead on. The Globe was calling for what electoral systems geeks like myself call mixed-member majoritarian or a parallel system. It is most definitely NOT MMP, as in mixed-member proportional.

    It’s late, so I’ll be back tomorrow with why it would be bad for the Liberals to get behind the Globe’s proposal.

  • [quote post=”294″]One of the arguments against classical PR has been that it would be a formula for permanent minority government (which some might argue isnā€™t a bad thing, but thats a totally different topic) but according to the Globe, that isnā€™t the case with the mixed-member PR it advocates.[/quote]

    This suggests that the Globe is advocating parallel vote, but calling it something else. The parallel vote is NOT fully proportional, but only partially; it favors large parties while allowing small parties a few seats (that are not proportional to their actual vote total). The difference is from the party list seats: In a parallel system, a party taking 25% of the vote is entitled only to 25% of the LIST seats (1/3 of the total seats under this proposal); in an MMP system, a party taking 25% of the vote is entitled to 25% of ALL seats, and list seats are assigned accordingly, taking into account the parties that won in individual ridings. Morrow’s system for Ontario is unquestionably the latter (MMP).

    The difference in practice is that the parallel vote is essentially mitigated FPP (it depends on how many seats are in ridings and how many are from the list). It still overrepresents the major parties or parties that are strong in one particular region, just not quite as much, and it lets the (relatively) small parties have a greater say, but not one that matches the actual size of their support. MMP, on the other hand, is fully proportional and as a result the distribution of seats reflects the votes cast. It almost always results in coalition or minority governments, as it is rare for a party to actually take a majority of the popular vote (in Canada, as you know, this hasn’t happened since 1984). The results that the Globe’s methodology produces are NOT proportional, either provincially or nationally.

    Whether these effects are desirable is a totally different question. Idealistic Pragmatist has many good posts on this question.

    I’d love to have the article itself, because that’s the only way to know for sure–you can forward it to the email address I use on this post.

  • Mark Watton claimed:

    [quote post=”294″]Voting by province or region means theyā€™ll all come from major media centresā€¦ But Iā€™ll reserve my comments till I read the rest of what youā€™ve sent. Cheers.[/quote]

    Not true Mark. (about coming from major media centres), or at least, not under this model as I understand it.

    If you’re making the presumption that the politicians would try to do that when they were making the different regions within each province.. that’s a whole different kettle of fish… thats not the same as claiming the model forces one to do that – it doesn’t

  • BTW – when I questioned the legtimacy of such a change I didn’t mean its constitutionality.

    Voting by province or region means they’ll all come from major media centres… But I’ll reserve my comments till I read the rest of what you’ve sent. Cheers.

  • Mark asked:
    [quote comment=”2240″]Alex – with no constituents, who holds these “other” MPs accountable?[/quote]

    I dont know about Alex’s setup.. but the Globe’s model (I’m still calling it Mixed Member despite Alex’s assertions otherwise — as I said.. it appears to me to be identical to Greg Morrow’s proposal) has constituents Mark – regionally.

    Read the addendum again Mark at the end of my article:

    …the system would draw on regional lists decided through party primariesā€¦ MPs chosen through proportionality would represent a regional political base and would have had to win approval by party membersā€¦Moreover, these ā€œproportionalā€ MPs would also have to face the voting public, albeit by region rather than by riding

    If in the MM-PR model, Alberta voters gave 13% of the POP vote to the Liberals, and thus gave them that share of the MMPR seats.. thats the constituency they’d represent.. and if the Alberta voters didnt like what the Liberals had done.. in the next election, not voting for them reduces not only the likelihood of them winning FPTP seats (which is nil at the present) but would reduce their share of any MM-PR seats – down to 0 if less then 5% of them decided to vote Liberal.

    SO.. they DO represent a constituency and they do represent voters (and when I state “regions” – at least in my model.. you can take that to mean “provinces” as that’s what the Globe model is based on: the voting percentage in each province is used to determine the # of MM-PR seats assigned to each province in this setup).

  • excuse the typos. it’s late.

  • Alex – with no consituents, who holds these “other” MPs accountbale?

  • Alex said:
    [quote post=”294″]the 1993 Election results were as follows:

    Lib 177, BQ 54, Reform 52, NDP 9, PC 2, Ind. 1

    Under the proposed mixed-member system, the 1993 election results according to the Globe would have been as follows:

    Lib 161, Reform 53, BQ 48, PC 20, NDP 12, Ind. 1

    Now look at the vote percentages from 1993:
    Liberal 41.3%, Reform 18.7%, BQ 13.5%, PC 16.0%, NDP 6.9%[/quote]

    Alex, whatever system I might be describing, you’re making an erroneous assumption that the seats being distributed are thorough total vote percentages across Canada, which is what you’ve listed here in your statement. They are not – this model looks at what each party gets in each province to determine the additional MMP seats.

    Therefore, under the Globe’s system, even though the Green Party only got 4.3 % of the national popular vote across Canada in 2004, they would have gotten 1 seat each in BC and in Alberta (though as I noted, the Globe erroneously omitted the Alberta part) because they got 6% of the popular vote in those provinces – above the 5% threshold.)

    I repeat that the national Popular vote has nothing to do with it. The Globe’s idea is not only to get national results more tuned to the voting public, but within those regions of Canada that might feel aggrieved. For instance, in 1988 the Reform Party only got 2% of the national vote but got upwards of 17% of the Alberta vote, and thus would have been represented in Parliament in Alberta’s “regional” share of the Globe’s system and a fairly good contingent at that.

    Take another look at what Greg Morrow has planned (and I’ll be posting the proposal he sent to the Ontario Study Group sometime later). His system looks to me to be almost a copy of what the Globe proposed – except on a provincial scale rather then federally. He probably will be stopping by later to comment.. so he can dispute or confirm that.. but I didnt see much difference to his system over the Globe’s.

  • Scott,

    I don’t believe this proposal is MMP, or fully PR. This proposal is an example of the parallel vote. The difference is that the results of the ridings do not affect the proportional distribution of the remaining 1/3 of seats, as they would in MMP.

    [quote post=”294″]the 1993 Election results were as follows:

    Lib 177, BQ 54, Reform 52, NDP 9, PC 2, Ind. 1

    Under the proposed mixed-member system, the 1993 election results according to the Globe would have been as follows:

    Lib 161, Reform 53, BQ 48, PC 20, NDP 12, Ind. 1[/quote]

    Now look at the vote percentages from 1993:
    Liberal 41.3%, Reform 18.7%, BQ 13.5%, PC 16.0%, NDP 6.9%

    Under an MMP (compensatory) system, the 1/3 of seats on lists would be distributed TAKING INTO ACCOUNT THE RIDING SEATS. Therefore, the Libs wouldn’t get many list seats, since they won a disproportional share of riding seats, and would end up somewhere around 41% of TOTAL seats. The system you describe appears to be parallel (aka mixed-member majoritarian “MMM”)–the list seats are distributed by percentage without taking into account the riding results. Therefore, Reform is still far ahead of PC despite a similar vote percentage, because the system is still 2/3 first-past-the-post.

    Greg Morrow’s proposal for Ontario at DemocraticSPACE is MMP, NOT parallel.

  • I’d love to see those Globe articles Scott. Then I could comment more intelligently.

    Good to see a Liberal sympathetic to PR though, they’re far too rare.

  • [quote comment=”2233″]”The House of Commons voting reforms if they took place does not involve opening up the Constitution – and only need a majority vote to pass.”

    You think overhauling a 140 year old voting system is legitimized by a simple majority in the House?[/quote]

    I know so.. look up your constitutional law Mark.. that’s all that’s required. If a government wanted to hold a referendum or something to make sure everyone liked it.. they could do so.. but in reality.. all that would need to be done is a simple majority vote in the House of Commons

  • If there is a 5% voting minimum, radical parties wont get in. How often have the Christian Heritage Party or the Marijuana Party got near 5% of the popular vote – even in a specific province of Canada?? Never. The Greens have just managed that feat (and barely with 6% in Alta and BC) in 2004.. which would have netted them 2 seats under the GLobe model… and they wouldnt have held the balance of power.

    And as I already said to you, this particular Mixed-member model PR system does not guarantee permanent minorities.. it in fact to me appears that majorities are just slightly less likely to occur as under the present setup. Therefore.. even if under an unlikely scenario that said “radical parties” did somehow get 5% of the popular vote in a province of Canada (which I call “regions” which you seem to be looking at with a sinister gaze.. and I don’t see the reason for it) they more likely then not would not be influencing any coalitions.. because there likely would be none to influence. (Of the 5 elections that had majority governments under the current FPTP system back to 1984.. only 1997 would have been turned into a minority government. 4 out of 5 votes would have stayed a majority.. no coalition governments there, Mark).

    That radical party stuff is another excuse I hear from those fearful of PR.. and I reject it as an argument – particularly under this format of Mixed Member PR.

  • “The House of Commons voting reforms if they took place does not involve opening up the Constitution – and only need a majority vote to pass.”

    You think overhauling a 140 year old voting system is legitimized by a simple majority in the House?

  • Last point – but one day you and I will have a fun and meaningful debate on this issue:

    PR systems are an open invitation to radical elements to organize themselves under the legitimate guise of political parties. The rise of ultra-right wing parties in several European Countries – and their acceptance into Parliaments and even Coalition governments has been a necessary byproduct of Proportional Representation.

    Undoubtedly a FPTP system helps the traditional parties, not because they manipulate it, but because they are a venue for reason and compromise. They emerge as voters’ “least worst” options. Maybe that sounds uninspiring. Maybe it is uninspiring. But on the balance of 140 years of history, I think we’ve done ok by it.

  • The Senate cannot be reformed without opening up the Constitution. That opens up a whole can of worms that I’d rather not see. The House of Commons voting reforms if they took place does not involve opening up the Constitution – and only needs a majority vote in said House to pass. That is what we should be focusing on… not the potential nightmare of the re-opening of the Constitution (or at best.. looking at most likely a failure to agree on the reforms because of the overwhelming majority needed from the provinces to ratify said changes).

    I also am leery of having 2 elected bodies fighting for legitimacy between each other as being the representative of the popular will.. I do not want gridlock here. I would rather leave the Senate in its current form or abolish it then have that happen.

  • I don’t disagree whatsoever with your (or Morrow’s) diagnosis. The Alberta example is a perfect illustration. I just fear that your prescription is just as bad.

    My concern about PR is not based on being a right wing establishment liberal hack. (right wing? come on… me?) It’s based on coming from a riding in which representing the local community is fundamentally more important than the party stripe of its member. It comes form watching government after government and cabinet after cabinet of all party stripes be entirely dominated by urban interests, at the expense of rural voices. It is based on the fact that 99% of the media coverage my neighbours read is written elsewhere, 99% of what they hear is spoken elsewhere, and 100% of what they watch is performed elsewhere. Parliament, in theory, remains the last institution in our country where they may have an equal chance to be represented. The CBC, Canada Post, the railway, all of these other fine institutions that many of you take for granted have abandoned these folks long ago.

    On a side note – If the last set of major electoral reform had one Achilles heel, it’s that it entrenched a gigantic legal role for political parties in the process that they never had before. Franky, I am surprised this has never been the basis for a constitutional challenge, but I digress… The point is – empowering centralized party leadership even further (as any PR system does) only makes this problem worse.

    That being said, a PR system as the basis for a renewed and elected Senate would fit absolutely with the spirit of the framers of our Constitution. And I would support it.

    I look forward to seeing the Ontario model, but remember – Ontario is not a federation, so applying this kind of system to a provincial legislature is a whole different kettle of fish.

  • I completely disagree Mark that this system fractures us… if anything.. it addresses the regional inequalities we have now. Think of that percentage of Liberals in Alberta whose voice never gets heard and is disenfranchised from the FPTP system. Liberals may be scarce in Alberta right now.. but they certainly would get more then 5% of the vote. The model of MM_PR would address that. That doesnt to me seem to be a “fracture”.. This is addressing an inequality. The same could be said for the NDP in Quebec or the Greens.

    You’re also placing far too much emphasis on the “group” and the “region”. I’ll be showing later this week a model of Mixed-member PR that Gregory Morrow drew up for the Ontario group that is meeting to decide on electoral reforms for Ontario.. and is advocating a Mixed Member system by the sounds of it (though I’m not sure yet whether its based on Greg’s exact model).. but its not as hard not as “scary” as you make it out to be.

    I was going to save this for another posting I was going to do.. but since you’ve brought this argument up.. I’ll address it now. Quite frankly.. if you’re talking about what the supposed standard proponents of PR represent, then I’ll tell you who I find the most vocal opponents of PR represent. They inevitably in my experience tend to be establishment/right-wing Liberals who are afraid of anything that might mess with the formula that has allowed them to be the Natural Governing Party the past 120 years. In fact.. I agree with Gregory Morrow’s assessment that the current system causes the very fractures you mention:

    our electoral system forces parties to concentrate their efforts in some regions, while ignoring others. Look at the CPC today — they know that people in Alberta and Anglo rural areas will vote for them regardless and people in urban areas won’t regardless. So, they’ve concentrated all of their policies towards winning votes in rural Quebec and suburban Ontario. Urban issues are ignored completely (and just like the liberals, particularly the ontario liberal party, are out of touch with much of the concerns of rural ontario, particularly among farmers). So, all parties play region against region.

  • The problem with PR, in any incarnation, is that it over-rides the basic fact that our country is a federation, and that the brokerage that happens in the House of Commons (in theory, but not necessarily in practice) occurs between 308 equally-represented local constituencies.

    I am not saying that the status quo is ideal, I am only suggesting that every model of PR I have seen proposed overlooks this issue. It is no coincidence that the most vocal proponents for PR are usually (a) urban voters who are (b) sympathetic to “left” or “right” political sides of the spectrum and (c) far more attached to interest groups or causes than to any mainstream political parties.

    In short, they are people who fundametnally believe that the greatest cleavages in our society and the greatest shortfall of our government is the absence of a more dispersed set of ideological values from our country’s political dialogue.

    It is a valid point of view, but one which I would strongly suggest is either (a) wrong or (b) right but far less important than the discrepencies between voters from different “places”.

    The very language of the article above offends/frightens me. What is a “region”? How does a PR chosen MP “represent” a particular group of Canadians? And worst of all, how can you possibly make the argument that the current system places too much control in the leadership of political parties? Doesn’t a PR system essentially give the party leadership complete control of who gets into those seats through such insturments as a priority listing of candidates?

    The point is this – Canada is a fractured enough place based on the very very different lives, economies, societies and experiences that each of us lives in our own little corner of this very big country. The fact that we have managed to govern the Country through world wars, the Depression, technologcial upheaval and great demographic change is nothing short of a miracle.

    The last thing this country needs is a political system which encourages even more fracturing of our political voice, a system which encourages people to elect ideologues and to vote along a progressively narrower set of interests. Ours is a country whose politics is built on brokerage, compromise and occassional acts of selflessness. Overall, it is a very successful and fortunate experience. But we cannot expect our Parliament to be the only venue where such acts of brokerage, compromise and selflessness play out. Some of those things have to happen in our own backyards, and PR eliminates every incentive to strive for that.

  • […] Scott Tribe also brings up his take on the issue. Mixed Member Proportional is a pretty good idea I think, too. […]

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