This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2010

Another reason for voting reform: Parliament needs women

Katie Addleman

Canada has shockingly few female legislators. Our electoral system is broken. Voting reform could fix both problems at once.

One Thursday last spring, an Angolan MP named Faustina Fernandes Inglês de Almeida Alves addressed an assembly at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Those present—members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, professors, commissioners, Parliamentarians, and observers from more than 40 countries— had gathered to discuss the role of Parliaments in the advancement of women’s rights. It had been 15 years since the Beijing Declaration, adopted during the Fourth World Conference on Women, promised to achieve greater equality for women. It was time to take stock of how the world was progressing.

While the five women representing Canada sat nearby, Alves spoke of her government’s push to increase the number of women in the National Assembly. “This action allowed, from 1992 [the year of Angola’s first general election], the number of Parliamentarian women to rise [from] 26 to 86, in 2008” she announced. By 2008, women accounted for 38 percent of Angola’s main legislative body. This means that Angola—a country where securing basic human rights for women remains a major concern—elects far more women than we do.

Canada ranks 50th on the IPU’s annual list of women’s representation in world Parliaments. Iraq—a place not renowned for its achievements in gender equity—ranks higher. This isn’t because the women’s rights movement in Iraq is particularly advanced; it’s because of the Iraqi electoral system. The first-past-the-post system—used in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and virtually nowhere else— does not help women get into power. In fact, it impedes their chances. Doris Anderson, always ahead of her time, knew this 50 years ago. As editor-in-chief of Chatelaine from 1957 to 1977, she introduced a generation of Canadians to women’s rights issues many hadn’t known existed: abortion, pay equity, female sexuality. But one of her greatest passions was equality in government. Anderson believed that women lawmakers made women-friendly laws. You need only look to Denmark, Germany, Sweden or Spain, each one a top-20 country on the IPU’s list, to know that this still holds today.

Ranking of countries measured by percentage of female legislatorsAnderson was a fierce proponent of proportional representation, the electoral system used by nearly every Western country and emerging democracy. Under PR, if one party receives 60 percent of the public’s support and another receives 40 percent, those two parties get 60 and 40 percent of the legislative seats, a close approximation of voter sentiment. In addition to being a more accurate reflection of the electorate’s will, PR has also proven to open up legislative bodies to women and minorities. In other words, it produces governments that look more like the populations they serve.

Ten years ago, Larry Gordon, a political activist who had lately become concerned about the future of democracy, approached Doris Anderson and asked if she would join Fair Vote Canada, his new campaign for electoral reform. “At the time she was, like, 80 years old,” Gordon remembers. “She was amazing. She was writing in the mid-50s on things that were considered controversial in the U.S. women’s movement in the mid-60s, and getting death threats.” Anderson quickly agreed to become a founding director of Fair Vote Canada, the final endorsement Gordon had been seeking.

His citizens’ campaign has since become the strongest voice advocating for electoral reform in Canada. It operates 21 chapters in eight provinces, has thousands of members across the country, and its advisory board includes such luminaries as Maude Barlow, Ed Broadbent, and David Suzuki. In May, the group held its 10th annual conference at the University of Ottawa. The lecture hall was packed with people: old, young, veterans of 60s activism, and fans of Bill Maher’s page on Facebook. Most of them had paid $35 to be there, thrilled at the chance to spend nine hours pondering a favourite subject, one usually shunted to the spidery back corners of political debate.

The speakers program progressed from Judy Rebick (“Grassroots Mobilization”) to Walter Robinson (“Reaching Conservatives on Electoral Reform”), and on to Mercédez Roberge after lunch (“Electoral Reform Developments in Quebec”). One by one, they were greeted by applause and rapt attention—the left-wing journalist, the Conservative tax consultant, the Québecoise activist—though it was unclear what, at the end of the day, the crowd would be putting its energy into, aside from remaining optimistic. In the past ten years, Fair Vote Canada has seen the failure of three provincial referendums on voting reform, and there’s nothing on the horizon to indicate another shot. A decade in, the group is no closer to its goal.

Gordon insists that “things are happening,” but his unabated zeal for the project has an air of the religious—he believes so strongly in the mission that its actual feasibility is unimportant. Because it is right, its success is assured, the team cheer seems to go. Someday, we shall overcome.

Larry Gordon has no hair to speak of and wears thin wire-frame glasses that nearly disappear into his ruddy face. He is the kind of person you wish could always come to family dinner— a fantastic storyteller, with the permanent grin and the quick, unfaltering speech of a seasoned professor (or salesman). At 60 years old, he has worked in the nonprofit sector his entire adult life, beginning his career at the Grindstone Island peace and justice centre, a nowdefunct co-operative in the Rideau Lakes. (“It was fabulous,” he says. “A 12-acre island overrun by hippies.”) It was the 1970s, and Gordon had shed the vestiges of his conservative, pro-Reagan Cincinnati upbringing with great success. He worked at Grindstone every summer before moving to Toronto permanently.

Around 1999, he says, after peddling the idea of economic democracy (e.g., worker-controlled production) for 20 years, it occurred to him that he’d never read a single book on democracy and wasn’t really sure what it meant. He picked up On Democracy, by Yale political scientist Robert Dahl. “I had gone into reading that book thinking, well, we’ve got democracy in the Western world, we’ve done that.” But Dahl turned out to be more concerned about reforming democracy in the U.S., Britain, and Canada than exporting it elsewhere, and believed proportional representation was critical to democracy’s survival in the 21st century. “All of a sudden it was like a big light bulb going off,” Gordon says. Canada’s population was not properly represented in Parliament. Democracy in this country was manifestly sick. (Everyone I spoke with from Fair Vote used the same light bulb analogy. Scrutinizing our electoral system, it seems, is good for producing epiphanies.)

Between 1970 and 1993, Western countries using proportional representation saw the proportion of women MPs rise by 14 percent; in first-past-the-post countries, it increased by 7 percent. Germany uses first-past-the-post to populate half of the Bundestag and proportional representation to populate the other; the latter contributes twice as many women. New Zealand’s parliament used to be 21 percent female; in 1993 they switched to proportional representation, and by 2008 it was 33 female. PR was finally ushering women into legislative roles and improving the representation of other minorities, too.

It’s delightfully simple. So why are governments ignoring it?

Graph showing alternate makeup of Parliament under a proportional system

The Canadian government would say they’re not. There have been three provincial referendums on voting reform since 2005. None of them passed.

Wendy Bergerud sat on the citizen’s assembly that preceded the first: a group of 160 randomly selected B.C. residents, most of whom had no deep political ties and very little knowledge of voting systems. They had been charged by Premier Gordon Campbell with investigating the current system and possible alternatives. For seven months, they heard experts and laymen speak on different voting systems; they learned what was used in different countries around the world, and the effects that various systems had on political bodies. Then, for one month, they deliberated on the recommendation they would make to the B.C. legislature. In October 2004, they submitted their final report. They had decided, almost unanimously, to propose a change from first-past-the-post to a form of proportional representation called single transferable vote. Bergerud, a recently retired Ministry of Forests employee, had no previous interest in voting systems; she is now a member of Fair Vote’s national council, the president of its Victoria chapter, and a member of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The experience turned her into an activist.

“I think a lot of people were really surprised that the assembly worked together and came up with such a high consensus on the recommendation,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Victoria. Her voice is gruff, though she laughs easily. She answers my questions without pausing to think. “I’ve come across people who expected us to fight like our political parties. But most of us in the assembly were committed to the common good, the public good. We were very serious about communicating on what would work for most people. It seemed, as we learned more about voting systems, that a PR system was going to give parties a number of seats in the House that closely matched their support and that that would change quite a bit how the parties behaved. Another thing we learned is that an awful lot of countries use PR. Here in North America we live in this little hole that doesn’t know much about the rest of the world. We don’t realize that most countries in Europe use one form or another of PR.

“No new country chooses first-past-thepost,” she continues. “Whenever anyone sits down and says, ‘We’re forming a country here, what should we use?’ They always choose some form of PR.”

After their recommendation, Bergerud and other assembly members grew concerned: the government was going to include a referendum on electoral reform with its provincial election in May, but it didn’t look like they were going to do anything to educate the public about the choices that would be placed before them. If voters didn’t understand their options, surely they’d vote to stick with the status quo. Impassioned by everything they had learned, assembly alumni began a massive educational campaign. Bergerud estimates that between them, they gave 800 presentations leading up to the referendum, and on May 17, 2005, the “Yes” side won almost 58 percent of the vote. But it wasn’t enough—the threshold had been set at 60 percent.

“Fundamentally, we won that one,” Bergerud says. “Something that’s annoyed me for a long time is that the press will say, ‘It was rejected here in B.C.,’ and I go, ‘well, 57.8 percent isn’t rejection.’ New Zealand changed into the new voting system with something like 53 percent and Ireland didn’t change with something like 57 percent [against]—so everyone else in the world used 50 percent.” She wonders why the Liberal government would have initiated the assembly process if it was not going to follow through. I ask her if she thinks it was all for show. “Oh, I think it’s highly likely,” she says.

Electoral reform is not a partisan issue: Doris Anderson and Troy Lanigan, the president of the right-wing Canadian Taxpayers Federation, sat next to each other on Fair Vote’s founding board, agreeing on nothing except the need for voting reform. The problem with changing the electoral system is that parties in power—regardless of ideology—never want to do it. Larry Gordon learned this early on in his campaign, and has re-learned it repeatedly over the past decade. “I very naively thought that all left-ofcentre people, all left-of-centre parties would obviously support this, until I discovered that NDP governments, provincially, relate to this just the same way that Conservative governments or Liberal governments do: ‘If first-past-the-post puts us in power, we’re not going to reform anything. If we’ve been really badly screwed by first-past-thepost, we’re all in favour of reform.’ The NDP is 100 percent on board for proportional representation—because everybody should be equal, it’s atrocious that the voting system distorts results, we need democratic equality in this country—except in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia or Nova Scotia when they’re in power.” Doesn’t that make him angry? I ask. “Oh, very angry, yeah,” he says, smiling.

In two later referendums, one in B.C. and another in Ontario, the governments in power again dragged their heels and did little to educate voters on the choice they were facing. Consequently, the 2007 referendum in Ontario lost with 36.9 percent of the vote; last year’s in British Columbia lost with 38.2 percent.

June Macdonald, chair of Fair Vote Canada’s Women for Fair Voting committee, echoes Gordon’s anger. “The major parties—the Conservatives and the Liberals—stand to win big under our system. They can parlay a minority popular vote into a majority of seats. They don’t want to give that up.”

Fair Vote’s inaugural conference, on March 30, 2001, took place in Ottawa. There were around a hundred attendees and a single reporter, who, Gordon says, had a single question: “You people don’t think this will ever really happen, do you?”

Ten years and several close calls later, the group remains convinced that it will. Gordon thinks that the current era of minority government, with all of its dramas and public dysfunction, may present Fair Vote with its moment. Proportional representation forces parties to work together; when no one can win an outright majority, the major concern shifts from gaining an edge over the opposition to determining allies and how best to cooperate.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would have us believe that coalitions don’t work: the governments of Israel and Italy, which suffer the strains of shifty and ill-advised allegiances and powerful extremist factions, are held up in terrifying example. But you could just as easily blame the dysfunctional politics of Zimbabwe on their firstpast-the-post electoral system, and it would be equally specious. The political culture of a country is not soley a product of the voting system it uses.

In Canada, meanwhile, it’s become very obvious that our parties would rather one-up each other than work together for the public good. The current system compels combative behaviour, a problem that, war-ravaged and corrupt countries aside, proportional representation naturally amends by encouraging cooperation. The prime minister has presented coalitions as undemocratic, says Bergerud, but what many people don’t understand is that “it is quite legitimate and proper for parties to work together to form a government, and that it happens on a regular basis in Europe.”

In April, Environics released the results of a poll on public support for proportional representation, showing that 62 percent of Canadians are in favour of adopting the system for elections. “On the idea of fair voting, Canadians are there, always have been there, will be there,” says Gordon forcefully.

Fine—but getting the issue on the political agenda is another matter. I ask how he sees it happening. He lists several possibilities, but then slowly qualifies each one in turn: the NDP could demand it in exchange for supporting the Liberals in government (but that won’t happen with the current configuration of seats); Britain could reform, thus paving the way for Canada to do the same (but the movement there is very much up in the air); the Supreme Court of Canada could rule first-past-the-post unconstitutional—a Quebec court case to that effect is currently winding its way through the courts (but it’s a long shot).

Gordon pauses. His voice has grown progressively shakier. He knows how it sounds and what he’s up against. In the end, he speaks of serendipity. Large-scale social change, he says, is ultimately effected only when “unexpected events, completely outside of your control, come together at a particular moment in history and allow big change to happen.”

In other words, he’s waiting on a miracle. He acknowledges that it’s a hard thing to mobilize people around.

Whether or not electoral reform ever comes to this country, the fact is that democracy is a people’s concern. The government has proven its lack of interest. Canadians will have to demand it—and Gordon believes that they will, once they understand what they stand to gain. We are living with a system under which 900,000 people can vote for the Green Party and get no representation, but 800,000 Conservatives in Alberta alone can elect 27 Conservative MPs. That’s not a truly representative democracy, and Fair Vote wants to make sure we know that, at the very least.

“Fair Vote Canada is going to continue to do what it’s always done,” Gordon says, rallying: “outreach, trying to mobilize as many people as possible from all points on the political spectrum to appreciate how fundamentally important it is for the issues that you’re passionate about, and for your own quality of life, the community, the quality of environmental life, how fundamentally important it is to you to make sure that we have a democratically elected Parliament.”

He pauses, and then twists the knife. “Which you’ve probably never experienced.”

With files from Nick Taylor-Vaisey.
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