Doug Bailie From Fair Vote Canada Talks about Electoral Reform

Interviewed by Greg Farries on Sep 1, 2003

Doug Bailie is one of the organizers behind Fair Vote Canada, an organization looking to reform Canada’s electoral system to adopt a system of proportional representation. Tell me a little about Fair Vote Canada.

Doug Bailie: Fair Vote Canada was started last summer when a few of us who had been discussing proportional representation online began to work towards a formal organization. We started up a website and began sending out an e-mail newsletter (which now reaches about 275 people).

Now, we’re looking forward to our first national meeting which will be in Ottawa, March 30-31, and that is where we will hammer out a formal statement of purpose and establish the organization’s structure. Besides some scribbling by academics, there hasn’t been a strong citizen-based movement to adopt PR in decades. Why do you think the time is right now?

Doug Bailie: I think that now is the right time because of the way the opposition has been fragmented since 1993. That fragmentation has made the distortions of our winner-take-all system more obvious. I think there’s a greater degree of frustration among people who feel the pressure to vote strategically. Plus, it has over-emphasized the regional aspects of Canadian politics — giving the Liberals overwhelming dominance of Ontario while they are under-represented in the West and vice-versa for the Alliance.

All of this makes it easier to get people’s attention when you talk about voting system reform. The regionalization you speak of is an important feature of Canada’s party system since 1993. How would proportional representation help that?

Doug Bailie: Our current electoral system tends to give more seats to parties which have their votes concentrated in a particular region and fewer seats to those parties which have their votes more thinly spread across the country. So, in both the 1993 and 1997 federal elections, the Tories and the Reform party got about the same number of votes, but Reform had several times more seats than the Tories because Reform voters tended to be concentrated in the West.

Proportional representation would not turn that situation upside down — that is, over-representing parties with broad national support while under-representing parties with regional support — it would simply give everyone their due representation. So, PR is not a solution for regional tension in Canada, but it would not, I believe, exacerbate regional tensions the way the current system does. One criticism of PR is that it leads to political instability. People hear “PR” and they think of countries with unstable party systems, such as Italy. How do you answer that criticism?

Doug Bailie: There are dozens of democracies in the world which use some form of proportional representation. Opponents of PR always bring up Italy or Israel, which have both had problems with governmental stability, and use that as evidence that PR is flawed. But the experience of Italy and Israel does not reflect that of most PR countries. The truth is there is a broad range of experience ranging from the instability of Italy and Israel to the kind of stability we’ve seen in Germany, where government leaders tend to stay in office for ten or fifteen years at a time.

The reason there is such a range of experience is because electoral systems are just one ingredient in a country’s political soup. It’s an important ingredient, but it doesn’t make or break the governmental stability of a country. 

That said, there is certainly a lot of room for criticizing the particular PR systems which are used in some countries. And it makes sense for those of us in Canada to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of other countries’ electoral systems. This brings up an important point. There are many kinds of proportional representation. One of the characteristics of the electoral reform movement has been the infighting over the preferred model of PR. Do you think that weakens the cause of PR?

Doug Bailie: It would be hard to argue that it didn’t. But my experience has been that the vast majority of PR supporters in Canada are focused on the goal of adopting a more proportional system and they are willing to compromise on their preferred model, if they have one at all.

Perhaps the more serious split is between the supporters of PR and the supporters of the Alternative Vote, which is a majoritarian system. Both groups want to change the electoral system, but they have significantly different criticisms of the current system and significantly different solutions. What other difficulties do you anticipate in the electoral reform campaign?

Doug Bailie: I think the strength of electoral reform is that it is not a left-vs- right issue. So you can bring together, as we are in Fair Vote Canada, people from across the political spectrum. But the flip side of that is that electoral reform tends to be a government-vs.-opposition issue. And how do you make such a major change in the political system without the support of the government?

I often come across people who think PR is a great idea but it is futile to talk about it because the government — no matter which party forms the government of the day — will always block it. While there’s a lot of truth to that, it is not absolutely true. Other countries have managed to change their electoral systems now and then. New Zealand is perhaps the most recent and most relevant example for Canadians to look to. And finally, I guess I believe that citizens can force change in the political system, in spite of entrenched interests, if they band together in sufficient numbers. It’s clear that the Liberals benefit from the current system and don’t have much appetite for change. But what about the opposition parties? Is there much will among them for electoral reform?

Doug Bailie: I think it’s building. For one thing the attempt to “unite the right” turned out to be much more difficult than many Reform-Alliance supporters expected. While that process is continuing, I think both Alliance and Tory members are more likely to be critical of the electoral system now than they were a few years ago.

Support for voting system reform, and proportional representation in particular, has been growing within the NDP. PR is now official party policy and it was included in last year’s election platform. Also, the party introduced a motion in the House for debate on electoral reform last week, which used up one of their opportunities to control the subject of debate in the House — so I think that indicated that the issue is taking on increasing significance for the NDP party and caucus.

There is even some support in the Bloc Quebecois.

I think as the sense that Canada is devolving into a quasi-one-party state, opposition parties will become more and more interested in voting system reform. If people are interested in learning more about Fair Vote Canada or your Ottawa conference, where can they get more information?

Doug Bailie: They can visit our website Information on the conference, the list of speakers, registration and the agenda are all available online. You can also find more general information about who we are and what we hope to achieve.

Any inquiries can be directed to [email protected] or by calling 416-410-4034.