Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

December 27, 2005

Let's try changing our political architecture: Why not create a bicameral Parliament for PEI?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The plebiscite on electoral reform held across the province this past November saw the proposal for a mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system decisively defeated by Islanders.

Proponents of the MMP model had argued for “topping up” the 17 single-member constituency winners to the legislative assembly with a further 10 MLAs elected from party lists, so that the percentage of seats gained by a party would more or less equal its share of the popular vote.

No votes would be “wasted” on parties with little chance of winning a seat through the current “first past the post” (FPTP) system, since every vote would count towards electing an MLA. Voters would not be forced to vote “strategically,” by casting their ballot not for the party they sincerely wished would win but rather for the one that had the best chance of beating the party they least wanted to win.

The greater equivalence between votes and seats would prevent lopsided majority governments with little opposition, and would also allow minor parties, which almost never win directly-elected seats, some say in policy formulation and decision-making.

Supports of electoral reform also maintained that if this resulted in coalition governments, it might force parties to cooperate with each other, leading to more responsive and harmonious forms of governance.

Detractors of MMP claimed that it would create two classes of legislators, with the 10 list members not accountable to individual voters and perhaps chosen by “backroom” political bosses.

MMP also would make it difficult for any party to win a majority of seats, thus creating either minority governments or lengthy post-election negotiations producing unstable coalitions and perhaps political gridlock..

Small parties might have to be courted as coalition partners and emerge as “king-makers,” with influence disproportionate to their actual numbers. All this would prevent strong and decisive leadership by any one party.

FPTP is simple and produces winners and losers, while MMP is concerned with balance and fairness in representation. To use the analogy of a hockey game, with FPTP, whether one team beats another 9-0 or 5-4, it wins, the other loses. MMP, on the other hand, in effect allows every goal to count: The losers in a 5-4 game, according to this perspective, should be awarded some points and not go home empty-handed, as might those who were shut out 9-0.

Might there be a way to cut the Gordian knot and satisfy the critics in both camps? I would suggest changing the very political “architecture” of our legislative branch by creating a bicameral provincial parliament. After all, in the 19th century PEI did have an upper chamber, the Legislative Council.

The composition of the lower chamber, the legislative assembly, would remain as it is at present: 27 members directly elected from districts across the island, the winner in each riding being the candidate “first past the post” with a majority or sometimes, in a multi-party race, a simple plurality.

The upper house of, say, 21 members, which we could call a senate, would be elected through straight proportional representation (PR), with all its members chosen “at large” from the lists drawn up by the parties running for office. A threshold clause of five percent of the overall vote would be included, to prevent the election of cranks and extremists: No party receiving less than that would be allowed representation in the senate.

Since electors would mark two ballots, one for the candidates running in their particular riding in the lower house, and the second for the all-island party lists contesting the upper chamber, they could also vote a “split ticket,” choosing the candidate of one of the large parties for the legislative seat (to ensure strong majority government), while selecting the list of a smaller third of fourth party in the senatorial election, either because that party more truly represented their own ideological preference, or simply to ensure that the senate provide a proper “watchdog” role over the governing party in the lower house.

In some future election, we might see the election to the legislature, using the first-past-the-post system, of 20 Liberals, six Conservatives, and one New Democrat,. The island-wide popular vote for the parties on the second ballot, however, might result in 44 percent of the electorate choosing the Liberal list, 39 percent the Conservative one, 12 percent that of the New Democrats, and five percent the Green one. This would see nine Liberals, eight Tories, three New Democrats, and one Green Party member going to the senate.

Our hypothetical bicameral parliament would now consist of 29 Liberals, 14 Conservatives, four New Democrats and one Green. Still not truly proportional, as in a pure PR list system, but not nearly as lopsided as the current “winner take all”method of electing legislators.

And it would provide other benefits as well. In terms of division of powers, the lower house would remain pre-eminent. The premier and cabinet would, as now, be responsible only to the lower house, and could only be removed via a vote of non-confidence or the defeat of a government-sponsored bill in the legislature.

So we would still have a strong majority government because, given the nature of island politics, with its strong two-party system of Liberals and Conservatives, the outcome in the legislative assembly would (as in my example) invariably result in one of the two major parties winning more than half the 27 seats.

The composition of the upper chamber, however, with its members elected in proportion to the votes cast for each party, would doubtless include smaller groups such as the Greens and New Democrats, allowing their voices to be heard as well.

The senate would therefore be able to more adequately represent those people and interests, be they class, ethnicity, gender, occupation, or otherwise, whose points of view might otherwise be ignored or overlooked in the “winner take all” direct election of the members of the lower house.

Not beholden to voters in specific constituencies, as is the case with MLAs, the senators could afford to take a broader view of the issues of the day without worrying that it might cost them their seats. The upper house could function as a “chamber of sober second thought” (as our federal senate was originally meant to do) and perhaps, when it debated legislation that had first been introduced in the lower house, serve as a check on hasty, ill-informed or unreasonable proposals.

While it would not be able to veto laws passed by the government in the legislature, the senate could, through committee work, public hearings, and other means, propose amendments or modifications which might, in its view, improve the proposed legislation. It would also have the power, by a two-thirds vote, to request that the legislature re-introduce such bills, though it could not force the lower house to make modifications should that body refuse to do so.

Still, the cabinet would be wise to take the senate’s suggestions into account before the final passage of a bill into law in the lower house, as it would not need to fear that this might result in the fall of the government, as would be the case if the ruling party’s legislation were defeated in the assembly itself.

True, this model, with a total of 48 lawmakers, would cost taxpayers more, but is it not worth the price? Such a system might alleviate the concerns of those who fear that PR brings in its wake weak government, while addressing the frustrations of those who feel that their votes for smaller parties “don’t count” with FPTP.

And it might even, as a bonus, produce a less adversarial relationship between government and opposition.