The Checks & Balances of Proportional Representation
The Checks & Balances of Proportional Representation

There is still time to fill in your referendum ballot and improve democracy. Here’s why you should. 

As a lawyer, I am aware of my role in the overall checks and balances that keep our democracy strong.

Though I serve my clients, I also serve you as a member of society, by upholding the many rules and processes that form our legal institutions. The judiciary, in turn, sustains our democracy as one of the three branches of government. It can check the government when it goes too far.

An example of the judiciary’s role in checking executive power occurred last summer, when the Federal Court of Appeal overturned Canada’s approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion.

As with most developed countries, the fathers of our confederation feared unchecked power and despised tyranny. So, like most developed countries, they crafted a system of government wherein power was distributed among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The branches naturally provide a check on the powers of the others.

In contrast, our voting system affords us no such checks or balances. To the contrary, it has a built-in tendency towards total control by a minority. First Past the Post does this by generally permitting one party to win a share of seats far greater than its share of the votes, known as a “false majority”. The winner of the false majority then enjoys complete control of the levers of executive power. During its turn at the levers, the ruling party is shielded from competing ideas or interests, has little accountability to its diverse constituents and can get quite drunk with power.

Proportional Representation (Pro Rep) on the other hand, provides the democratic process with distributed power, much like the constitution distributes power among the branches of government. Parties must work by interacting together.

For example, in New Zealand their Pro Rep system demanded that the parties work together to pass a stable and credible climate policy, supported by all parties. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Province of Ontario has stated it intends to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” whenever parts of the Canadian Charter get in the way of Doug Ford’s plans, which include dismantling Ontario’s climate-change policies.

These rash behaviors would not be possible under Pro Rep.

Ford says he is justified in invoking the notwithstanding clause because his policies, and not the views of some unelected judge, represent the will of the “majority”. The problem with this view—aside from Ford’s ignorance of the critical role of judges in our system—is that Ford does not represent the will of the majority of Ontarians: he only won 40 per cent of the votes.

First Past the Post promotes this sort of adversarial, winner-take-all mentality. Pro Rep, by its very nature, demands that parties work together to build broader consensus. Pro Rep decreases the wild policy leaps when governments do change, because there has been broader participation in policy formation. 

Canada—and the world—does not need more strong men. We need governments that include many points of view, and work to incorporate them all into good public policy. We need checks and balances on leaders. We need Pro Rep.

I urge you to fill out your ballot for Pro Rep—and do it now!

Heather Dale is a family law practitioner and principal of Heather Dale Law Offices in Vancouver.