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Democracy Cookbook: Institutionalizing a strong opposition through electoral reform

The Democracy Cookbook
The Democracy Cookbook


By James Feehan


One advantage of a first-past-the-post electoral system, which characterizes Canada’s federal and provincial voting processes, is that elections generally produce majority governments.


Jim Feehan
James Feehan


However, that system typically leaves the non-winning parties under-represented compared to their popular vote. That creates an argument for proportional representation, a system with its own problems, such as unstable multi-party coalitions. Even the formation of a workable coalition can be elusive, as recent experience in Spain illustrates. Mixed systems can be problematic and that may explain the persistence of the status quo in Canada, both federally and provincially, despite various reform proposals.

If Newfoundlanders and Labradorians prefer a system that is likely to produce a majority government, then the challenge becomes how to ensure that the government’s legislative agenda and policies are appropriately scrutinized and debated. That is the job of the opposition parties. However, at times their seat numbers have been demoralizingly low, making it nearly impossible to function effectively while facing overwhelming government majorities.

If Newfoundlanders and Labradorians prefer a system that is likely to produce a majority government, then the challenge becomes how to ensure that the government’s legislative agenda and policies are appropriately scrutinized and debated.

In the 1966 general election, a Liberal sweep left the opposition with only three seats out of 42 in the House of Assembly, and in 2007 the Progressive Conservatives won 44 of 48 seats, leaving just three for the Liberals and one for the NDP. In these cases, and in every other election where a party won a majority, the opposing parties’ collective share of seats was much less than their share of the vote. Similarly lopsided results have occurred elsewhere in Canada, especially at the provincial level, leaving opposition parties substantially under-represented.

A change in the process that leads to such under-representation is needed. Yet, most of the electorate probably does not want the minority governments that proportional representation would bring. On the other hand, a strong opposition in the legislature strengthens democracy. Therefore, a desirable electoral system is one that preserves the chances of a majority government but also guarantees that the losing parties will have enough seats to mount an effective opposition.

How might such a system be designed?

For this province, one possibility is to maintain the current 40-district seat system, ideally with roughly equal numbers of eligible voters in each district, but add eight more seats for a total of 48. Call them “allotment seats.” When a party wins 26 or more of the 40 district seats, then all eight allotment seats would be awarded to the opposition parties according to their relative vote shares. This proposition preserves the winner’s majority position but its magnitude is reduced. So, for example, if a party were to win all 40 seats, the opposition would have the eight other seats — in other words, 17 per cent of all seats. Since opposition parties combined have never received less than 30 per cent of the popular vote in this province since 1949, this allotment is reasonable. More importantly, it ensures a meaningful number of opposition members.

If a party wins between 25 and 21 districts, then the system would be majority-preserving by sharing the eight seats. A winner with 25 district seats (the opposition having the 15 others) would receive one of the eight allotment seats and the remaining seven would go to the opposition. If it had won 24, the split would be two and six and so on, down to a four-and-four split at 22 as well as at 21.

If the largest party wins 20 or fewer seats then the eight seats would be allocated by popular vote shares across all parties, thus preserving the minority situation.

To keep the system straightforward, the allotment could occur only following a general election and could not be subject to changes even if byelections change the district counts. Members of the House in allotted seats would hold them at the pleasure of their respective parties.

Here are some advantages of this type of system:

  • The opposition would be less under-represented, relative to the popular vote.
  • The opposition would have sufficient numbers to effectively debate issues and to serve on legislative committees.
  • It may encourage higher voter turnout because citizens who support a party with little chance of winning in a district would know that party could gain some of the allotted seats.
  • It may encourage higher-quality candidates to stand for election, especially at times when one party is expected to win overwhelmingly, because a defeated candidate could be selected by her or his party to fill its allotment.

Each opposition party and, where applicable, the governing party, could select individuals to fill their share of the eight seats according to expertise, demographics, region, gender, etc., which could address under-representation concerns, or the individuals could be elected from within party ranks.

This proposal adds eight more Members to the House of Assembly. Cost considerations are tiny relative to the sums spent by the government, but the argument holds for other configurations, for example, 34:6, in which case the reform would be superficially cost-neutral. Variations on the proposed system are feasible as long as the total number of members is enough for the House to function and for legislative committees to operate.

Of course, sufficient opposition numbers is not enough to guarantee effectiveness. The opposition needs adequate resources as well. Also, political parties still have to attract quality candidates. The onus remains on them to do so, but this reform proposal would help.


About the Author

James Feehan (Economics, Memorial University of Newfoundland) has published scholarly works on public policy issues of particular relevance to Newfoundland and Labrador, notably on hydroelectric development, fiscal federalism, local government finance, offshore oil and gas, interprovincial trade, fisheries and tax policy. In addition, he has published in international academic journals in economics and public policy. He is the editor of the journal Newfoundland and Labrador Studies.

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