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Hung Parliament in Britain, election reform in Canada?

Britain's Conservatives party leader David Cameron arrives to read a statement to members of the media at St Stephen's Club on May 7, 2010 in London, England.

Lefteriss Pitarakis/Getty Images

Britain's hung Parliament could one day bring proportional representation to Canada's House of Commons, finally ending first-past-the-post elections in this country.

Otherwise, Canada could become the only parliamentary government in the developed world that clings to the old system of letting a minority of voters potentially elect majority governments.

Thursday's vote in Britain left Westminster facing its first foray into minority government since 1974. With the Conservatives short of a majority, and Labour well behind, Liberal Democratic Leader Nick Clegg must decide which of the two big parties to prop up.

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Mr. Clegg has made electoral reform an essential condition of his support, and no wonder. His party took 23 per cent of the popular vote, but won only 9 per cent of the seats. Thanks to the vagaries of vote splits, the Lib Dems' share of seats declined even though its percentage of the vote went up.

"The election campaign has made it abundantly clear that our electoral system is broken," he declared Friday. "It simply doesn't reflect the hopes and aspirations of the British people."

Mr. Clegg wants a referendum on moving to proportional representation, in which parties would be represented in Parliament based on their share of the popular vote. That Conservative Leader David Cameron doesn't appear prepared to offer. Instead, he would appoint a parliamentary committee on democratic reform.

But Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would be willing to work with Mr. Clegg on reforming Parliament. Labour, however, would also need to woo minor parties, such as the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, to cobble together a majority.

If Mr. Clegg hangs tough and gets his referendum, then Britons could join the Europeans, Australia and New Zealand as first-world governments that use some form of alternative to first past the post.

The United States, which has a congressional rather than parliamentary system of government, also uses first past the post, which resulted in a 2000 presidential election in which the Democrats took more votes but Republican George W. Bush became the president.

Canadians have flirted with voting reform, but never embraced it. British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island have all held referendums on it. All failed to produce reform.

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But Larry Gordon, head of Fair Vote Canada, which advocates voting reform, believes change in Britain would impel change here.

"It gives tremendous life to the debate in Canada," he said in an interview. In Britain, as in Canada, "the large, old mainstream parties just aren't getting traction with the public any more."

If the NDP were to emulate the Lib Dems by insisting, as a condition of any future support in a minority government, on a referendum on voting reform, Canadians too might have a chance to decide on whether the time has come for Parliament to change.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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