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opinion

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer.

The year opens with a popular political meme: Electoral reform at the federal level is designed to grab power for much of the foreseeable future by the Liberals, who would benefit from the ranked ballot. Critics use that argument to tarnish the reform effort, and the notion that it benefits the Liberals is repeated endlessly by the media, citing a study of the last election result.

It's therefore worth reminding ourselves of the incorrect meme that was dominating politics just a year ago: It would be very difficult for the Liberals or NDP to ever gain power federally – and certainly winning a majority was impossible – unless they overcome their foolish stubbornness and united. An allied belief many subscribed to was that the federal Liberals were headed toward extinction.

So it pays to be cautious of the political meme of the moment. Times and political fortunes change. While we need to be wary that nefarious politicians don't pick a system that favours their party above their opponents, we should be more focused on the three main differences in the systems under consideration as we judge their merits.

One key factor is whether the system gives us a more or less likelihood of having a majority government at the conclusion of an election, since many people want the stable government that provides. Tommy Douglas once warned that if you know how a stable smells, you won't crave stable government. Still, instinctively, Canadians want strong leaders and majority governments (even after raging at the ballot box last October against the secretive, non-listening, top-down government our last majority served up).

Proportional representation won't routinely deliver majorities. Given the current lineup of parties, which could grow with proportional representation, and historical voting patterns, majorities would be rare. The current, first-past-the-post system and ranked ballots tilt toward majority governments – stability, if you will – although it's not guaranteed.

A second criteria is whether the electoral system reflects the popular will. In many elections, federally and provincially, the seats a party had gained in the legislature is grossly below their percentage of the vote and we have increasing examples of governments winning majorities with far from a majority of the vote, as with our current and previous federal governments. The first-past-the-post system also balkanizes Canada, as major parties gain respectable percentages of the vote in certain provinces or regions and end up with no seats – the Conservatives and NDP in the Atlantic provinces this election is a recent example.

Proportional representation most closely represents the popular will in the legislative lineup, so it's the preferred choice on that score. But it's worth noting that the ranked ballot also tries to reflect the popular will, by counting second choices of parties that finish out-of-the running in a constituency. In a sense, it's trying to adjust so that everyone's choice counts in the final decision of determining the government. It seems likely to make the final standings in the House of Commons more reflective of public sentiment and perhaps improve representation of parties in now-unfertile areas for them.

With proportional representation, after the ballots are counted, the parties begin negotiations to determine the composition of the next government in most countries with that system and, indeed, a majority is usually cobbled together, for a time. With a ranked ballot, in a sense, the people create that majority government at the ballot box rather than leaving it to the political leaders. I state that not to disparage politicians playing a role. Perhaps their sober second thought, even if self-interested second thought, would be helpful, and proportional representation definitely provides the most representative legislature. But their role after the vote is cast in choosing the government is often ignored.

A third factor is whether the system allows us as citizens to access government easily, reaching out to a local MP who can help us deal with the bureaucracy. The current system and ranked ballot would maintain an approach most of us are comfortable with and works reasonably effectively, but proportional representation will lead to fewer constituency politicians with larger areas to represent and presumably bigger staff. That might work well, arguably, in larger metropolitan areas – it might be nice to have just one or two constituency reps for Toronto rather than the current confusion – but in smaller towns and their neighbouring rural areas it could be quite distancing.

That comes because many MPs would not represent voters directly but be selected from a list the parties provide of candidates, the number elected depending on the number of ballots the party attracts, to provide the proportional result. In the 2007 Ontario referendum on proportional representation, those lists helped assure defeat, as opponents conjured up visions of political parties choosing bagmen, backroom manipulators and other ill-suited folks who couldn't get elected without this free ride – the impression was that the kinds of people traditionally selected to the Senate, or worse, would dominate the list.

But alternatively, the list could have people like Megan Leslie and Joe Oliver, who went down to defeat this election but previously displayed some value in Parliament. It could allow a party to have representation from an area where the current system shuts them out – more Liberals from Alberta say, in the past few decades – and it allows for boosting gender and multicultural balance. So it could be badly or well used.

Those are the issues we should be focused on as a parliamentary committee undertakes its study, and particularly if we end up voting in a referendum on the proposed change, rather than getting sidetracked by flimsy memes designed to stoke our anger and discredit the Prime Minister.