Who Exactly Are We Voting For: Different Electoral Systems and the Independence of MPs

The electoral system and the ability of Members of Parliament to act independently from their party are two issues that are often debated in Canadian politics. While both concerns make up a significant portion of the public debate over Canada’s political institutions, they are often discussed separately. Many followers of Canadian politics worry about the disproportionality of the Canadian electoral system. Others are concerned that MPs act as “trained seals” following the directives of their party once in Parliament. The electoral system and the way that MPs should behave in parliament, however, are related. MPs get their legitimacy from elections, and the different ways in which MPs are elected should affect the mandates they feel they have been given by their constituents. In single member plurality systems MPs are elected as individuals representing districts and as a result should be more willing to act independently of their party than MPs elected in other electoral systems. In proportional systems individuals vote for parties either instead of or in addition to individuals. As a result, MPs in these systems should be more deferential to their parties. There is a discrepancy in Canada between the way that MPs are elected and the way that they act in parliament. MPs are elected through a single member plurality system as individuals representing constituencies but are subject to strong party discipline that limits the degree to which they vote against and criticize members of their own party.

One of the often cited advantages of single member plurality is the way that it provides for strong regional representation. Different constituencies, even ones in the same region, often have different interests. Voters in rural Alberta likely have different concerns and issues than voters from urban or suburban Edmonton. These differences do not necessarily break down across party lines. An urban Conservative will have different views about agriculture policy or social policy than an urban Conservative. A single member plurality system guarantees that each constituency has an individual elected by its population to represent it and reliant on those individuals for re-election. MPs from Edmonton can ensure that the interests of Edmontonians are represented while MPs from Grande Prairie and Fort MacMurray defend the unique interests of those communities. To do this, MPs need a certain amount of leeway to contradict the views of their parties and to hold their leaders accountable. The interests of Conservatives as a whole are not always the same as the interests of Conservatives from Edmonton or from rural Alberta. This may be the case with respect to the positions that the party raises or with respect to the priorities that a government sets. MPs have a role to play in voting against the government when they feel their constituency’s interests run contrary to the government’s and questioning the government when its priorities are out of step with a constituency’s. Because MPs in single member plurality systems are elected as individuals representing particular districts, and not as a single partisan block, they have mandates to act fairly independently of their parties.

Despite its single member plurality system, Canada has a very high level of party discipline. Parties can use the allocation of cabinet and committee positions, the allocation of speaking and question period time, and control over candidate nominations to create strong incentives for MPs to fall in line with their parties’ positions. MPs that do not toe the party line can find themselves having trouble advancing to cabinet or to choice committee positions and having trouble getting the speaking time to ask questions and raise issues in debate. The result is a disconnect between the mandates that MPs receive in elections and the way that MPs behave in parliament. Parties often behave as highly cohesive units. Rarely do governments face backbench rebellions and rarely do backbenchers from a governing party question the positions of the government. The result is a loss of the individual constituency representation that single member plurality systems are designed to provide. Voters may be able to elect an individual who is beholden to their interests, but they do not see that MP act as an individual within parliament.

It is certainly true that many voters do not cast their ballots for an individual but for the party that they represent. Parties may reasonably claim that they and their leadership are more well-known and more popular than most of their backbench MPs. Leaders and key cabinet members feature more prominently in election campaigns and in political coverage in general than backbench MPs. There is certainly a disconnect between the importance that single member plurality grants to individual representatives and the much more limited visibility that those candidates have in national coverage. The problem with this argument is that seat allocation in single member plurality systems rarely reflects the support of different parties have accurately. Single member plurality tends to disproportionately increase the number of seats held by the largest party, often creating false majority governments. Even if voters are voting for the party, as opposed to their individual MP, governing parties in the House of Commons rarely can claim an electoral mandate to act with as much strength as they have seats in parliament. Governing parties usually have a greater percentage of seats in parliament than the percentage of the vote that they received in the election. More often than not a majority of voters have cast ballots for an opposition party, even if a party wins a majority government. This is less of a problem when MPs have a large amount of leeway to act independently. A majority government can be held more accountable and can have its ability to push through a policy agenda without compromise limited when its backbench MPs feel freer to question and to vote against the government.

Countries with proportional electoral systems should leave less room for MPs to act independently. In these systems individuals vote either only for a party or for a party and an individual representative. As a result, parties in PR systems have a clearer mandate to act as cohesive units, and the strength that parties have in parliament is much closer to the proportion of voters that support the party. Parties in these systems can make a much stronger case for disciplining their MPs. They have a direct mandate from the electorate in the form of votes for their party. In comparison, there is always ambiguity in single member plurality systems as to whether a voter that cast a vote for a party’s candidate was casting a vote for the party or the individual candidate. Parties in proportional systems are also immune from the claim that strong discipline grants them greater strength in parliament than the electorate sought to give them. If a party in a proportional system has a majority government, it is because the party won more than 50% of the popular vote.

Adjustments ought to be made to the Canadian electoral system and to parliamentary practices to bring the electoral legitimacy conferred on MPs have and the way that MPs act in parliament more closely into line. Parliamentary practice could be changed in a number of ways to give MPs more room to act independently. The control that parties have over the career advancement and speaking time of MPs could be weakened. Chairs of committees could be elected secretly by all members of parliament (as is done in the UK) and speaking time could be allocated by lottery as opposed to being determined by party leadership. Leaders could be given less control over candidate nominations through a restriction or elimination of the ability of leaders to veto party candidates. Further, MPs could be given greater strength vis a vis their leaders if the caucus in parliament was allowed to remove a leader (as is done in Australia- though this has created much greater turn-over in party leadership). A leader may exercise less party discipline if she knows that the people she is disciplining can vote her out of office. Finally, though this may not be particularly popular, the number of MPs in the House of Commons could be increased. A larger number of MPs in the House means more MPs with no hope of a cabinet position or a choice committee position. These MPs are less likely to be influenced by the carrot and stick of cabinet and committee memberships that are often used to control them. Alternatively, Canada could make adjustments to its electoral system to ensure that the number MPs each party has more closely reflects the percentage of voters that back each party. Adjustments either to parliamentary practice or to the electoral system would go a long way towards bringing the legitimacy that MPs and parties gain from elections into line with the way that they act in Parliament.

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