A Response to the Broadbent Institute’s Polemic for Mixed-Member Proportional Representation


On Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

In March 2016, the Broadbent Institute released a report on electoral reform, “An Electoral System for All: Why Canada Should Adopt Proportional Representation,” and endorsed mixed-member proportional representation. It is in essence and in tone a polemic, so I shall rebut it here with a counter-polemic. 

In our current single-member plurality system, voters cast their ballots for candidates in geographic constituencies and the person who wins the largest number of votes, though not necessarily a majority and often a plurality, becomes the Member of Parliament-elect. (I regard “first past the post” as irretrievably pejorative, and so does the Broadbent Institute, judging by how it employs the term). Under pure proportional representation, voters cast their ballots for political parties themselves, and the seats in the parliament are allocated in direct proportion to the popular vote that each political party obtained; MPs are then selected based on the parties’ electoral lists, in descending order, until each party has filled the number of seats that it earned in the legislature based on its percentage of the popular vote.

Mixed-member proportional representation essentially combines single-member plurality with pure proportional representation; voters therefore cast two ballots, one for their constituency member of parliament and another for the political party itself. However, mixed-member proportional representation still strives for an overall proportional outcome by relying on a mathematical formula to allocate to the political parties that won fewer constituency seats than their popular vote merits x number of the non-geographical compensatory seats, based on a mathematical formula like the Hare Quota or the Droop Quota. In this way, the overall percentage of seats that the political parties hold in the assembly comes much closer to the percentage of the party vote that they won in the election.[1] Generally, this system benefits smaller parties, which would explain why the New Democratic Party has long advocated for it.

The geographical extent by which the compensatory seats are allocated – whether within each province or across two or more provinces –forms an important constitutional question in Canada.

Constitutional Amendments Required to Implement Two Types of Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

In short, switching to mixed-member proportional representation would necessarily require some kind of constitutional amendment, but the question of which amending formula would be necessary depends on the geographic point of reference from which compensatory seats are allocated, whether within a province or between provinces.

Section 51(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867 contains the formula by which seats in the House of Commons are allocated amongst the provinces, and section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1867 stipulates that the seats within the House of Commons must be distributed such that the “proportionate representation of the provinces” is not “disturbed.”  In this case, “proportionate representation” refers not to what we would today refer to proportional representation, but rather to the principle of representation by population under a single-member plurality electoral system. It has been established that the Parliament of Canada alone can amend section 51(1) pursuant to the constitutional amending formula in section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982; this last occurred in 2011. However, section 42(1)(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982 subjects this principle of the “proportionate representation of the provinces” contained in section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to the General Amending Formula.

Therefore, the constitutional amendment necessary for implementing mixed-member proportional representation depends on whether the compensatory party seats are allocated based on the party vote within each province or across multiple provinces. If the compensatory party seats are allocated to parties based on their vote within each province, then the Parliament of Canada alone could pass such a constitutional amendment under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, because this system would not take away any seats from any province and would merely change the rules regulating the size of the remaining geographic constituencies and the ratio of geographical constituencies versus compensatory seats for the political parties. This corresponds closely to Germany’s model of mixed-member proportional representation, in which the compensatory seats are allocated based on the party vote within each of the 16 Landers (i.e., federated entities like provinces in Canada or states in Australia). If, however, we tried to create a system in which the compensatory seats are allocated based on the party vote between two or more provinces, or Canada-wide across all ten provinces, we would then need to pass a constitutional amendment under the General Amending Formula, because taking away seats from the provinces for the sake of establishing a pool of compensatory seats would “disturb” the “principle of the proportionate representation of the provinces.” Indeed, it would create a class of seats completely divorced from the provinces and wedded instead to political parties themselves.

The General Amending Formula requires that the House of Commons, Senate, and at least seven provincial assemblies representing at least one-half of the total Canadian population pass concurring resolutions. Many Canadian scholars and commentators refer to this laborious process as “opening the Constitution” – with the obvious, though perhaps unconscious, analogy to “opening Pandora’s Box” and unleashing a torrent of destruction upon the political landscape. This second model also corresponds more closely to how mixed-member proportional representation works in a unitary state like New Zealand.  

The Ambiguity of the Broadbent Institute’s Polemic

Not surprisingly, the Broadbent Institute does not venture into precisely how and what kind of system of mixed-member proportional representation it would like to implement in Canada. In particular, it does not specify whether it would to allocate the compensatory seats within each province, or, alternatively, between provinces or across Canada as a whole. At two points, the report alludes to both of these mutually exclusive options but does not decide definitively upon either. (Since this report appears online without a corresponding PDF or text version, I cannot cite specific page numbers or paragraphs).

At one point, the Broadbent Institute’s report acknowledges that mixed-member proportional representation would require larger geographic constituencies; it later concedes in a parenthetical aside – as if the precise structure of the electoral system were less important – that electoral “districts would probably be divided by province like they are now, but ridings would become larger.”[2] This wording suggests (though does not mean conclusively) that the Broadbent Institute would endorse the German Model by which the Parliament of Canada alone could implement mixed-member proportional representation pursuant to the amending formula under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

However, another paragraph later in the report implies, but does not state directly, that the Broadbent Institute would prefer a system of Canada-wide compensatory seats in order to stop rewarding political parties that currently benefit from regional pockets of support. The German Model would still allow, to some extent, for the geographic concentration of the compensatory party seats within each province and would therefore not solve what the Broadbent Institute regards as a significant flaw in Canada’s current electoral system.

[…]FPTP tends to punish small parties whose support is spread out across the country, while it rewards those whose support is geographically concentrated (and it can have the opposite effect on large parties). That’s how the Bloc Québécois became the Official Opposition in 1993 despite electing no members of Parliament outside Quebec, receiving less than 14 per cent of the popular vote, and taking in fewer votes (by more than 700,000) than the third-place Reform Party. It’s also how the Green Party of Canada, whose support is more geographically spread out, has received only one seat in two of the last five elections, and none in the other three, despite receiving between three and seven per cent of votes cast in each contest. (In a proportional system with similar popular returns, the party would likely have come away with 10–20 seats.)[3]

Other than these oblique and contradictory references, the Broadbent Institute’s polemic for mixed-member proportional representation does not venture into the constitutional and statutory mechanisms by which this electoral system could be implemented in Canada. The Broadbent Institute also does not specify what percentage of the popular vote parties would have to obtain as a minimum threshold in order to qualify for seats in the House of Commons, nor does it specify which formula – whether the Hare Quota or the Droop Quota – it would adopt for allocating the compensatory seats.

Argument from Teleology, False Consciousness, and the Myth of the “Wasted Vote”

Teleological Platitude

The Broadbent Institute relies on what I would classify as an Appeal to Teleology. This fallacy holds that history moves inexorably toward liberal-democratic (or perhaps social democratic) perfection and that therefore anything which attempts to slow or reverse this progression is manifestly bad and must be relegated to the dustbin of history. This Hegelian teleological impulse has been central to the ideology of the Progressive Movement since the early 20th century and is related to the Whiggish view of history and the Liberal Progress Narrative of the early 19th century. For example, Prime Minister Trudeau relies on this fallacy and appeals to teleology when he justifies his actions simply by stating what year it is, such as in his response to the question why he decided to appoint equal numbers of men and women to cabinet: “Because it’s 2015.” President Obama, and various other American politicians, often invoke the same fallacy through phrases like “to be on the right side of history,” meaning that one’s political opponent is not merely incorrect but is “on the wrong side of history.” On the surface, this fallacy sounds credible, but it conceals a pernicious purpose: politicians invoke it in an attempt to restrict the acceptable range of political discourse by delegitimating contrary viewpoints outright.

The Broadbent Institute relies on this Appeal to Teleology in order to dismiss single-member plurality as an inexcusable relic of the past and exalt mixed-member proportional representation as the ideal that we must realize in practice. In a series of sentence fragments, the Broadbent Institute portrays single-member plurality as an anachronism of the 19th century:

Our current electoral system has been with us since before Confederation. That is, since before 1867. Before automobiles took over our streets, before light bulbs lit our rooms, and before tin cans filled our shelves.[4]

Let’s ignore the fact that tin cans first appeared as a method of preserving food in the 1810s and gradually became more widespread throughout the 19th century. (Perhaps the Broadbent Institute could have strengthened its analogy by pointing out, for instance, that early tin cans were sealed with a lead solder which made their contents toxic). The Broadbent Institute here is suggesting that simply because we have improved materially and technologically since the mid-19th century, our electoral system must also be swept away into the dustbin of history along with lower life expectancy and steam engines, as if the single-member plurality electoral system and being materially worse off were somehow correlated to one another.

The Broadbent Institute also infuses its paper with some some Marxist tropes, particularly that of false consciousness. For instance, they steep their acknowledgement that mixed-member proportional would have to retain some geographic constituencies in such language: mixed-member proportional would have to maintain geographic constituencies of some kind because “many citizens, especially those outside of our larger cities, have a strong attachment to geographical representation […].” If only the rural proletariat would dispense with those “strong attachments” to geography and stop clinging to single-member plurality. If only they could be forced to see the truth. The Broadbent Institute picks up on its theme of false consciousness later in its report:

What we do know is that the system we now use is more familiar to Canadians, and that people tend to prefer things that are familiar to them. It’s likely true that the more Canadians learn about proportional representation, the more they will become comfortable with it, especially once they learn about the virtues of proportionality: fairness, representativeness, and engagement.[5]

Like most proponents of this electoral system, the Broadbent Institute holds that if only someone explained mixed-member proportional representation to Canadians, they would immediately begin to support it because of what the Broadbent Institute regards as its inherent and manifest superiority. More fundamentally, this viewpoint relies on a pernicious and cynical political tactic common to political parties and politicians of all ideological persuasions: the manner in which the idea is communicated is more important than the merits of the idea itself.

The So-Called “Wasted Vote”

The Broadbent Institute also relies heavily on the specious concept of the so-called “wasted vote.” The Broadbent Institute goes farther than most of its allies and defines a “wasted vote” as any vote “cast for a candidate who didn’t win.” But why does a vote cast for a candidate who ends up losing in a given riding count as having been “wasted”? This notion pre-supposes that all votes cast should somehow always translate into electing MPs, as if only the candidate for whom a citizen voted can “represent” him or her in parliament. This assertion also presupposes that citizens now possess a right to vote for a winning candidate. But we cannot pervert the constitutionally entrenched right to vote into an imaginary right to elect a winning candidate. We make choices to the exclusion of other options, and we work to allocate scarce resources. Furthermore, this begs the question as to what the Broadbent Institute would consider a non-wasted vote, because they seem to imply that even if a candidate wins 50%+1 of the votes in a riding, those who did not vote for the winning candidate still “wasted” their votes!

The Broadbent Institute laments that under the current system, “millions of Canadians are struck with a member of parliament they didn’t vote for.” But even under mixed-member proportional representation, there is no guarantee that the constituency MP for which a citizen votes would go on to win in that geographic district, which means, under the logic of the Broadbent Institute, that some Canadians would still be “stuck with a member of parliament they didn’t vote for.” With respect to the ballot dedicated to the party vote, the Broadbent Institute also doesn’t explain whether it would prefer a closed list or an open list, which means that citizens might not be able to choose their preferred party candidate either but would instead be limited to choosing the political party, whose list would then determine the order in which its compensatory seats are filled in the legislature.

Later on in the report, the authors define a “wasted vote” as one either “cast for candidates who don’t win” or “for parties that receive fewer seats than their public support indicates they deserve.” The second corresponds more closely to what other proponents of mixed-member proportional have put forward.  But the first illustrates the Broadbent Institute’s warped view on the nature of voting itself.

The Broadbent Institute Sets Some Myths of Its Own

Ironically, in the section on “Busting PR Myths,” the Broadbent Institute introduces some mendacious mythology of its own. For example, it defines political “stability” in a misleading manner; instead of linking stability to the number of ministries, or governments, in office over a given time, it ties “stability” to the number of general elections held and parliaments elected over a given time. In this manner, the Broadbent Institute propagandizes Italy as a paragon of political stability because it has held only 18 elections since 1945, while Canada has held 22 over the same period.  In a parliamentary system in which governments must maintain the confidence of the assembly, the true test of stability is the longevity of the ministry in office, not the number of general elections held. Stability depends upon the executive, not the legislature, because the government can survive across multiple parliaments, but once one parliament is dissolve, it is gone forever. Since 1945, there have been only 15 ministries in office in Canada – while over the same period there have been 41 in Italy. As Italy shows, when a country adopts a proportional system, elections matter less, because mid-parliamentary transitions of power between ministries become the norm.

The Broadbent Institute also conflates electing representatives with forming governments.

Some critics claim that PR makes accountability more difficult, since it’s hard to “punish” a single candidate or party that you’re dissatisfied with at election time. As with other systems, if as a voter in a PR system, you’re dissatisfied with a given representative or party, you’re free to choose any other alternative. But unlike in FPTP, your choice, no matter what it may be, is likely to count towards electing a representative.[6]

It notes, correctly, that critics of mixed-member proportional representation argue against this system on the grounds that it encourages coalition governments, which in turn makes punishing governments and the political parties that form them more difficult during elections. This is true. But then the report pivots away from this criticism and simply states that the voters remain free to reject their local representative or a given party – which is true, but this is not the same thing as rejecting a government and its policies, and it does not respond to the fact that rejecting coalition governments is more difficult than rejecting single-party majority governments.

The Broadbent Institute also tacitly acknowledges that adopting mixed-member proportional representation would form part of a larger institutional reform in how Canadians govern themselves and how parliamentary government operates. In other words, with mixed-member proportional comes, at the very least, coalition governments; it could also come with fixed-term parliaments, confirmation voting, and constructive non-confidence, because, as European parliamentary systems show, these institutional features normally go hand in hand in an attempt to maintain some modicum of stability.

It’s true that under a PR system, single party majority governments would probably be few and far between. Instead, parties would have to co-operate with one another to work in the best interest of Canadians. This would occur through minority and coalition governments—that is, parties that engage in public, formal power-sharing agreements in order to form a government. Globally, these arrangements are very common.[7]

Finally, the Broadbent Institute concludes its report on the same erroneous Appeal to Teleology on which it began. From the Broadbent Institute’s point of view, we must reject single-member plurality just as we have rejected a restricted franchise and have gradually expanded the right to vote from propertied white men to all adult citizens, irrespective of sex or ethnicity. This teleological claim also implies that single-member plurality discriminates on the basis of sex or race or some other criteria that would make it inconsistent with the Charter and that we must therefore reject single-member plurality outright and replace it with a new system. First, liberals and social democrats cannot claim credit for this progressive expansion of the franchise toward universal adult suffrage, because it was the Conservative government of Sir Robert Borden in 1918 that introduced the Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women in 1918 and the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker that tabled the bill extending the franchise to all indigenous peoples. Second, universal adult suffrage and the right to vote itself, under section 3 of the Constitution Act, 1982, do not equate to the electoral system by which Canadian voters elect members of parliament. These are two separate issues – the first is a constitutional question; the second, a political question – but the Broadbent Institute relies on the false premise and disingenuous implication of combining the two together in order to delegitimate single-member plurality. You do not “waste” your vote simply because you happen to cast your ballot for a party that does not form government. To suggest otherwise would be to make the absurd assertion that our democratic rights include the right to elect members who then in turn must become cabinet ministers in government – a prosperous and unenforceable notion. 


Since the Canadian proponents of mixed-member proportional representation remain silent on practical matters, it is unclear whether they would object to the limited, politically feasible method that would set up, in effect, 10 proportional systems in each province. Instead, they tend to rely on vague outlines couched in normative claims because they concern themselves more with convincing Canadians that mixed-member proportional representation is best and inherently more fair than single-member plurality than explaining precisely the constitutional and statutory by which their preferred option would be implemented. In this respect, the Broadbent Institute finds itself in the company of the Law Commission of Canada’s report on electoral reform from 2004, “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada,” as well as other advocacy groups like Fair Vote Canada and the Every Voter Counts Alliance.

The proponents of mixed-member proportional representation owe Canadians thoroughness and transparency.

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[1] Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, “Description of The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly’s Mixed-Member Proportional System,” Part IV in Democracy at Work: The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform (Toronto: Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, 2007), 144-162.
[2] Broadbent Institute, An Electoral System for All: Why Canada Should Adopt Proportional Representation, March 2016. [Accessed 17 March 2016 < http://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/an_electoral_system_for_all>] Since this report appears online without a corresponding PDF or text version, I cannot cite specific page numbers or paragraphs.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

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7 Responses to A Response to the Broadbent Institute’s Polemic for Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

  1. James Wilson says:

    Great article! You picked up on a lot of things in their report I did not. Their very first graph is vague. They state that it shows that a majority of Canadians want electoral reform but an equal interpretation is that a larger majority of Canadians would prefer little-to-no electoral reform. They of course picked the interpretation that suited their interests. But enough of that.

    I’m actually curious how narrowly Section 52 would be interpreted in regard to ‘seats’. The reason I ask is that I am working on a proposal for electoral reform that seeks to make MP votes in Parliament proportional without changing seat totals:

    While I have finished the proposal I am still eager to get additional commentary on it. So far comments have been along the lines of “clever”, “interesting”, and I like that nothing needs to be changed about voting itself”. Only Prof. Tom Flanagan raised the issue about a constitutional amendment being needed but be cited the ‘similar in principle’ part of it.

  2. Wayne Smith says:

    The presence of the phrase “pure proportional representation” is a dead giveaway that the writer has no idea what he is talking about. There is no such thing. There is also no necessity for any kind of constitutional amendment to introduce proportional voting in Canada, as long as electoral districts do not cross provincial boundaries. No one is proposing that they should.

    • I see that this post is now starting to make the pro-MMP rounds and that the pro-MMP trolls are revealing themselves.

      1. Yes, there is such a thing as pure PR. It’s what Israel has, where the entire country serves as a geographical district and in which MPs are elected to the Knesset by party such that each party receives approximately the same percentage of seats in the assembly as its share of the vote in the election. The parties fill their seats based on their lists. This system contrasts to mixed-member proportional representation, a hybrid of pure PR and SMP.

      It’s really funny that you pro-MMP trolls insist that there’s no such thing as “pure PR,” yet you frequently mix up your terms, and sloppily refer to MMP as “proportional representation”, which by your own admission here refers to a different system.

      2. Your friends from Fair Vote on Twitter also couldn’t seem to comprehend this point from earlier today. Switching to MMP, even the German model that you described wherein the compensatory seats remain within each province, DOES require a constitutional amendment pursuant to s.44 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The Parliament of Canada alone can do it, but it is nevertheless a constitutional amendment. That is a fact which you cannot deny. Even changing the formula by which seats are redistributed after each decennial census requires a constitutional amendment under s.44, the last of which entered into force in 2011.

      Look it up. Go read the Constitution Act before spewing your ignorance all over my blog.

  3. Western Canada has had multi-member ridings before in the early 20th century using STV. As long as the ratio of MPs per province is kept, there is no need for constitutional amendment.

    • Switching to STV at the federal level would require a constitutional amendment — but only one under section 44 (Parliament of Canada alone), provided that the number or ratio of seats within in province remains intact.

      I submitted a longer version of this blog entry to an academic journal; hopefully, it will appear in the fall. While I didn’t go into the history of electoral systems in the provinces, I touched upon STV as well in that piece. But since I was responding to the Broadbent Institute in particular here in this blog entry, I only mentioned MMP.

      The principle is the same for switching to either system: as long as we preserve the number or ratio of seats per province, we could switch to MMP or STV alike by an unobtrusive constitutional amendment under s.44, rather than under the General Amending Formula. We wouldn’t have to “open the Constitution,” as we tend to say in this country.

  4. Pingback: Roundup: Slight mandate confusion | Routine Proceedings

  5. Jim Rose says:

    If proportional representation was introduced in Canada, the Liberal Party assumes that it will remain intact and not split. In New Zealand, as soon as MMP was announced, a number of people split off and formed their own parties.

    Canada has plenty of regional based parties but for first past the post so assume both the Conservative and Liberal parties would spl. The new Democrats would split to enter a moderate and radical faction

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