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Dr. Charles Smith on provincial electoral reform

The Saskatchewan Party government has stated that it is interested in transforming the provincial state. Recognizing that much of the “transformative change” rhetoric is coming at a time of fiscal stress, there will undoubtedly be calls by some to drastically scale back important areas of the social welfare state. This would be a mistake.

Yet, what if we did not see transformative change as simply a cost-cutting exercise but an opportunity? What if we imagined a radically transformation of the state that was prefaced on making government more democratic and more accountable? What would such a change look like and how could it assist the Saskatchewan people through these troubled economic times?

The answer is a complex one, but begins by rethinking the government’s relationship to citizens and voters. Too often, re-elected governments forget or are structurally distanced from the voters that elected them. Too often, governments are elected with false majorities or are given a larger proportion of seats in the legislature than the actual support received by voters. These problems lead to a structural disconnect between government and voters, leaving too many citizens outside of the decision-making process.

Under our current electoral system, political scientists have argued that political parties competing for power rush to a mythical policy “centre” that they believe will placate a large percentage of voters while hoping not to alienate the rest. Our current electoral system is called Single-Member-Plurality (SMP) or First-Past-the Post. Historically, elections in Saskatchewan over represent certain parties and the mandates they receive from voters. For instance, the NDP wins in the 1990s gave the party super legislative majorities far exceeding the actual number of votes received. Even more egregious, third parties such as the Liberal Party of Saskatchewan saw most of its votes count for little or nothing as their votes did not translate into equal amounts of seats. In essence, Saskatchewan voters who cast ballots for non-NDP candidates virtually had their voices silenced.

We are seeing a similar trend in the current decade. Few would doubt the popularity of the Saskatchewan Party from 2007-2016. Yet, even their large electoral majority is over-inflated in the legislative assembly. Throughout this period, the Saskatchewan Party has been rewarded with thirty percent more of the seats than their vote warranted. This leads to a weaker opposition to question government priorities.

Think also of the voices that are virtually silenced under our current system. Unless a certain demographic make up a large plurality in specific geographic ridings, their voices carry little weight. For instance, urban Indigenous voices have little weight in our current electoral system because they are dispersed throughout the urban centres rather than in larger rural ridings. Is there a way to empower these voices?

Were the provincial state to be transformed in a more democratic way, we could imagine a system of proportional representation that would seek to better balance percentages of votes to percentage of seats. In other words, voters would be given more authority to speak with their ballots. Recognizing that Saskatchewan citizens are committed to local empowerment and local representation, a move towards a Mixed Member Proportional System (MMP) would serve Saskatchewan well. Under MMP voters would cast two ballots: one for a local representative and one for a party. In each constituency, voters are freer to vote for a local representative regardless of party affiliation. Once the local representatives are elected, parties receive a top-up in the legislative assembly from party lists distributed before an election.

Once a more representative legislative assembly is constructive, governments are then forced to work more closely with the opposition, recognizing that elections will not always give parties false or extremely large majorities. Recognizing that voters will have more power to transform the provincial state through their ballots will force governments to take those voices more seriously, especially in between elections. Parties too will be forced to better reflect the voters they are courting, because every single vote will count. In short, we’ll have a radically more democratic state. Such transformation will give citizens far better ability to openly influence any future transformative change agenda from government. It is time to transform our democracy to reflect the wishes of voters and citizens.