by Bruce Cherney
Former Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin was among a generation of politicians who had been elected under a proportional system. Before he passed away on May 30, 2010, Roblin told the Winnipeg Real Estate News, he was neither a fan of such a system nor would he have endorsed its reintroduction to the province.
“It was not a good idea for Winnipeg,” he said. “It emasculated Winnipeg’s vote.”
By the time he led the Conservatives to power in the province in 1958, Manitoba’s experiment with proportional representation had ended with most considering it an abject failure.
In 1920, Winnipeg was made into one large constituency where 10 candidates were elected at large by using a preferential voting system, the hallmark of proportional representation, or PR. In contrast, rural ridings still elected Members of the Manitoba Legislature by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. It wasn’t until 1927 that preferential voting was introduced into rural Manitoba, but single constituencies were retained, meaning that unlike Winnipeg, one member was elected for each riding.
The system of proportional representation adopted in Manitoba was based on a plan proposed by English lawyer Thomas Hare in the late 19th-century. Hare’s aim was to give each voter an equal voice in the election of representatives, and in multi-member ridings to give smaller parties a better chance of representation in an assembly.
Preferential voting refers to the system of marking ballots with choices 1, 2, 3 and 4, etc., depending upon the number of candidates running.
The Manitoba model was in answer to the findings of the Mathers Commission investigating industrial relations in Canada, which, in turn, was a response to the labour unrest in the nation that manifested itself in the Winnipeg General Strike of May-June 1919.
After the First World War, labour began to demand a “square deal.” To address the concerns of labour, one recommendation from the commission was the introduction of voting by proportional representation in order to give workers a greater political voice.
Into the mix were thrown farmers and returning war veterans who also wanted to be heard in the halls of government. In the case of the veterans, they were either unemployed in massive numbers or poorly paid in their jobs due to the eruption of an economic recession following the war. The veterans played a significant role in the Winnipeg General Strike, with the ordinary troops taking the side of the strikers, while the officers sided with business interests, which was a reflection of the deep divisions then existing within Canadian society.
The movement toward proportional representation in Canada was indorsed by the Great War Veterans’ Association, the Canadian Council of Agriculture, the Labour Party, Social Service Councils and other reform groups.
In Manitoba, among those supporting the voting system were the United Farmers of Manitoba and numerous labour organizations.
Business groups also gave their endorsement in order to curtail the rise of more militant labour groups such as the One Big Union (OBU). It was the belief of business that proportional representation would result in the election of “moderate” labour candidates — which was mentioned in the Mathers report — and prevent the outbreak of a “Bolshevik-style” revolution. For business, advocating PR was more of a strategic move rather than acceptance of the alleged merits of the voting system.
Even Clifford Sifton, the Brandon MP who was the Minister of the Interior under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, endorsed proportional representation at the federal level. He proposed a PR plan to have two-thirds of the MPs in the House of Commons elected in single-seat constituencies and one-third elected on the basis of party popular support.
The federal Liberals adopted PR as party policy following the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had been prime minister from 1896 to 1911, on February 17, 1919.
The party was in turmoil at this time, so it had little to lose by endorsing what was becoming a growing popular movement. After Laurier’s death, Mackenzie King became the leader of the Liberals and the party began a near-miraculous resurrection, defeating the Arthur Meighen-led Conservatives at the polls in 1921. Meighen had replaced Sir Robert Borden as leader of the Union government, but his time as prime minster only lasted a few months.
Many Liberals had joined the ranks of the Union government formed by Prime Minister Borden during the First World War. The issue that split the party was the conscription crisis with some English-speaking MPs in favour of conscription transferring their alliance to the Borden government. As a result, eight Liberals were in the federal cabinet.
Future Liberal, Thomas A. Crerar, a Winnipeg MP, was appointed as the minister of agriculture in the Union government. On June 6, 1919, Crerar became disillusioned with Borden and the Unionist high tariff policy, resigning from the cabinet and helping to form the National Progressive Party, which advocated policies such as free trade with the United States and the implementation of proportional representation.
But the Liberal resurgence and the massive electoral defeat of Meighen’s government (the Liberals won 117 seats, the Progressives 64 and the Tories were a distant third with just 50 seats) allowed King to conveniently forget about implementing proportional representation to the chagrin of the Progressives who had propped up his minority government. PR soon became a Liberal afterthought.
By this time, civic elections in Winnipeg were run under a proportional representation model, setting the stage for such a system’s expansion to the higher levels of government.
Since Sifton owned the Manitoba Free Press, his Liberal-friendly newspaper became a PR advocate.
In a July 4, 1919, editorial, the Free Press claimed one large constituency should be adopted in each major Canadian city during federal elections, “returning three or more members. Voting should be by order of preference marked on one ballot comprising an alphabetical list of all candidates for this three or more vacancies. In the result a laborite or other minority voting party voting solidly for its own candidates would obtain one, two or three members according to the strength in the electorate and the support it might obtain from the other elements.”
In the same editorial, the newspaper encouraged the Liberal government of Premier T.C. Norris to “apply the Hare system to one large urban district of this province at the next provincial election ...”
As it turned out, this is exactly what the Manitoba government did as part of its overall scheme of electoral reform, which had seen women receiving the vote in January 1916, making it the first province to legislate universal suffrage in Canada.
According to the amendment to the Manitoba Election Act, which made its way through the legislature in March 1920, a Winnipeg candidate was elected by dividing “the total number of valid paper votes polled in a division by a number exceeding by one the number of members to be elected and the result, increased by one, disregarding any fractions, shall be the number of votes sufficient to return a candidate.”
The rather confusing amendment can be readily translated as meaning that for the 1920 provincial election in Winnipeg’s one big constituency (previously there had been six single-seat ridings in the city), the returning officer set a quota derived by totalling the votes and dividing by 10 and adding one vote to form a simple majority. If any candidate received more first-place votes than the quota, he or she was declared elected.
The system became more complicated when a candidate during the first count obtained more first place choices than required to be elected, which was called a surplus. All the candidate’s votes were sorted out according to second choices. Any ballots without second choices were set aside and were not used during the subsequent counts. The second choices were then allotted to the candidate for whom they were indicated, but not in their entirety. A complicated mathematical formula was used to portion the second choices with the remaining candidates receiving their share of the top candidate’s surplus.
When their was no surplus to portion out, the low candidate was dropped and all his or her votes were distributed based upon second choices.
The process continued until 10 candidates received the necessary quota. In the 1920, it took 37 counts before 10 out of 41 candidates were elected in Winnipeg. Only Labour Party candidate Fred Dixon and Liberal candidate Thomas Johnson were declared elected after the first count. The other candidates had to exercise extreme patience until their eventual fate was determined. In 1932, it took two days to count all the ballots before a result could be announced.
Since the government realized that voters would be confused by the great number of candidates on the single ballot, it was decided to have the candidates listed alphabetically and their party affiliation indicated by colours: red for Liberal, blue for Conservative, pea green for Labour and Socialist, and Independent in black.
When proportional representation was introduced in Manitoba, the Norris government was facing the growth of the United Farmers of Manitoba (UFM), a rural-based small-c conservative movement opposed to traditional party politics. Individual members were expected to vote on the merits of a particular piece of legislation rather than along party lines — so-called “free votes.”
As its name implied, it was primarily interested in rural issues, but also called for fiscal restraint and a pay-as-you-go system of government.
Norris led a reform government which brought in such legislation as the vote for women, a minimum wage, compulsory education, a temperance act, a rural farm credit, a mothers’ allowance and public health nursing. Since its landslide election in 1915 (55 per cent of the vote and 40 of 46 seats — a result not since equalled), the Norris government led Canada in social, labour and political reform legislation, resulting in it being the most proactive in Manitoba’s history to this day. Norris also introduced an Initiative and Referendum Act, which allowed voters to write their own laws and then have them subjected to a province-wide referendum, but this act was declared unconstitutional by the courts.
But the social and labour legislation proved costly and led to three deficits in the first five years of the Norris government’s existence. It also didn’t help that a recession struck in 1920.
While the PR amendment was a reaction to a growing populist movement, the Norris government also considered such a voting system as a potential method to rekindle their flagging political support. It was a false hope as the results of the 1920 election showed.
In the 1920 election, the UFM won 12 seats despite running candidates in only 26 of 55 ridings. The Conservatives took seven seats, labour 11 and four independents were elected. The Liberals formed a minority government by electing 21 candidates. It was a disastrous result for the Liberals, who lost nearly half the seats they held prior to the election.
An editorial in July 5, 1920, Free Press ran under the headline, PR Vindicated, asserting that the election had demonstrated the “practicability and merits of Proportional Representation.” The editorial called for PR to be expanded into rural Manitoba, which didn’t occur until seven years later. When PR reached rural Manitoba, individual constituencies were retained and candidates in each riding were elected by a single transferable vote (STV), a voting process far less cumbersome than the one used in Winnipeg.
“Some of the advantages of the new system are very apparent,” continued the editorial. “In the first place Proportional Representation eliminated the excitement and bitterness from the election campaign; the knowledge that each party could only get its fair proportion, and no more, of the available seats made the old-time strategy and electioneering useless; it also saved thousands of dollars which would have been spent in pushing the individual candidates, and it enabled the electors to approach the ballots with a calmness of mind which gave them an opportunity to cast their votes with the greatest possible understanding and intelligence; the trifling number of spoiled ballots is an eloquent testimonial to the fact that the electors were cool and clear-headed when they went to the polls.”
On the other hand, the newspaper did admit that the presence of so many candidates on the ballots did make the voting process “a formidable affair.”
The fractured legislature meant little consensus was reached and the Norris government fell two years later when it lost a vote of confidence. The UFM could have formed the Official Opposition, but refused, a signal that partisan politics in Manitoba was coming to and end. What arose was an era of non-partisan UFM government and coalitions under a variety of banners, including UFM, Progressive, Liberal-Progressive or simply Liberal, all of which fell under the term Brackenism, derived from the political philosophy of Premier John Bracken. This era only ended in 1958 with the election of Duff Roblin and the Conservatives in the first election after PR was dropped.
Under the PR system, the coalition governments formed by Bracken and by those who adopted his philosophy stayed in power from 1922 to 1958 with only one hiccup in 1936. Following the 1936 election, the government had 22 seats, the Conservatives 16, the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP) six, Social Credit five, while three Independents and one Communist were elected. Bracken stayed in power when the Social Credit MLAs helped the premier form a coalition government. This allowed Brackenism to survive another five years before another election had to be called. In 1942, Bracken left for Ottawa to lead the federal Conservative Party under the condition that it be renamed the Progressive Conservative Party.
Roblin wrote in his memoirs, Speaking for Myself, that as many as 10 to 12 names could appear on the ballot for each of Winnipeg’s four constituencies in 1949 with only four candidates selected in each riding.
In the 1953 provincial election, the ballot for Winnipeg Central was 18 inches long since 14 candidates were running in the four-member riding. At the time, there were three constituencies in Winnipeg with each electing four members, while St. Boniface was a single riding electing two members to the legislature.
Roblin was nominated to run in 1949 as a Progressive Conservative (PC) candidate for Winnipeg South.
“I laid it on the line that I was running against my own party, which was part of the coalition, and I explained to the (nomination) meeting why good government required a return to to the traditional parliamentary operations in our legislature.”
The PCs also nominated a pro-coalition candidate, Alec Stringer. “Either the South Winnipeg Progressive Conservatives were hedging their bets, or they didn’t know which way they really wanted to go,” wrote Roblin.
Bracken had convinced Errick Willis, the leader of the PCs, to join his coalition government. The Liberals had joined the coalition in the 1930s.
In an October 15, 1940, letter Bracken wrote Willis and the leaders of the other opposition parties: “In whatever we may do in this connection, if anything, there is involved no sacrifice or compromise of principles on your party or our own ... We are not today only CCF-Labor or Liberal-Progressive or Conservative or Social Credit, but rather Canadians and democrats and freemen. Our cause, even Manitoba’s cause, is at this time greater than your party or our own.”
Bracken was appealing to the patriotism of the other parties at a time when Canada was at war with the Axis powers. He also cited a need for a united front as the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations (Rowell-Sirois Commission) prepared its report on the financial difficulties of provinces such as Manitoba. His arguments were intended to make his coalition sound more palatable. Combined with their fear of the popularity of Brackenism in rural Manitoba, the other parties were quite willing to go along with the premier’s proposal.
In Winnipeg South, J.S. McDiarmid, a Liberal coalitionist, finished first. He was followed by another Liberal coalitionist, Ron Turner, and then by Lloyd Stinson, a CCF candidate, and in fourth, and thus gaining a seat in the legislature, was Roblin.
“I had to admit that it took the counting of many second, third, fourth and fifth choices to get me elected, and I only scraped in over the quota by the skin of my teeth.”
In the 1953 election, the last under proportional representation, Roblin was re-elected.
Until redistribution for the 1958 election, representation in the Manitoba Legislature reflected a significant rural bias. In fact, the coalition's election platform for 1953 contained nothing for Brandon and Winnipeg voters.
PR and coalition governments had an unanticipated side effect upon voter turn out. In rural constituencies, voter turnout was often less than 50 per cent and many candidates were returned by acclamation. In the 1949 provincial election, 20 of the seats in the legislature went to the coalition through acclamation. In the 1941 election, of the 45 seats outside Winnipeg, 16 were won without a challenge.
An Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission was set up in 1957 to review the electoral system and address voter apathy. The commission’s report recommended abandoning PR and creating single-member constituencies in Winnipeg and first-post-the-post results in each Manitoba riding.
The commission also recommended that Winnipeg's representation be increased from 25 per cent of the seat total to 40 per cent to more adequately reflect the city’s share of the provincial population. This would give Winnipeg 20 seats in the 56-member house.
The rural-urban voter ratio was set by the commission as seven to four in favour of rural ridings.
“Why should four housewives in Portage la Prairie be equal to seven in Brandon?” asked CCF Leader Stinson in the legislature.
“You don’t know those Portage women!” a heckler shouted.
“Do you?” retorted Stinson.
Roblin said Douglas Campbell’s Liberal government recognized the inequities in the system and to its credit passed the necessary legislation.
Historian Ed Whitcomb said the demise of PR ended “the hopeless splintering of the Winnipeg vote.”
“For a government long in power, reform carries the political danger of estranging its conservative support without attracting an equal number of votes from the progressive elements of the population, people who have possibly been alienated from the government and distrust its reformist intentions and regard them as death-bed repentance,” wrote Whitcomb in A Short History of Manitoba.
“This is precisely what happened to Manitoba in the mid-1950s.”
After the votes were counted for the 1958 provincial election, 26 PCs were elected, 19 Liberals and 11 CCF. Roblin was able to form a minority government, which was increased to a majority following the election a year later.
Prior to his passing. Roblin told the WREN that electoral reform is required in Canada, but it should not include proportional representation.
“It sounds awfully good,” he said, “but in a country like Canada to get a government into office, it would take an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing.”
What Roblin favoured was single-member constituencies decided by preferential voting, the same system used in rural ridings between 1927 and 1958. Such a system would ensure the people’s overall choice was elected, he added. If 50-per-cent-plus-one of the vote isn’t attained in the first go-around, then the last-place candidate is dropped and voting continues until one candidate obtains a simple minority.
The hybrid system used in Manitoba may not have reflected the best intentions of proportional representation, but it was experimented with for over three decades and was eventually deemed a failure. The experiment also was a victim of a surging economy in the post-war era, “ameliorating some of the historic grievances of both farmers and workers (Dennis Pilon, Explaining Voter System Reform in Canada, 1874 to 1960, Journal of Canadian Studies, fall 2006). In such a strong economic climate, “voting system reform no longer seemed necessary to address or contain class interests.”