Friday, August 19, 2016

No Reason To Reject The System Outright



As Canada moves towards proportional representation, the Cassandras are wailing loudly. Andrew Coyne gives two examples -- from opposite ends of the political spectrum:

Here, for example, is Bill Tieleman, B.C. NDP strategist, writing in The Tyee: “How would you like an anti-immigrant, racist, anti-abortion or fundamentalist religious political party holding the balance of power in Canada? … Welcome to the proportional representation electoral system, where extreme, minority and just plain bizarre views get to rule the roost.”

At the other ideological pole, here’s columnist Lorne Gunter, writing in The Sun newspapers: “PR breaks the local bond between constituents and MPs … In a strict PR system, party leaders at national headquarters select who their candidates will be, or at least in what order they will make it into Parliament …” 

To the sceptics, Coyne writes, look at the countries where PR has been adopted:

Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, all of whose parliaments are wholly or partially elected by proportional representation. 

We can at least describe accurately how their political system actually works, rather than rely on caricatures born of half-remembered newspaper clippings.

At one end, you have countries such as Austria, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden, all with six to eight parties represented in their legislatures — or about one to three more than Canada’s, with five. At the other, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, with 10 to 12. 

Virtually all of these countries have some element of local representation: only the Netherlands, whose total area is less than that of some Canadian ridings, elects MPs at large. And none uses the “strict” form of PR Gunter describes, known as “closed list.” Rather, voters can generally choose which of a party’s candidates they prefer, so-called “open lists.”

How unstable are these systems? Since 1945, Canada has held 22 elections. In only one of the PR countries mentioned has there been more: Denmark, with 26. The average is 20. It is true that the governments that result are rarely, if ever, one-party majorities. But, as you may have noticed, that is not unknown here. Nine of Canada’s 22 federal elections since 1945 have resulted in minority parliaments. 

The sceptics like to point to two countries -- Israel and Italy. But both countries are outliers:

The Israeli parliament has 12 parties, Italy’s eight. By comparison, France, which uses a two-round system, has 14, while the United Kingdom — yes, Mother Britain — now has 11. More to the point, there are circumstances unique to each, not only in their parliamentary systems — Israel uses an extreme form of PR, while Italy’s, which has gone through several, defies description — but in their histories and political cultures. 

So, yes, it's important that the system be designed with care. But the fact that two countries have designed their systems poorly is no reason to reject the system outright.

Image: canadians.org

16 comments:

Kirby Evans said...

The hatred of electoral reform on the part of much of the Canadian political establishment is predictable fear of a group of elite that have enjoyed a decisive privilege for a very long time and are terribly afraid of losing that privilege. They don't really care about the idea of representation or democracy per se. Rather, their primary concern is maintaining their power while keeping the vague (and false) image of a democracy through FPTP. And, unfortunately, as so often happens, a surprising number of average people buy into the scam that these elites are peddling. In Marxism they would call it "false consciousness."

Owen Gray said...

Clearly, our elites stand a lot to lose if PR is adopted, Kirby. However, it will be difficult to convince a lot of ordinary Canadians that PR serves their best interests.

Dana said...

Canadians, like virtually all other humans, have no idea what their best interests are let alone where they may lie.

If humanity did know do you think there would still be war? Would we be so intent on making the earth uninhabitable?

Steve said...

The big advantage of PR is that it lets unelectable people govern.

Owen Gray said...

Mark Twain insisted that we were the "damn'd human race," Dana. There has always been lots of evidence to support his conclusion. However, occasionally, we surprise ourselves. It's that hope -- that, once in awhile, we do the right thing -- which keeps us going.

Toby said...

Owen, I prefer a 50% +1 rule in which no party may rule without a clear majority. Such a rule would would force coalitions.

My second choice would be a ranked ballot system.

I share some of Coyne's concern with proportional rep. It can produce bad results. One need look no farther than Australia with its Steven Harper clone PM.

There are some other considerations that might be more important. Iceland, I think, has a rule that no less than 40% of either men or women may be in the government. Iceland is way ahead of Trudeau's 2015.

I also think that every ballot should have provision for write in or none of the above.

Owen Gray said...

The "none of the above" option seems reasonable, Toby. Coyne's insistence that we have plenty of examples and experience to work from is well taken. We should be able to design a fair and workable system.

Owen Gray said...

That's not quite true, Steve. It depends on how they are elected. They might be unelectable under first past the post. But, under FPTP, 37% can give you majority. That's a strange way to define electability.

Anonymous said...

This is a false dichotomy. Bill Tieleman is a relic from the BC-STV initiative that was aimed at a corrupt NDP government that won a "majority" on less of the vote than the BC-Liberal party. (Because Reform was in the game and split the vote. Gotta love the arbitrary election results caveman voting produces.)

There are only two kinds of people who are opposed to Canada becoming a democracy: the tiny minority of partisans (who like absolute power on 40% of the vote) and the tiny minority of establishment plutocrats who own the Canadian pseudo news media.

But as rhetoric, it's a good (albeit dishonest) play. Portray the opponents of democracy as extremists from the left and the right. It's certainly true they are extremists.

BTW, Tieleman is a good example of how partisanship fries your brain. He's still tilting at windmills a decade later, his noggin incapable of absorbing any new related information. The BC-NDP now supports electoral reform.

Owen Gray said...

The point is, Anon, that the naysayers are not all in the Conservative camp. There is an impression out there that only the Conservatives are opposed to electoral reform. The naysayers cut across the political spectrum.

And their definition of proportional representation varies.

Rural said...

As the Irish professor said after presenting the rather complex system they use to the committee “You mustn’t expect too much from electoral system change,” he warns the committee — it won”t “transform” the basic nature of politics by instantly rendering it more civil and collaborate. Expecting that from a change to the vote count formula would be “unrealistic,”
All the systems have their strong points and their faults, getting the best one for Canada will not be an easy task ....or insure a less "dysfunctional" parliament.

Owen Gray said...

Wise words, Rural. No matter what the system, what makes the difference -- what always makes the difference -- is the people working within the system.

The Mound of Sound said...


Despite the whinging from the NDP, I support the preferential ballot option, Owen. It provides greater certainty and no one gets a vote over my life who wasn't chosen by the electorate.

Anonymous said...

Is it the voting system that is at fault or is it the uneducated voter??
I know too many voters that have no clue on current events; they just vote to the buzzwords and phrases of candidates.
That may be Democracy but is it acceptable??
TB

Owen Gray said...

Good question, TB. I think you can argue that uneducated voters are behind the rise of Donald Trump. What's important is the number of uneducated voters. They're always there. But, if they become a majority, they are a clear and present danger.

Owen Gray said...

Exactly, Mound. Regardless of how candidates got on the ballot, it's you who put them in the place you choose.