by Finn Poschmann and Henry Milner

In the 2001 election that routed the British Columbia NDP government, the Liberals, with slightly over half the popular vote, won fully 77 seats in a 79-seat legislature; the NDP retained a little over a fifth of the vote, but won only two seats; and the Greens, who earned nearly a seventh of the vote, won no seats. It was a classic example of the tendency of our first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system to overreward the frontrunner. In response to general dissatisfaction with the lopsided outcome, Premier Gordon Campbell invited Gordon Gibson (whose comments on the last federal election can be found on page 70 of this issue) to recommend a process whereby the province could consider alternative electoral systems. He recommended what became the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Just as we went to press, it reached a conclusion. Members of the Assembly recommended scrapping FPP in favour of the single transferable vote, or STV (see accompanying box). In the next provincial election, B.C. voters will decide between the assembly’s recommendation and FPP. To change systems requires a supermajority of 60 per cent in favour of STV.

We invited two members of the Inroads editorial board to debate the pros and cons of change.

— The Editors

That darned democratic deficit

by Finn Poschmann

Many countries around the world have turned away from first-past-the-post election systems toward some flavour of proportional representation (PR). Is it time for Canada to take the leap, or is our status quo, the system that has selected Canada’s federal members of Parliament since August 1867, muddling on well enough?

The June 2004 election starts the case for the status quo. Two parties were in the running to form a government: the Conservative challengers received a share of seats in the House of Commons all but indistinguishable from their share of the national popular vote, while the incumbent Liberals, owing to some regional concentration of voters among the minor parties, received a seat share higher than their popular vote. And owing to FPP, the minor parties (the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party) did well enough in their strongholds to hold the balance of power in a minority parliament anchored by the Liberals. A deeply divided electorate selected a deeply divided lower chamber, in which every vote counts and every region will vigorously assert its interests. The result was a minority government that nonetheless has a mandate to govern.

And that is where a discussion of the merits of FPP, versus any particular implementation of PR, must be focused. An electoral system must stand or fall on the basis of its systemic merits or demerits. In choosing an electoral system, the art is to produce results that facilitate governing, while not deviating too far from the distribution of voter preferences. Too large a deviation in too many elections will cost a democratic government first its legitimacy and ultimately its ability to govern.

Of course, many arguments heard for and against electoral reform are driven by tactical imperatives. When Paul Martin ran as an outsider for the leadership of the Liberal Party (despite its having been his lifetime home), his first formal pronouncements spoke of the need for democratic reform because he was aware of the intense regional animosity that had accrued toward the ancien régime. When it came to the general election, however, electoral reform was not front and centre for the Liberals. I find it hard to escape the conclusion that it suited his tactical fortunes to let the issue lie.

Not so for Jack Layton’s NDP, he being able to read polls as well as anyone else. His party’s relatively diffuse support meant that many votes would not turn into seats, and thus for him electoral reform became a call to arms. His call was loud enough that reform made it onto the agenda laid out in the fall 2004 Throne Speech. Layton has followed in the footsteps of the late Lord Jenkins in the United Kingdom, whose Liberal Democratic Party was electorally eviscerated by Tony Blair. Asked to chair a review commission on electoral mechanisms that reported in 1998, Jenkins discovered that with a dose of PR the kingdom would elect — more Lib-Dem MPs, which he clearly saw as a good in itself. Presumably Jack Layton would sympathize.

Focusing on the systemic merits of electoral change instead of these tactical considerations lets us address more important questions. FPP tends to consign to defeat the unsavoury extremes, such as the nasty characters that have graced the Austrian and Italian political stages from time to time. Israel’s experience with a 1 per cent threshold for entering the Knesset has produced numerous unholy parliamentary alliances and revolving cabinet games. Now, pointing to one or another embarrassing parliamentarian will not do as a critique of an electoral system, but it is legitimate to point out that, while dubious members inhabit every community, PR makes it easier for them to get elected.

The most common critique of PR is instability: the repeated collapse of the tenuous coalitions that PR tends to produce creates policy uncertainty and doubts about the long-term capacity of any particular government to govern. There is something to this critique, and Italy’s numerous postwar governments and Israel’s fractious cabinets are the usual examples.

PR’s bigger problem is that it entrenches in power the leadership of the major parties. For most of the half century following World War II, no matter how Italian voters might twist and turn, they found themselves ruled, after a fashion, by a government dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. Governments fell routinely but the same cast of characters shuffled cabinet chairs and rambled on as before. The end came with the emergence of a regionally dominant, business-friendly party that ran on an anti-corruption campaign. The Northern League exploited a sense of regional exclusion and disgust to muscle a place in government. It was important for Italy’s political and economic growth that its aged and habit-encrusted power brokers be turned out, and it was regionalism that did it. However, PR made it harder, not easier, to turf out the broadly unwanted permanent governing parties.

Another strike against PR is the quality of policy choices that cohabitating governing parties make. This is a dynamic problem: a junior coalition partner that supports the dominant party’s position is readily forgotten and electorally unrewarded. Coalition members may oppose socially preferred policy choices precisely because they are the right thing to do. From the perspective of the junior partner, to support the dominant party’s policy choice may be counterproductive – such support demonstrates the irrelevance of the junior partner. This is a systemic flaw in coalition government, and one encouraged by PR.

Placing a high threshold for obtaining parliamentary representation partially addresses the problem of fringe parties’ corrosive power under PR. But it cannot fix the dynamic ills of decision-making within a coalition or the inevitable impact of power politics and party entrenchment. For instance, political affiliation dominates a large part of cultural life in Israel. Certainly, PR in Canada could not be expected to reduce partisanship or the rewards to aggressive regional political activism.

Electoral systems are part of the web of legal and civil institutions that societies construct to govern themselves. The parts of the web interact and co-evolve, and changing one part may have undesired consequences for another.

Thus, New Zealand’s recent experience with PR has delivered a bizarre lesson in institutional change: what happens when members go rogue and the normal constraints of party power malfunction? After living with PR for one term, New Zealand’s parliamentarians realized they needed a law forbidding themselves from crossing the floor. After all, they reasoned, if the share of the national vote a party wins should in principle fix a party’s number of votes in the chamber, then crossing the floor cannot be allowed. But what to do when one of the list members peers into her heart and discovers herself conscience-bound to vote with other parties?

The answer so far has been to sue. Richard Prebble, the otherwise kind and sensible former leader of the ACT Party of New Zealand, is arguing before the Supreme Court that Donna Awatere Huata’s votes and speeches outside the chamber have demonstrated that she is an unfit member, and that the country’s voters deserve another who will vote as expected. It is an embarrassing spectacle, and no one yet knows the outcome. For elected members, what are the implications for the concept of free speech and voting one’s conscience? I am glad that it is they and not we who are posing that question.

Perhaps Canada’s electoral institutions do need repair – we have our share of political entrenchment, corruption and regional angst. What is missing is evidence that any particular flavour of PR, given its well-known systemic flaws, will provide the needed repair. Each step toward PR suppresses local voices and choices and elevates disparate and inchoate ones, which are of course manipulated by party insiders.

PR advocates argue that FPP denies adequate representation to marginal voices that are geographically dispersed. But a political party ought to walk before it runs. And FPP has not barred new voices: from the Parti Québécois and Saskatchewan Party at the provincial level to Reform at the federal level, FPP has allowed new parties to enter legislatures, and in some cases to govern. The recent emergence of the federal Conservative Party reflected the centre-right’s acknowledgement of FPP’s imperative to change from within, in search of broader public support in more regions. This was surely not a bad thing. Under PR the accommodation would have been unnecessary, and the debates in the House of Commons more extreme.

Elements of PR have been used before in Canada’s provinces and may again, but in recent years other jurisdictions have reduced their reliance on PR. Commissions on electoral reform, in Canada and elsewhere, have killed many acres of trees, yet I see no case, let alone a compelling one, for surrendering the requirement that a party command a majority in some geographically defined constituency – somewhere, anywhere – thereby demonstrating its ability to bring a community onside with its policies.

Until the case for change is made, if you want to win a voice in Parliament, convince your friends and neighbours you deserve one. Then the rest of us might hear you.

We need a fair system

by Henry Milner

Finn begins by telling us that an electoral system must stand or fall on its systemic merits or demerits. I agree. But I disagree that, on that basis, our FPP system stands and PR falls. Finn’s accusations against PR apply mainly to Italy and Israel. The reasons for the failings he notes are either unrelated to PR or relate to some specific feature of PR as practised in these countries.

In Finn’s account, PR stands accused of three sins: (1) allowing the election of the “unsavoury extremes”; (2) entrenching in power the leadership of the major parties; and (3) rendering coalitions unstable since small parties need to distinguish themselves. The assertion that PR tends to produce policy uncertainty and weak government reflects conditions in Finn’s two favourite examples, Italy and Israel. These are two countries with effectively no electoral thresholds for obtaining parliamentary representation. All serious PR advocates in Canada want a meaningful threshold – the report tabled in March 2004 by the Law Commission of Canada calls for an electoral support threshold of 5 per cent.

As for entrenching in power the leadership of the major parties, the example brought forward is again Italy. It is true that Christian Democrats dominated post–World War II Italian governments. But this was due not to the electoral system but to the fact that, since the competing large party – the pro-Soviet Communists – was excluded from any role in government, numerically no meaningful government could be established without the Christian Democrats. Moreover, because Italy allowed secret votes in Parliament – a perverse provision unrelated to the electoral system – coalitions negotiated by party leaders were undermined by anonymous backbenchers. In short, judging PR by Italy is similar to judging FPP by India.

Turning to our own experience, Finn and other critics are prejudging the performance of parties under PR by FPP minority situations – like that in the current Parliament. Under FPP, parties know that minority governments are likely to be short-lived, and act accordingly; under PR, they know that provoking the premature fall of a minority government will not bring majority government, but it could very well bring punishment from the electorate.

Finn concludes that the offsetting benefits of PR are hard to see. Perhaps that is because he is not looking for them. Were he to do so, he might begin with FPP’s inherent unfairness: the fact that votes do not count equally. He implies that fairness is more or less irrelevant. It is true that, in the Canadian context, the NDP will benefit from change, and the Liberals will lose, but most people find something deeply unfair in the fact that NDP voters have been consistently underrepresented in seats. To use an Italian metaphor, the leaning tower of Pisa always leans in the same direction.

Moreover, even when the overall result is not too far from overall proportionality – and the 2004 result was unlike the three previous federal elections in this respect – regional distortions are large. For example, in 2004, the Conservatives and NDP, instead of being shut out in Quebec, would have won six and three seats respectively under the Law Commission’s proposed PR model.

The political effects of these distortions should not be ignored. In close ridings, voters are often forced to act against their real preferences. Under a more proportional system, we could have avoided the dismal spectacle of Paul Martin appealing to New Democrats to vote Liberal not because his party’s program was close to their objectives, but to keep out the dreaded Stephen Harper. To avoid FPP’s effects on a divided right, the Progressive Conservatives and Alliance sacrificed their core principles and entered into a forced marriage. Under PR, they need not have done so.

The real advantage of PR is that, unlike FPP, it makes every vote count – even in areas where a voter’s preferred party is weak. Adopting PR should at least slow down plummeting turnout, a problem not to be ignored: the June election, though one of the most competitive in years, drew a record low turnout. PR also tends to make Parliament more reflective of the population’s ethnic and gender composition.

Finn pokes fun at New Zealand’s difficulties in dealing with MPs elected from a party list who abandon their party. In 1993, New Zealand abandoned FPP and adopted the Mixed Member Proportional form of PR. Admittedly, MPs who cross the floor have posed a problem. Nevertheless, New Zealand parliamentarians, required by law to evaluate the new system a decade after having dispensed with FPP, did not consider returning to the status quo ante.