In praise of Proportional Representation

Posted on June 30, 2015 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
June 29, 2015.   David Moscrop and Spencer McKay

The federal election is four months away and, against the odds, Canada has become awash in national policy discussions, including one about the future of our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. The Liberal party and the New Democratic Party (NDP) have said they’ll do away with the medieval system if they’re elected; the Conservative party (insert your own medieval joke here) has reaffirmed its commitment to FPTP. Let the great debate begin.

Whatever their motivations, the Conservative party’s refusal to put FPTP up for discussion is the latest in a series of policy or legislative measures that will undermine or suppress voters who might threaten a Conservative victory — the same sort of victory enjoyed by the Liberal party many times in the last 148 years.

The main alternative to FPTP is proportional representation (PR), a system that would produce more minority governments and might slow the pace of policy-making. Some types of PR empower small fringe parties, but no one has seriously suggested these types for Canada, and this phenomenon is easily managed by requiring parties to gain support from 5 per cent of Canadians before receiving any seats.

Proportional representation is not a democratic cure-all — no electoral system is. But there are several important and frequently mentioned benefits of a PR system: it would increase turnout by 5-10 per cent and allow a broader range of policies to be considered. It would also ensure that voters are given more choice among parties and would ensure that fewer votes were wasted. These trade-offs make sense in a society that is linguistically, regionally and culturally diverse.

Being able to choose to vote for a viable or semi-viable party from among more than two options (or two-and-a-half) provides voters with the opportunity to opt for a party that will bring what they see as key issues to the forefront — some that might not be addressed by the largest parties, such as climate change or poverty alleviation.

Critics of proportional representation allege that giving more weight to voter choice would produce too many unstable minority governments, neglecting that more than 25 per cent of Canadian elections have produced minorities anyway. Additionally, PR systems do not produce more elections than FPTP systems, in part because the incentive to force an election disappears in proportional systems where parties are unlikely to win a majority and instead negotiate with other parties to accomplish their goals.

Such collaboration has been decried as inefficient, but the last four years in Canada have demonstrated that efficient government is not the same as quality government. The Conservatives have efficiently pushed through plenty of dubious legislation, like omnibus budget bills, and have killed private members bills, such as one that would have restored the long-form census, despite citizen disapproval of their actions.

Defenders of the status quo ignore another key inefficiency in the current system. Once voters replace one majority government with another, different majority, the new government has to spend a significant amount of time and energy undoing the most extreme portions of the previous government’s agenda. Meanwhile, it’s unlikely that the preferences of the citizens who elected either (or both) governments have changed all that much.

In the current climate, the Conservatives have become so comfortable governing without input from others that they are enacting laws that will have the effect of suppressing turnout at a time when fewer and fewer Canadians are going to the polls. Both the Fair Elections Act and the Citizen Voting Act were passed in the last two years and experts have warned that they will prevent some Canadians — particularly those who are young, poor, or indigenous — from voting.

Refusing to accept that we need electoral reform is another way of discouraging turnout and contributing to growing citizen alienation. The current system keeps voters who support challengers in ridings with safe seats at home because they know their vote has no impact. It encourages citizens to vote strategically, to support their second choice, which hurts parties with small national support, like the Greens, and helps divisive regional parties, like the Bloc Quebecois.

Some say “Well, that’s politics.” Indeed it is. But it’s not the only way that politics is or can be practiced. (The growing support for coalition government shows just how far the willingness to explore new options has gone.)

Electoral reform is about priorities and preferences. It’s a matter of making sure that our democratic procedures align with our values and political realities. First-past-the-post is an antique system from a time when local ridings actually mattered. But in an age where party policy is determined by leaders, and individual MPs are too frequently told how and when to vote, its main function is to make thousands of votes across Canada meaningless.

It’s time for a change — and it looks like change begins with supporting either the Liberal party or the NDP and their commitment to electoral reform this October.

David Moscrop and Spencer McKay are PhD candidates in the department of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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