Proportional representation (PR) at the federal level in Canada is doomed.  This is because national leadership in North Atlantic triangle countries (Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States) tend to centralize power, especially where external affairs are concerned.  Electoral reform, at least in the direction of PR or semi-PR systems, tends to decentralize it.  This elemental contradiction is potentially fatal to the PR reformers in Canada.  Where external relations are concerned, centralized power is the default stance for politicians once they gain power.  The ability to speak with one voice internationally would be compromised by successive coalition governments, which PR tends to produce. This point is generally ignored.  It shouldn’t be. Expecting the Canadian government to enter the Donald Trump era divided at the centre is just not realistic.

Yet a form of PR is the preferred option envisaged by the recent majority report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform.  Its recommendation is to have a national referendum pitting a government-designed proportional representation option against the status quo – the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

Power shared is power diminished.  That is the operating assumption of the North Atlantic triangle leadership. Leaders’ assumptions about power are evident from their actions and their inactions.  I examine both here.

Power is centralized on multiple fronts.  Policy-making in intergovernmental relations, international and domestic, is a jealously regarded executive prerogative. Summit diplomacy featuring top government executives is central to the great affairs of state. Legislatures have an ambiguous and secondary role, although the US government is somewhat of an exception, with Congress’s oversight and funding roles and its withholding power, and the Senate’s power to refuse to approve, amend or include reservations in treaties.

Party organization and behaviour in governing parties has tended toward a contradictory mix of elitism and inclusiveness, with the balance tilted to the former.  Elite accommodation, many argue, is the general approach to policy-making in these three countries.

The British, American and Canadian systems feature FPTP in national elections but, apart from some sporadic episodes, there has been little formal examination of the national electoral system in the three countries.  This lack of introspection speaks volumes.  There are two faces of power: decision-making and “nondecision-making.”  Ignoring electoral reform as an issue is a way of consolidating power.  The outlier, of course, is the pledge by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that 2015 was to be the last FPTP election and the formation of an all-party special committee on electoral reform.  Yet his comment that electoral reform was not as pressing an issue in 2016 as in years before was telling.

The nature of the North Atlantic triangle

The countries of the North Atlantic triangle are generally portrayed as holdouts, as stubborn resistors of a global trend toward proportional representation or semi-proportional electoral systems.

Nevertheless, the political calculus used by those political leaders who retain the simple plurality system is quite complex, although it is almost never enunciated.  The furthest the literature usually goes in this respect is to intuit that parties are driven by the desire to get elected with healthy majorities, which the FPTP electoral system is good at delivering.

But elected for what?  Prestige?  Patronage?  Philosophy?  No doubt there is an element of all these in the decision not to pursue electoral reform.  There is, however, a fourth “P” — power.  Power is instrumental to the other values listed above; it helps to attain them.  But power shared is power diluted.  It does small good to be elected and to then be unable to attain one’s aims because of the need to share power with others in, say, a coalition.

The countries of the North Atlantic triangle have another concern, and that is retaining the power of each relative to the others.  This has been an historic aim, one that seems incompatible with the power-sharing that would come under many forms of electoral reform

The history of the North Atlantic triangle concept

Of course, the North Atlantic triangle concept came about for reasons other than electoral considerations.  It was used — primarily by Canadian foreign affairs officials and academics — to describe the important and close, but uneven, relationships among America, Britain and Canada (the “ABC” countries).  As Hector McKenzie said: “From the Treaty of Washington in 1871 to the Suez Crisis of 1956, Canada’s international affairs were largely determined by its relationships with Britain and the USA.”

Occasionally the triangle concept reappears in other contexts.  We see, for example, Peter Neary explore the changing status of Newfoundland and David Haglund modern Canadian foreign policy.

One area where the North American/British order is relevant is consideration of electoral system reform.  More precisely, the effect of the electoral system on international relations matters considerably to national leaders.

Consensus on national decision-making

Decision-making within the triangle has a particular structure. The three countries are loath to tinker with this alignment, which features some of the following components:

  • The North Atlantic triangle consensus is especially important in international diplomacy, international conflict/peacekeeping, and trade and environmental policies.  Decision-makers in these matters tend to place special emphasis on interpersonal or “summit” relationships and elite accommodation.
  • In all three countries the executive — the president or the prime minister and cabinet — has a special role in matters of international diplomacy, international conflict/peacekeeping, and trade and environmental policies.
  • In the US and Canada, there is a distaste for coalitions/power-sharing, which are perceived as weakening accountability and predictability.
  • The emphasis on predictability in international relations — the ability to deliver on promises —is highly valued by the actors involved.

Centralized patterns of behaviour

Triangle governments prove their distaste for power-sharing through their centralized patterns of behaviour.

Elite accommodation dominates international diplomacy and even relations between the central and regional governments.  A small number of top actors are assumed to have the legitimacy to make broad political arrangements.   Elites therefore presume predictable behaviour in their triangle allies, more so than in others.  Past international commitments to bodies and agreements such as NORAD and the Atlantic Charter carry with them an expectation of future commitments in these areas and of new ones.

The triangle countries resist incursions by their legislatures into the conduct of armed conflicts abroad and wars.  The Royal Prerogative makes deploying armed troops an executive act in Canada and the UK, albeit with conventions recently pointing in the direction of some degree of parliamentary involvement.  In the US, the War Powers Act of 1973 appears to place limits on the president’s ability to send troops into foreign combat without congressional approval, but it has been widely circumvented or ignored by successive presidents.

Unless they are hemmed in by court decisions and public opinion, governing parties – or those that are likely to be so — engage in cartel-like behaviour.  They collude with each other to erect barriers to new party system entrants that might threaten the established parties.

The triangle countries, in fact Western nations in general, use nonparticipative practices to negotiate and operate international trade agreements.  It is rare that interested NGOs and citizens are granted observer status in negotiations and the meetings that follow them.  Trade dispute resolution is similar: NGOs and citizens tend not to have access to documents used in trade disputes, to attend trade panels, or to present briefs to them.

The decentralist effects of PR or semi-PR

Whereas centralization patently dominates the current system, if FPTP gave way to a PR or semi-PR system, government and party and international relations would be characterized by  decentralization.

Some of the likely results of a movement to a more PR-oriented system would be the following:

Shorter cabinet life: Majority governments across the Western world tend to have longer lives than other forms of government.  Single-party minority governments have the shortest lives, and coalitions have the next shortest.   Coalitions — which would be a viable option under a PR-oriented system in Canada — are beset with risks that majorities don’t face. They are therefore more unstable, and planning in them is more perilous.

Power-sharing prime ministers: In the UK and Canada’s Westminster systems, prime ministers enjoy a number of prerogatives — forming governments and making top appointments, for example — which are usually unchallenged.  As coalitions would be a more likely scenario in a country with a PR-oriented electoral system, these prerogatives would likely be challenged. As I noted earlier, power shared is power diminished, at least in the view of the leadership under an FPTP system.

A new form of international relations:  These factors would in turn affect the international relations of the three countries. There would be less predictability in international relations stances, including possibly divided stances on certain policies. The UK and Canada would experience more difficulty devising successful strategies for dealing with the US

The role of imagination

The last reason that PR will fail is the narrow imagination of the reformers involved.  Reformers tend to present the case for proportionality in terms of the vitality of the electoral process and the participation ethos.  These aims, although admirable, are slim reeds; voters need to be able to envisage what the end game is, and so far, most of them are more in tune with the largely implicit rationale of governing political elites; namely, keeping international relations and governing efficiency as they are.

The situation is not hopeless for electoral reformers.  But there is an institutional architecture at work here — electoral systems are a part of a national power structure.  Reformers need to imagine a brave new world.  Generally they do not; electoral reform is its own silo.  In order to be interested, voters need something bigger.

Electoral system reformers should also have a theory of the structure of power.  They should be willing to say that electoral reform is valuable because it is part of a plan to dismantle the elitism that has transfixed the American, British and Canadian systems.  The decentralization of foreign policy, trade and parties logically marries well with electoral reform.

This may seem too much to ask, given the context in which reformers find themselves.  If Canada were to consider electoral reform, our North Atlantic triangle allies would still be using national electoral systems that usually yield majorities.  We would continue to be engaged in diplomatic, conflict and trade issues with these partners, as well as with a host of other international countries. These issues are usually dealt with by restricted number of participants, but a more divided Canada negotiating with united national counterparts could be a recipe for incoherent policy and/or suboptimal results.

To avoid such possibilities, reason political elites, Canada’s options seem to be either to abandon electoral reform as too problematic, or to adopt some system that is not PR.  This may be why “ranked ballots” is the personal preference of Prime Minister Trudeau and Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef.   We may see, as Phaedrus noted, that the mountain laboured and brought forth a mouse.

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

This article is part of the Electoral Reform special feature.

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Christopher Dunn
Christopher Dunn was a professor of political science at Memorial University who published widely on constitutionalism, federalism and public policy, and was an invited witness before the Special Committee on Electoral Reform. He died in 2017.

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