In one of his final pieces for Policy Options, the late Canadian political scientist Christopher Dunn wrote that “proportional representation (PR) at the federal level in Canada is doomed.” He was clearly right. But with referendums on the horizon in Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, it looks like proportional representation at the provincial level still has a chance. Provincial campaigns for electoral reform should not rely on the well-worn arguments about “fairness” and “false majorities.” There is a stronger, pragmatic argument for proportional representation in the provinces: it would ensure that there is a functioning opposition.
Ideally, first-past-the-post should produce a strong opposition as well as a stable government. In practice, and especially in smaller jurisdictions, first-past-the-post often produces landslide majority governments with no credible opposition. The problem is not just that one party wins a share of the seats that is greater than its share of the vote; the problem is that, without a credible opposition, the parliamentary system is dysfunctional. Governments are much more prone to waste and mismanagement when the opposition is too weak to keep them in check.
The most severe case in recent times is the New Brunswick sweep of 1987, when Frank McKenna’s Liberals won all 58 seats with only about 60 percent of the vote. The 2000 election in Prince Edward Island is a close second: the opposition was reduced to one seat even though it won a third of the vote. Although the “feeble-opposition disease” most often afflicts the smallest provinces, the others are not immune. Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec and Saskatchewan have all had bouts of it.
I focus here on Newfoundland and Labrador, which has had a feeble opposition for much of post-Confederation era. The opposition has been especially weak over the past decade. It was at risk of being wiped out in 2007, when Danny Williams’ Progressive Conservatives won 44 of 48 seats. Although Newfoundland and Labrador has never had a sweep or a two-member opposition, it has probably suffered more from the feeble-opposition disease than any other province.
It is well known that Newfoundland and Labrador’s governments are unusually prone to making ill-considered and costly decisions. Muskrat Falls is only the latest in a long series of boondoggles, including the Upper Churchill contract, the Sprung Greenhouse and the botched expropriation of Abitibi-Bowater’s assets in Grand Falls-Windsor.
The Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives like to trade blame, but the reality is that the waste and mismanagement that plagues Newfoundland and Labrador is too systemic to be blamed on either party. The deep, structural cause of the province’s boondoggles is that the opposition is too small and disorganized to prevent them. For instance, with only 11 seats between them, the official opposition and the third party could do nothing to stop the Muskrat Falls project — nor even to stop the government from exempting the project from oversight by the Public Utilities Board or amending the access-to-information legislation to shield itself from scrutiny. Unwise and self-serving decisions are almost inevitable when the opposition is too weak to hold the government accountable.
The best remedy for feeble-opposition disease is proportional representation. One promising option is mixed member proportional (MMP), which is used in New Zealand, Germany, Scotland and Wales. MMP retains the primary virtue of first-past-the-post — strong local representation — but it also mitigates one-party dominance and ensures that there is a functioning opposition.
New Zealand provides an example of how MMP would work in Canada’s provinces. Since 1996, when New Zealand traded first-past-the-post for MMP, all nine governments have been minority or coalition governments. But, contrary to the common worries, proportional representation has not produced instability or a proliferation of fringe parties. The two major parties currently hold 85 percent of the seats, and only one government since 1996 has fallen before its term was up.
MMP would alter the party systems of the provinces in similar ways. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the NDP would become more competitive, and the Green Party and the Labrador Party would probably win a seat or two each. The Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties would continue to win most of the seats, but neither would win the exaggerated landslides that they used to. Crucially, the party that finds itself in opposition would no longer be reduced to a shell. The opposition would become a government-in-waiting instead of a discredited and disorganized group of hangers-on from the previous dynasty.
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Minority and coalition governments might eventually become the norm. The two main parties would have to cooperate with other parties — and sometimes even each other — in order to pass legislation. This would provide a built-in check on the power of governments and of the charismatic (and sometimes autocratic) premiers who lead them. The need to win the support of other parties would prevent the government from making decisions unilaterally, rashly or in secret. MMP would produce a more effective opposition, a more accountable government and a political system that is much less prone to mismanagement and skulduggery.
Lessons for future campaigns
Christopher Dunn saw the fundamental flaw in the common arguments for proportional representation: they are based on abstract values, such as “the vitality of the electoral process and the participation ethos,” that are far removed from voters’ everyday concerns. Arguments about “fairness” and “false majorities” persuade academics but do not engage citizens. Given the astonishingly low turnout in Prince Edward Island’s 2016 plebiscite on electoral reform — 36.4 percent, compared with 85.9 percent in the 2015 election — it is clear that proponents of proportional representation need a more compelling argument.
Provincial campaigns for electoral reform should focus on the output of the electoral system. For instance, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the best argument for proportional representation is that it would put an end to the exaggerated majority governments that have bankrupted the province and given away its fortune. The reason to adopt proportional representation in the provinces is not simply that it is fairer, but that it would produce stronger oppositions and more accountable governments.
This argument obviously does not have much force in some provinces, such as Ontario, that do not suffer from feeble-opposition disease. The downside of pragmatic arguments is that they are not universally applicable. The upside is that, where they are applicable, they are more likely to resonate with voters — the majority of voters, it seems — who are otherwise uninterested in electoral reform.
Campaigns for proportional representation must also appeal to the interests of the major political parties. The most serious impediment to reform is that governments are, for obvious reasons, reluctant to change the electoral system that brought them into power. Parties that promise electoral reform tend to thwart reform efforts when they form government.
However, it is not always in the interest of the government to maintain the electoral system that brought it to power. A government might be receptive to proportional representation when a power shift is imminent. If the governing party is set to be wiped out in the next election, then it might be willing to roll the dice with proportional representation to prevent the other party from establishing a dynasty. A wise political party would give up the possibility of winning a landslide majority in order to avoid being decimated and humiliated when the tide inevitably turns.
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