Even committed defenders of Canada’s classic ”œfirst-past- the-post” electoral system will find little encouragement in the recent election. Instead of a clear majority and the prospect of a decisive centrist government, we have an enfee- bled minority likely to prove beholden to all that is trendy on its left; the prospect of a serious alternative to the Liberal status quo has been quashed once again; electoral regionalism contin- ues to grip the land; and perhaps worst of all, the paladins of partition are riding on a higher horse than ever.
Lacking all fashionable refinements, simple-minded and charmlessly old-fashioned, first-past-the-post is the country bumpkin of electoral mechanisms, an embarrass- ment and nuisance to sophisticates wherever it makes its appearance, or fails to make a discreet exit. The system has long been blamed, from the right as well as the left, for exac- erbating the country’s regional fissures, and it offends espe- cially against the age’s infatuation with minority groups and its correlate, the quota mentality. Even its name is inadequate: for the fact that it offers no ”œpost,” that it takes no cognizance of the number of racers that may be splitting the vote in a crowded field, is actually one of the signal shortcom- ings of what ought perhaps to be called ”œthe classic system” instead.
For strategic and aesthetic rea- sons alike, then, it should come as no surprise that Jack Layton should be clamouring for proportional rep- resentation (PR), or that Gilles Duceppe should relish its European flavour, at least when he is not win- ning the electoral sweepstakes. More remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan, too, have written in favor of PR ”” though their peculiar brand of con- servatism rarely inclines them to respect for the country’s historical institutions. Even Andrew Coyne’s usually measured commentary takes a shrill turn when he denounces the ”œincalculable harm” done the coun- try by its ”œincreasingly insupport- able” electoral system: ”œIf it is not soon changed, one day it will kill us.” Such dire prophecies notwith- standing, the heavens are not likely to fall one way or the other; there is much ruin in a country, after all. The brave new world of PR might well bring us more fun at the ballot box: but we may yet wake up with a headache the next morning.
Those eager for the introduction of some form of proportional represen- tation as a means of ending Liberal hege- mony may want to ask themselves, first of all, whether they would really prefer a Liberal-NDP coalition as the new baseline of Canadian politics, since it would be the NDP whose fortunes would rise most immediately, dramatically, and directly at the expense of the Liberals. Thus, going by the share of the popular vote won under the current system, the recent elec- tion would have seen the NDP win some thirty more seats, the Liberals some twen- ty fewer ”” which still understates the full scale of adjustment that would take place once voting was no longer strategically constrained by the disincentive against choosing smaller parties.
Second, what goes for any govern- ment on the left goes equally for the right: despite the considerable advan- tages that the classic electoral system tends to confer on the main contenders for power, fourteen elections since 1958 have produced only a single govern- ment supported by even fifty percent of the popular vote, Brian Mulroney’s in 1984, by a whisker. (On only three of the remaining occasions, it might be noted, did the popular vote for the Liberals and the NDP combined fall short of an absolute majori- ty ”” by less than one per- cent in 1997 and 2000, and under two percent in 1993.) Since absolute majorities are not presently in sight for anyone, the need for coali- tion partners would apply across the political spec- trum. Indeed one might wonder, given that the Conservative Party in its present form seems stalled at a maximum of about 35 percent of the popular vote, what possible coalition partners would be able to deliver the elusive 15 percent. Seen through the lens of PR, the strategic merits of the hard-won Conservative merger would appear rather questionable, as the com- ponent parts of the Conservative coali- tion would likely do better running separately and then pooling their resources after elections.
Third, the move to PR would not only bring the share of seats in line with the share of votes according to present electoral dynamics, but would also alter those dynamics themselves: what we know of electoral patterns under the present system cannot give us more than the roughest indication of what to expect because voters would be responding to rather different incentives under the new system. In particular, the centripetal pressures of majoritarian voting, which focuses attention on the most powerful voting blocks in a riding, would give way to a system in which there are few reasons to present ready-made coalitions to voters. Given how prolific the Canadian party system has proved itself even under unfavorable electoral conditions, an outright balkanization of the electoral landscape is not incon- ceivable, and perhaps not even improbable. The Green Party, present- ly polling over four percent despite its hopeless strategic position, would surely become a presence in the Commons; in addition, any number of other parties not yet in existence might well spring up like mushrooms. While thresholds as high as four or five percent have often been used to limit the fragmentation of party systems under PR, such barriers are arbitrary and counter to the very logic of pro- portional representation. Speculation about just what parties might emerge under such changed circumstances would be worth little: but it should be clear that many ”œnew voices” might sound less pleasing notes than PR- enthusiasts seem to expect. The Separation Party of Alberta, poised as it now is to contest provincial elections, could use nothing better than PR at the federal level, and one wonders where else its example might be fol- lowed. The possibility of new parties emerging along the starkest lines of ideology, religion, and even race needs to be taken quite seriously.
Israel offers a vivid illustration of just how fractured and dissonant the spectrum of represented opinion can become under PR, and how much influence can accrue to fringe groups who may find themselves in a posi- tion to tip the parliamentary scales. Contrivances such as the direct elec- tion of the prime minister, though an uneasy fit with the parliamentary sys- tem, may help to counter this dynamic: but the very need for such a remedy, introduced in Israel in 1996, reveals the dirty secret of PR, namely that a proportional allotment of seats will often confer decidedly disproportionate political leverage on marginal parties.
Fourth, the lifting of the centripetal constraints of majoritarian voting might have its most dramatic impact in Quebec, possibly spawning separate Quebec branches of all major parties (on the model of the Bavarian CSU in Germany, for example) and dissolving the Bloc into a host of parties reflecting the various shades of sovereigntist opin- ion. Though chaotic, such a develop- ment would at least have the advantage of providing a far wider range of possi- ble Quebec coalition partners, without which a conservative government, in particular, would hardly be able to come to power. Paradoxically, however, the very dissolution of monolithic political structures in Quebec might leave the province more central to federal politics than ever.
Though Canadians are not accus- tomed to the explicit coalitions between parties that are the rule in most PR-based systems, all parliamen- tary government presumes coalitions of some sort: under the cover of a com- mon party affiliation, Canadian par- ties, too, form coalitions all the time. More revealing than the focus on coalitions as such, then, is the level at which a system encourages their for- mation. What distinguishes the classic system from this perspective is the pressure it puts on parties to forge alliances before facing the voters, whereas under PR, the various compo- nent parts of potential coalitions are free to seek voter approval separately, and then bargain for political influ- ence after elections. Parties may of course make commitments to particu- lar coalition partners before an elec- tion, as is usually done in Germany, but such commitments are neither obligatory nor necessarily binding.
It would be churlish to deny that the latter kind of coalitions have served many countries well. While much attention tends to be devoted to coalition-government of the most extreme sort ”” post-war Italy with its 52 governments between 1947 and 1993, or the French Third and Fourth Republics, or the doomed Weimar Republic ”” these examples are hardly conclusive. Even during the Weimar years, Prussia had very stable govern- ment under PR, for example, and the German post-war system has been anything but unduly volatile; the Dutch or the Danes offer classic cases of generally successful coalition- government by a host of smaller par- ties; and the Swiss, models of propriety in governance, even carry the princi- ple of PR into their federal cabinet. Neither New Zealand nor Scotland has been plunged into chaos since intro- ducing mixed-member proportional representation in the 1990s, and it is not likely that any country would see an end to effective and responsible government ”” or its introduction, for that matter ”” owing simply to a change in electoral system.
The more explicit coalition- government under PR will, however, restrict the voters’ say in one crucial way: whereas majoritarian voting limits viable options at the ballot box, proportional voting leaves parties free to negotiate alliances at a considerable distance from the voter. Under the West German system, for exam- ple, though exemplary in its ability to reconcile stability with adaptability over the past half-century, no sitting government before 1998 was ever turned out of office at an election. Instead, both major realignments, in 1969 and 1982, were formally precipitated by the Free Democrats, perennial junior coalition partners, switching sides from the right to the left and back. As a side- effect of political fragmentation under PR, some parties ”” like the Italian Christian Democrats during the notori- ous 1947-93 period ”” may end up being included in governments almost irre- spective of their electoral performance.
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Beneath the apparent instability of many PR-based systems lurks another tendency no less characteristic, namely that of merely reshuffling and recycling the same political actors and programs election after election. Far more damn- ing than the apparent volatility of such systems is their frequent lack of vigor and vitality, their inability to respond swiftly and effectively to challenges, and their tendency instead to hurtle from cri- sis to crisis while remaining fundamen- tally stagnant. Too much should not be made of the pathologies that have afflicted the most dysfunctional PR-sys- tems: but milder versions of political sclerosis are visible as well in many of the healthier consensus-oriented, coali- tion-based systems. It is doubtful, at least, whether such exertions as Britain’s economic reforms under Margaret Thatcher, now condoned even by her New Labour heirs, or the Liberals’ aggres- sive tackling of Canada’s debt crisis in the 1990s would have been feasible out- side a majoritarian electoral context. Overtaxed and mired in deficits, bogged down in perennial reform debates and paralyzed by their corporatist structures, many Europeans would look with envy to the ”œantagonistic” decision-making that many Canadians would so readily exchange for a more ”œinclusive” politics of perpetual accommodation.
Once the electoral reform debate shifts from a discussion of gener- al principles to specific alternatives, much attention is sure to focus on variants of the mixed-member system first introduced in post-war West Germany and since adapted, among other countries, in New Zealand and Scotland. The Law Commission of Canada’s recent study on electoral reform, for example, provides a blueprint of how Canadians might vote under the Scottish model. Though the mixed-member option tends to be oversold ”” as an ideal electoral solution dispensing with trade-offs and offering the best of all worlds ”” even skeptics will have to admit that its trademark combination of direct elections in single- member constituencies with a com- pensation mechanism for smaller parties is rather clever. Weak points remain, to be sure, in the relationship of seats filled by direct election to those filled from party lists, for exam- ple; but in the main, the problems with the mixed-member system are those of PR more generally.
An alternative that is sure to be raised in passing, but that may not receive the attention it deserves, is one that has been widely used in Ireland and Australia and that came close to being adopted in Great Britain after the First World War: the use of the sin- gle transferable vote (STV) in multi- member constituencies. Instead of dividing the country into around 300 ridings and electing one MP in each, four members might instead be chosen in each of perhaps 100 districts. (A moderate enlargement of the Commons would be the easiest way to meet the requirements of Canadian constitutional law and to allow for a redrawing of districts that would dis- tribute seats more equitably.) Parties would usually present full slates of (four) candidates per district, allowing voters to opt for a straight party ticket if they so chose, but there would be no limits on vote-splitting, and each voter could freely rank all candidates in a district irrespective of party affiliation. Such a system would expand voter choice dramatically ”” between candi- dates of the same party as much as among those of different parties ”” and lower the bar for smaller parties, which would be assured of representation wherever they garnered a quarter of the votes, all the while keeping the door firmly shut against the extreme fragmentation to which other forms of PR are liable. Preferential voting would allay the concerns over wasted votes and minimize the need for strategic voting, and all but the smallest parties would be given a stake in all the coun- try’s districts and regions as they would no longer be competing just to win individual races, but rather to maximize their votes across the board.
In addition to addressing the most serious criticisms of majoritarian vot- ing while avoiding the equally serious problems of strict PR, STV offers dis- tinctive advantages in at least three areas. First, owing to the wide range of candidates that would be competing for seats in multi-member districts, STV would give voters unprecedented influence not only over the partisan composition of the Commons, but also over the shape of its respective caucuses. Since candidates from the same parties would in most cases be competing both with one another and with candidates of other parties, voters would get a choice not only between parties and personalities, but also between competing visions for the respective parties themselves. Lest this raise fears of intra-party fratricide, it should be remembered that candidates would continue to have a strong inter- est in seeing the party as a whole per- form well. Their desire to get ahead of party colleagues would always be tempered by the need not to undermine the entire party’s fortunes. Backroom machina- tions designed to eliminate popular candidates at the nom- inations stage might not disap- pear altogether, but they would certainly be drastically cur- tailed.
Second, for those con- cerned about the parliamen- tary representation of minorities, STV offers an alternative to setting ”œappro- priate” levels in an arbitrary and coercive manner. The hollowness of producing higher levels of female representation, for one, by simple command, is inadvertently illustrated in the Law Commission’s report, which has the nerve to hold up Cuba as an example for Canadians! Instead of following such undemocratic and repressive models, STV would allow anyone concerned about under-repre- sentation consistently to favour minority candidates within a much- enlarged pool of prospective represen- tatives. Parties failing to field minority candidates regardless of voter demand would stand to be pun- ished severely and would quickly learn the lesson. Instead of guarantee- ing outcomes, such a system would place its faith in the wisdom of voters facing a wide array of choices ”” sure- ly the better way in a free and demo- cratic society.
Third, though STV is sometimes criticized for abandoning ”œthe one- member-one-riding principle seemingly cherished in the Anglo-American democracies” (Law Commission report), the implications of the pro- posed scheme for constituency rela- tions may in fact be its strongest selling point. Whereas today, a majority of constituents will frequently be repre- sented by an MP they did not vote for, the STV model would produce four dif- ferent representatives, usually from dif- ferent parties, to whom voters could turn with their concerns. At this level, too, an effective local monopoly would be replaced by competition on the side of MPs and choice on that of con- stituents. More representatives in a dis- trict would go hand in hand with larger districts to be covered, it is true, but the enlargement of the Commons would help to offset this. To put things into perspective, it might also be noted that members of the US House of Represen- tatives, who face voters every two years and are under correspondingly severe constituency pressure, on average repre- sent some 650,000 constituents!
Finally, while the single transferable vote is often derided for its supposed complexity, the basic logic and mechan- ics of the scheme are straightforward: one of four MPs in a riding would be elected on a corresponding ”œquota” of one-fourth the votes cast (or, under a more pragmatic method of computing the quota, one-fifth plus one). Since the most popular candidates will often exceed this quota, voters would rank all their favorites in order and surplus votes (beyond the quota) would be reallocated in accordance with the further prefer- ences expressed on the ballots con- cerned. Granted, the intricacies of performing these operations can seem daunting and opaque: but all that voters would need to understand is the system’s fundamental rationale and the need to vote for candidates in rank-order of pref- erence. To parody the system on account of its technical complexities would be like mocking the user of a Windows- based word processor for the inelegance of the underlying code. Much may be made of the need to keep it simple, but in the end our very democracy hardly recommends itself on such grounds.
Given that the concrete workings of reformed political institutions in a specific context can never be predicted with certainty, and given the host of dis- satisfactions that Canadians project unto their electoral system, we would all be well-advised to check our great expectations. To bill electoral reform as a reliable cure for our supposed ”œdemo- cratic malaise,” to promise that voter participation would increase significant- ly, that our frustrations and divides would be notably diminished, let alone overcome, or that the quality of our governance would be visibly improved ”” all this seems only a recipe for further disappointment. The most that can be said with assurance is that a country’s electoral system, perhaps more than any other institution of government, belongs indisputably to the people.
As an exercise in democracy, then, British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly stands as an inspiring example of what is possible when we question long- established habits. Experimentation at the provincial level more generally ”” where governments controlling 70 to 80 percent of the seats and more, all courtesy of majoritarian voting, have not been uncommon ”” should not worry anyone unduly, not least because the provinces are rather more cohesive political units than the coun- try as a whole. At the federal level, we should be more wary of inadvertently leaving the country ungovernable. Still, so long as we are serious about our democratic aspirations, we will have to live with the fact that the peo- ple may come to repent of their choic- es. Where the electoral system is concerned, at any rate, Rousseau’s dic- tum surely holds: if a people wished to do itself harm, who would have the right to prevent it from doing so?