The misguided fear surrounding Proportional Representation

Written by  X.B. Shen Thursday, 01 November 2018 11:29
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A recent opinion piece, titled “What history can teach us about proportional representation,” published on September 9 in The Toronto Star, concludes that Proportional Representation (PR) was to blame for the 15 European democracies that fell into dictatorship in history. The basis of this argument was “governments often lacked effectiveness, allowing authoritarians to argue that democracy did not

deliver what the country needed. A rapid succession of elections and collapsed coalitions set the stage for a “strong-man” promising stability.”

The article ends, “Before tinkering with our electoral system, Canadians should weigh carefully the risks involved, and remember what happened in Europe.” The article was intended to sway the general public away from supporting PR, especially those in B.C. and Quebec, where a referendum on PR could lead to its being adopted as their provincial electoral system (After the provincial election in Quebec this month, CAQ, which won a majority, has promised to support the electoral change to PR without a referendum).

This article uses tactics of fear and misinformation. First, it should be emphasized that those dictatorships happened during the inter-war era (from 1918 to 1939). Since then, the world has progressed. The democracy of then was not the democracy of now, nor was the PR of then the PR of now.

Secondly, because the article stressed to readers what happened in Europe almost a century ago, it conveniently avoids what is happening in the US and Canada in our current time. Democracy in both countries is facing a grave threat. The "greatest democracy” in the world elected Donald Trump through its Electoral College system. The biggest province of the “best country” in the world elected Doug Ford in its first-past-the-post system. Both ran a divisive populist platform. Both have majority power and govern like tyrants.

PR has evolved and takes different forms in different countries. The most common ones are Party List PR, the Single Transferable Votes (STV), and Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP). The pure party-list system can lead to a destabilizing proliferation of small parties, which are able to extract promises from the bigger parties in exchange for joining their coalitions. When promises are broken, the small parties may withdraw from the coalitions, and a new election is triggered. The Toronto Star article uses this as its basis of the argument, and it is misleading.

In contrast, MMP, based on Party List PR, is considered the best PR system. In MMP, voters get two votes: one to decide the representative for their single-seat consituency, and one for a political party. Seats in the legislature are filled firstly by the successful constituency candidates, and secondly, by party candidates based on the percentage of nationwide or regionwide votes that each party receives.

A 2014 article in Vox discussed “3 reasons why New Zealand has the best-designed government in the world” (https://www.vox. com/platform/amp/2014/9/23/6831777/ new-zealand-electoral-system-constitutionmixed-member-unicameral). New Zealand is using the MMP system, with a twist of its own. The result is, the major parties rarely get an outright majority, but have enough ideological allies in smaller parties to form a government. Since New Zealand adopted the MMP from the firstpastthe-post system in 1996, there have been 8 general elections coinciding with its 3 year election cycle. No election was called due to a coalition breakdown. In comparison, seven elections were held in Canada since 1996 even though we have a 4-year election cycle.

Coincidently, the top list of the happiest countries in the world consistently includes the countries that implement proportional representation. Based on World Happiness Report, released annually by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the top 5 in 2018 are Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland. Canada is ranked 7th place, the only country within top 10 which hasn't implemented PR. And the US came in at the 18th spot. Even though it is hard to quantify how much PR has contributed to the happiness of their citizens, undoubtedlly their well-functioning governments elected within the PR system have played a significant factor.

There is no single best political system, but there is always a better one when we learn our lesson from history.

Canada can and must do better.

X.B. Shen is a farmer and a member of Fair Vote Kingston, a grass-roots advocacy group in Kingston and Frontenac area.

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