Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

A proportional response

In this Canadian federal election campaign, a lot of words have been exchanged on the subject of proportional representation. This is just as Jack Layton would have it, as a national referendum on just this topic is a major plank -- if not THE major plank -- of the NDP platform. Those in favour of proportional representation say that the current "first-past-the-post" system (where the candidate who comes in first simply takes the seat and all of the other votes don't count, and the party which wins of the highest number of seats forms the government) is undemocratic, and we need to usher in a system where the number of seats better reflects the relative percentages each party has taken in the general election. Opponents of proportional representation say that it isn't a system that's at all suited to a country with such local and regional loyalties as Canada, and that it's extremely valuable for each Member of Parliament to be responsible for a small and clearly defined area such as a riding. Leaving aside the fact that the parties on both sides of this argument seem more interested in having the system in place that's best for their party than the one that's best for Canada, there's a lot of merit to each of these perspectives.

What I don't get, though, is why no one on the pro side is bothering to mention in any of these discussions that it's possible to have your cake and eat it too. I present to you the German system. On a German ballot, voters get not one, but two votes. In the first vote, or "district vote," you vote for the person who you think can best represent your district in parliament. In the second vote, or "party vote," you vote for the party whose policies are most closely aligned with your preferences. Approximately half of the seats in parliament are filled by the district vote, and half are filled by the party vote. The party vote seats are then filled by regional lists of candidates chosen by the parties. In order to prevent huge numbers of small, unserious parties from gaining too much power, though, each party must "surpass the 5% hurdle," or gain at least 5% of the vote, in order to assume seats. (An exception is made for parties that field winning candidates in at least three districts but which still take less than 5% nationally. This nod to regionally important parties is particularly important in a country that was, until very recently, two countries, and this practice would seem to have obvious applications to Canada.) The result is a system that both allows for local districts to be represented by individual MPs, *and* gives each party proportional representation in parliament.

I can think of three potential drawbacks to applying the German system to Canada. The first of these is that minority governments are commonplace under such a system. Now, as someone who first grew her political roots in Germany, where coalition governments are seen as the norm and majority governments are seen as giving a scary amount of power to a single party, I don't at all view this as a bad thing. But I realize that in Canada minority governments are widely viewed as unstable, so I thought I'd mention it. Second, in practice the two-vote system allows voters to split their votes strategically among existing or potential coalition partners instead of voting for the single party they most favour. Again, not something I think of as a disadvantage, but many Canadians might well see it that way. Third -- and this is the most logistically difficult issue -- there are a lot more MPs under such a system (the German parliament has 598 seats). In theory this shouldn't be that big a deal, but in practice it would take a lot of getting used to. Office space on Parliament Hill would be at a premium. They'd have to redesign the House of Commons in order to fit everyone in. Et cetera.

Other than those relatively minor considerations, I can't think of a single problem with applying the German system to Canada. I've lived under it, and it works. In fact, it works so well that when New Zealand recently decided to switch from a first-past-the-post system to a proportional system, they decided to adopt it pretty much whole-cloth. For Canada, too, it would seem to be an ideal compromise.

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