Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Defending the status quo

John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail has a terrific column today about the citizens' referendum on proportional representation set to take place on November 28th in Prince Edward Island. It's unfortunately behind the subscriber wall, so I'm going to cut just enough of the introduction so as not to anger the copyright gods.

Although NDP Leader Jack Layton was huffing and puffing yesterday, there is little chance the opposition parties will force an election this month. It would be too much to Paul Martin's advantage.

Which is why, for those who believe in the need for meaningful reform in Canadian politics, all hope lies with Prince Edward Island.

There is a lot to unpack in those sentences. Let's start with the first one. Mr. Layton, alone among opposition leaders, is not prepared to force the defeat of the Liberals, hoping instead to secure some vague promise from them to clamp down on private health care. [...]

Since the Prime Minister (though not his party) has been exonerated by Mr. Justice John Gomery's report on the sponsorship mess, and since voter resentment over such an inconvenient election date would be high, a premature vote might actually work to Mr. Martin's advantage.

Polls and talk on the street suggest that, whenever the election is held, the Liberals will hold on to their minority government. If the Conservatives form a minority, it will be unstable and short-lived.

Which brings us to the momentous decision facing the voters of PEI.

Premier Pat Binns has picked Nov. 28 for a plebiscite on electoral reform. If a majority of electors on the Island vote Yes, the province will be the first to ditch its first-past-the-post system in favour of proportional representation.

A Yes is far from certain, because Mr. Binns has set the bar high: 60 per cent of voters must endorse the proposal, with majorities in 60 per cent of the ridings. Only a quarter of the polling stations usually available during an election will be open, and there are no other votes scheduled that day. (Referendums and plebiscites typically piggyback on municipal or provincial elections.) Mr. Binns has also warned that he won't be bound by a Yes vote that is accompanied by a low (but unspecified) turnout.

The word from the Island is that, if the vote were held tomorrow, the Yes side would lose. If that happens, it will be a shame. Because PR's time has come, even though it is most needed where it is least likely to be tried: in Ottawa.

The Liberals are vehemently opposed to electoral reform at the federal level, for the simple reason that they rightly believe it would destroy their party. Representation in the House of Commons based on the percentage of the vote obtained by each party, rather than on pluralities obtained in each riding, would inevitably produce coalition governments, though ones that are likely to be more stable than the month-by-month minority government we have had since 2004. As well, proportional representation weakens the hold of political parties on the essential emollient of patronage. And patronage, as a wiser mind has already observed, is about all that's holding the Liberal Party together right now.

Many observers predict that a move to PR would permanently shatter the Conservative Party into two or three components, based on region and ideology. It well might, but it would also lead to the demise of the Liberal Party, which is already split between social liberals and fiscal conservatives, between Chrétienites and Martinites, between the Quebec wing and the rest of the party.

If Prince Edward Island sends us down the road toward proportional representation, there could be six or eight parties in the House one day, with the governing coalition of the Liberal-Conservatives, the Parti Fédéraliste du Québec and the Greens holding sway against the Bloc Québécois, the Western Reform Party, the NDP and the Polygamists.

It may sound wild. But for those who defend the status quo, one question: How can you?
Now it's your turn. I challenge anyone out there to answer Ibbitson's last question, rephrased as such: Why would it be a bad idea to institute some form of an electoral system based on proportional representation in every province across the country, as well as on the federal level?

Please, stop to think before responding. I'm not interested in gut reactions of "It just wouldn't feel right" or in appeals to tradition, or even in anecdotal datapoints about what's gone on in specific elections in particular countries that may or may not bear any resemblance to the situation in Canada. What I am looking for is an argument based on our knowledge of systematic differences between electoral systems based on proportional representation and those based on the current first-past-the-post system. I want to hear a clearly justified set of reasons why a switch to a system based on proportional representation would necessarily have a negative effect on Canada. Not on a particular political party--on the country.

I look forward to people's posts and comments.

For those of you who might not be as well informed as some others, here are some links to get you started (I've chosen this list to be as comprehensive and as unbiased as possible, but please don't take my word for it; google around on your own. And read some books on electoral systems if you can get your hands on them. There are some good ones.):

Quick overview of different kinds of electoral systems and a list of countries using each

A basic overview of how First Past the Post works

Another description of First Past the Post, as well as a list of its most clearly understood advantages and disadvantages

Wikipedia's entry on proportional representation and on first past the post

An overview of voting systems, sponsored by the Administration and Cost of Elections project

The UK's Jenkins Commission's slide show on electoral systems

Case studies of electoral reform and a discussion of electoral reform families, from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's page linking to articles on proportional representation vs. first past the post

A review of David M. Farrell's Comparing Electoral Systems

The abstract for an edited volume called Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? and links to its contents


Anonymous said...

Nah. Make the case first, then we'll make the case against your case. Because the default position as far as I'm concerned is that you don't make fundamental changes unless you've got bloody good reasons to do so.

If you want change - your job is to make the case for change.

As for Ibbitson, let's forget the faux outrage - how dare you. I mean, tell me exactly what is so wrong that would be fixed by PR.

I mean if you want more democracy why aren't you advocating some form of direct democracy? With electronics the way they are now, it's doable. If you're not, then you are de-facto admitting that democracy isn't the only concern.

And if it's not the only concern, then you can't just say "PR is more democratic" you have to make the case that it would produce governments which would manage the country better.

And that ain't clear to me.


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Sorry, looking at it that way doesn't make sense to me. It's not that proportional representation would necessarily lead to better governments, but it would certainly lead to the government we do choose actually reflecting the will of the people. There's no guarantee that what people want would actually do the best job at any given time, but in a democracy, that's still for the voters to decide. (A dictatorship could end up being a wonderful government that succeeds in many ways, but I doubt many of us would choose that as the best system.)

Representative democracy is about two things: one, every citizen has the right to representation, and two, the majority win the right to make decisions. Under the current system, it rarely works out that way. When we have "majority" governments that weren't actually elected by a majority of voters, there's a huge problem for the basic concept of representative democracy. This might be an acceptable situation if there were no alternatives--after all, nobody's ever died or had their lives ruined because Canada doesn't have real representative democracy. But there are alternatives, and it's hard to imagine how it could possibly be better to continue on with an unequitable system unless there are reasons to believe that the alternatives would be worse.

Anonymous said...

As I see it, the main problem with PR in Canada is that we are a very big country with a very uneven population distribution. This is the only advantage of the current system; it forces the major parties to consider the issues in all regions of the country. Not that they always address those issues effectively...

For the same reason, I do not understand why PEI would NOT choose PR. However, the cynic in me says that rural ridings will fear ceding power to Charlottetown...

One idea to address this problem might be to have an elected Senate that retains a strong regional character (yes, a real role for the senate). The Senate wouldn't have as much democratic legitimacy as the House, but it could act as a brake on regional bullying.

I also like the STV options...

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I, too, strongly believe that Canada should have an electoral system that forces major parties to consider the issues in all regions of the country, and I wouldn't favour any proportional system that eliminated that aspect of the current system. The thing is, there are proportional systems that address that issue as well as, or better than, first-past-the-post. I described the Mixed-Member Proportional system as it exists in Germany back here. Germany, too, has very strong regional loyalties--arguably stronger than the ones in this country, even, since they were actually two separate countries until fifteen years ago.

I like some things about STV, but like you, feel that it would work better on the provincial level than on the federal level. On the federal level, MMP would seem to be the superior choice.

I'm undecided on how I feel about an elected Senate, but one idea suggested by a friend really intrigued me: an appointed Senate, but otherwise looking much like the U.S. Senate does, with two Senators from each province. I still haven't completely thought through what the repercussions would be, but the idea's worth thinking about, anyway. (It would certainly change things!)