Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Myth #1: proportional representation leads to minority governments

The UK electoral reform blog Make My Vote Count has an interesting, semi-regular series on myths about proportional representation, and in light of some misleading comments that have been made on various blogs recently, it's starting to look like it's necessary to do a similar series for Canada. So let's start with the one that's been rattling through the blogosphere lately as the Conservatives have gotten frustrated with running a minority govermnent: if Canada had proportional representation, we would have the current sort of unstable minority government forever and ever amen.

The myth

One example of this myth can be found in the comments to this post over at Accidental Deliberations:

And this is what Proportional Representation would look like, nothing getting done. Not too amusing when the taxpayer is footing the bill for NOTHING.
and a bit more thoughtfully in this post from the Prairie Wranglers:
Under a PR system, it would be very unlikely, at any point, for any Canadian political party to achieve majority status, as few politicians have been able to achieve over 50% of the popular vote since Canadian first realigned into a 3-party system, sometime between 1921-35 (Diefenbaker did in 1957, and Mulroney did in 1984, but only by 0.03% margin). Many suggest this is an inherent benefit of the system, as it forces political parties to work together in order to achieve a consensus which better represents the nuances of political opinion throughout the country.

How does this jive, however, with our current predicament. Witness the recent pitched battle over who in fact is responsible for preventing parliament from moving legislation through the House; the Conservatives blame the opposition, the NDP and the Liberals blame the government, while the Bloc sits on the sidelines making outrageous demands in return for its support. This lends credence to the criticisms of those against PR that a perpetual minority government in Canada is an unworkable and unstable solution, as it will simply provide a forum for political grandstanding and posturing while obstructing concrete action.
When put like that, it sounds pretty convincing, right? Proportional representation prevents majority governments, right? When Canada has minority governments, things are unstable, and there's more political grandstanding than there is concrete action, right? Therefore, if Canada switches to a PR-based electoral system, we will have a perpetual minority government--which would mean yearly elections, nothing but hot air from our politicians, and never getting anything done. Right?

It would be a lot more convincing if it were true. In fact, minority governments are much rarer under proportional representation than they have been recently in Canada. What proportional representation systems actually tend to produce are majority coalition governments, which, as I mentioned previously in my proportional representation FAQ, are about as similar to minority governments as apples are to kumquats. Majority coalitions aren't minority governments, but real majority governments of more than one party, formed to create the kind of long-term stability that simply cannot be found in a minority government.

How coalitions work

Part of the problem for Canadians is that the word 'coalition' tends to be misused in this country to mean any informal alliance between parties. But a true government coalition bears almost no resemblance to the informal agreements such as the one we saw between the federal Liberals and the NDP in 2005, or the one Jack Layton is trying to build between all parties in the House right now over the Clean Air Act. These kinds of informal alliances are created on an impromptu basis when one party or a group of parties exerts pressure on the party running the minority government, and as we have seen, this pressure usually consists of threatening to bring down the government if they don't jump. Government coalitions, on the other hand, are formed immediately after an election between the winning party and its chosen coalition partner(s), with the goal of forming a majority government (i.e., adding up to at least 50% of the seats between them). There are no threats and no media grandstanding, just quiet talks between the first-place party and the party or parties they feel they can work with on a long-term basis. The point of these talks is not to concoct a plan that will hold a fragile minority together for a couple of months, but to come up with compromises between the parties' platforms that will withstand the test of time.

During these talks, the parties not only agree to a common policy framework, but they also negotiate about who is going to get various cabinet positions and take charge of the corresponding ministries. This means that the leader of the winning party might say something like this to the potential coalition partner: "Okay, you guys hold ten percent of the seats, so it makes sense for you to have around ten percent of the cabinet positions. But it's important for our party to be in charge of all of the main ministries like finance and foreign affairs. We're willing to give you things like immigration and labour--how about that?" The leader of the potential coalition partner can then come back with things like: "Well, if you're not going to let us have any of the main ministries, we want more than ten percent of the cabinet positions. How does twenty percent sound?" Or perhaps: "No, we're not willing to settle for only minor ministries--and specifically, we want the environment ministry because it's been a huge part of our platform and that's something we won't back down on. But we're willing to take fewer than ten percent of the ministries in order to make sure it can happen that way."

Because everyone agrees to these compromises during the formation of the government, the government doesn't get formed until the disagreements are worked out. This can take up to several weeks in situations where there are a lot of conflicts--primarily in cases when the electoral outcome was different from expectations and the winning party's preferred coalition partner didn't get enough seats to add up to a majority--but the end result is a situation in which all members of the coalition have a stake in ensuring the continued persistence of the government. The smaller coalition partner doesn't feel moved to threaten to bring down the government because they are part of the government. The parties then work together to make and implement the common policies that they have agreed on.

The stability of coalitions

There is a further widespread misconception that regardless of the care taken in their formation, majority government coalitions tend to function in practice in the same way minority governments do. This misconception showed up most recently in Olaf's responses to my objections to the Prairie Wranglers' post:

It is my understanding that coalition governments, as opposed to minority governments, are not as fundamentally different as you would suggest, and would appear quite similar for quite some time in our Westminster system of government, in particular. I mean, the Liberals and the NDP were, in my opinion, textbook examples of natural allies in many respects, and we all know how that worked out.
While it's certainly the case that there have been majority coalition governments that have been as battle-torn and unstable as our minority governments (more on that in a moment), it's incorrect to imply that this is the norm, or even that it is common. There are many forms of proportional representation found in the world today, but only two have been advanced as possible models for reform in Canada: Mixed-Member Proportional like they have in Germany, and Single Transferable Vote like they have in Ireland. And when you compare the frequency of elections in these two countries to similar numbers for Canada, the results are striking:

Ireland:
16 elections since 1948, 1 election every 3.63 years
Germany:
16 elections since 1949, 1 election every 3.56 years
Canada:
18 elections since 1945, 1 election every 3.39 years

In these two countries, majority coalition governments are the norm: Ireland hasn't had a single-party government since the 1980s, and Germany has only had one single-party government in its entire post-war history. And yet they have still been incredibly stable. In Ireland, the coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats has persisted throughout all but five of the last seventeen years (Fianna Fáil chose the Irish Labour Party as a coalition partner from 1992 to 1994, and three other parties briefly formed a different coalition from 1994 to 1997). The recent German coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens was stable enough not only to last out its term, but to be reelected in 2002, and extremely stable coalition governments of the conservative Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats have also existed under chancellors Adenauer, Erhard, and the seemingly undefeatable Helmut Kohl, who was reelected a total of five times.

These two countries are typical for the two kinds of proportional representation that have been proposed for Canada. But even if we summarize trends from proportional representation systems across the board, the stability picture doesn't look all that objectionable. The average length of government in countries that use Canada's First Past the Post system is three and half years. In countries with various proportional representation systems, the average length of a government is two and half years. This suggests a somewhat more frequent turnover, but not enormously so. Furthermore, the actual effects of this kind of "instability" are greatly lessened in practice, since many of these "changes in government" include restructurings where the main coalition partner stays the same but only the smaller one is different (making them less like Canadian changes in government and more like Canadian cabinet shuffles). And this average includes many countries that Canadian electoral reformers have no desire to emulate, and many forms of proportional representation (such as pure party list proportional representation) that no Canadians want.

Now, in conversations about proportional representation, detractors will inevitably bring up two countries where coalition governments have meant frequent changes of government and/or a great deal of conflict between coalition partners: Israel and Italy. But there is no reason to believe that Israel and Italy behave typically for countries with proportional electoral systems, and there are many reasons to believe that they are in fact completely atypical. In Italy, weakened party discipline can be attributed largely to the practice of secret balloting by MPs in the House, and in Israel, living under a constant threat of war seems likely to have influenced their governments in ways that most European parliamentary democracies have not had to deal with. And finally, both Italy and Israel have historically used versions of pure party list proportional representation (Italy recently switched to a system more similar to Germany's) that Canadian electoral reformers are not interested in introducing in Canada anyway. And both Mixed-Member Proportional and Single Transferable Vote systems do away with the worst of the potential problems of pure list PR by having threshholds for small parties' inclusion in parliament.

Coalitions: not for Canada?

Finally, an idea has been batted around lately that majority coalition governments simply wouldn't work in Canada. Scott Tribe put this viewpoint forward in his comments on my interview with Stéphane Dion, arguing that "multi-party coalitions just don't happen in Canada," and that "the ideological diffrences in the multi-party system in a such a diverse country as Canada are deep and bitter, and I highly doubt that parties would set aside their partisan differences." Olaf from the Prairie Wranglers agreed in his responses to my arguments in his post, saying that "our system of government is reliant on conflict, and has been since day one," and that he "doesn't think that Canada's political culture has progressed to the point where collaboration and conciliation could be the rule rather than the exception."

I find this line of reasoning puzzling. It's certainly true that coalition governments have been far rarer in Canada than they have been in most other parliamentary democracies: since the 1800s, Canada has only had one coalition government (during World War I). But attributing this rarity to something inherent in Canadian culture seems farfetched at best. There is nothing inherently more squabble-prone about Canadians than there is about Europeans--on the contrary, Canadian culture is well-known for its propensity for compromise. Instead, it seems far more realistic to attribute this distinction to Canada's electoral system. In fact, if we compare the few parliamentary democracies with single-party government traditions to those that instead tend to form government coalitions, a noticeable pattern emerges. The only countries in which the winning party insists on governing alone are those that use First Past the Post--countries like Canada, the UK, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. All of the countries that have some sort of proportional electoral system tend to govern by majority coalition.

Part of the reason for this, of course, is the way First Past the Post tends to award a majority of the seats in parliament to parties that do not manage to get a majority of the votes. After all, there is no need for more than one party to cooperate in a coalition when one party alone always gets the majority of seats. But this also means that under First Past the Post, all parties that want to govern will tend to organize their political strategies in ways that aim for single-party majority governments. We see evidence of that in Canada right now--the Tories are so devoted to finding a way to govern alone that they seem to be forgetting that they have a minority government, and the Liberals, too, tend to behave as if they just need to win the next election and they'll be able to govern with a single-party majority. A lack of compromise is built into the system.

As for the argument that switching to proportional representation wouldn't make our politicians any more willing to work together to form coalition governments, evidence from New Zealand would seem to counter that. New Zealand switched from First Past the Post to a Mixed-Member Proportional system by referendum in 1993, and they have had government coalitions ever since. The early coalitions did tend to be wobbly and fractious, since their parties had to completely adjust their strategies and their politicians had to learn how to do their jobs in ways that promoted cooperation over conflict. But they seem to be moving out of the adjustment period now, and more recent years have shown evidence of the kind of long-term stability found in Germany or Ireland.

It's silly to talk about coalition governments as if they were some weird phenomenon that only exists in the Third World when they're the status quo in most of the world's democracies. Belgium and the Netherlands manage to form government coalitions in countries with large numbers of immigrants. Switzerland manages it in a country that has four national languages and four distinctly different cultural groups. Germany manages it in a country that used to be two different countries right up until 1990. There is absolutely no reasonable argument for the notion that Canada is inherently different from the rest of the world on this front. It is only our electoral system that promotes the kind of conflict our political culture is rife with--all the parties are so busy going for broke that they don't realize they're going for broken.

But most importantly, the arguments about whether or not coalitions are possible for Canada make it sound like we have a choice in the matter. We don't. The main argument for First Past the Post is that it produces a clear winner that can then go on to form a strong single-party majority government, and it works this way in countries that have a strong two-party system, like the United States. In Canada, however, that very same electoral system doesn't work the way it is supposed to work anymore. Why? Because the NDP and the Bloc Québécois have become significant enough forces that the advantage granted to large parties under First Past the Post is no longer enough to manufacture a majority government for either the Tories or the Liberals. And while the two large parties like to pretend that we'll soon be returning to a strong two-party system, pretending doesn't make it so. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the NDP and the Bloc are going anywhere anytime soon. On the contrary, the rise in popularity of the Greens suggests that there may soon be yet another significant force on the electoral scene, one that moves Canada even more irrevocably toward being a true multiparty system.

This means that the political strategies of both the Conservatives and the Liberals--strategies that require single-party majority governments in order to function properly--are entirely out of synch with the realities of the Canadian political situation. Even the NDP, with their recent talk of forming a government on the federal level, seems to be more interested in governing alone than in being part of a real, lasting government coalition. But these parties are labouring under a collective delusion, and it's a delusion that's harming Canada. The only realistic, long-term solution to the current instability is for our political parties to learn to work together--and not in an ad-hoc, temporary sense like what Jack Layton is promoting right now, but in true government coalitions. And while proportional representation isn't a prerequisite for coalition governments (Canada's World War I coalition attests to that) it may well be the only way to force our parties to stop denying the need for majority coalitions and start finding a permanent solution to our current predicament.

Ironically, the best argument for proportional representation in Canada right now may not be the run-of-the-mill ones such as more fairness, increased voter participation, or an increase in the number of women parliamentarians, but more stability.

Further reading

True electoral system geeks (as well as anyone who wants to check the facts in this post) are going to want to read Arend Lijphart's Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. A summary of this book (in .pdf form) can be downloaded from the Fair Vote Canada website here.

24 comments:

A_Resident said...

Thanks for the info. I have always wanted to know more about this system, but everything I read was too overwhelming, and I lost interest. You "spelled it out for me" in a way I could finally grasp what PR is all about.
I still don't know how I feel about it. But I have to admit, what we have now, isn't working either.

Scott Tribe said...

Great well-thought out article.

I agree with the title and the premise.. but as usual I disagree with the arguments about setting up a PR system where coalitions are required.

Not to harp on it again, but the MM_PR model advocated by the Globe and Mail in May 2005 and supported by me will allow greater representation of people votes across the country on a regional basis and not guarantee minority governments or the needs for coalitions. I think a comromise solution like that is the BEST and ONLY way you're ever going to get people to agree to a radical re-design of the electoral system from what we have now. There is just too much resistance in the 2 main parties and from other commentators that anything more radical would be accepted.

Go with the compromise at first.. and when people like it (I will assure you they will) re-examine the setup and make tinkering as needed.

Rome wasnt built in a day as they say.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

a_resident,

Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad to hear that my (very long!) post was still less overwhelming than most of the other stuff out there on PR!

Scott,

The problems with your proposed solution were pointed out to you by Wilf Day the last time you brought this up. The model advocated by the Globe and Mail was not a version of Mixed Member Proportional as they claimed, but Mixed Member Majoritarian, i.e., the semi-proportional system used by Japan.

There is no point in switching to a system like that because it wouldn't fix most of the problems inherent in the current one. As Wilf said last time, that system would give the Conservatives even more MPs from Alberta than they have now, rather than using additional MPs only as compensation for under-represented parties. It also wouldn't provoke the necessary changes in our political culture (such as the ones New Zealand underwent in their shift from FPTP to MMP). All it would do is make elections somewhat fairer than they are now. That's an admirable goal, but if we're going to go to all the effort to make changes, why not choose a system that would actually fix the problems of the current one? We're not going to change the electoral system twice. You're right that there is resistance to it from within the major parties, but there are also promoters of it there, too. And their numbers are growing as they recognize that there are ways the current system disadvantages them as well (and advantages single-issue regional parties like the Bloc).

I absolutely believe in compromise, but the system you propose isn't a real compromise--it's a system that would dissuade ongoing compromise. It just doesn't add up.

Scott Tribe said...

Idealist:

I didnt see Wilf's post til now.. and now that I do, where exactly is his proof that even more MP's from Alberta would be, say, Tory MP's then now?

If 2/3 of the MP's are still FPTP, and 1/3 are based on the actual percentage of vote, Wilf's argument is a bit of a red herring, because it assures that Liberal, NDP, and Greens get MP's.. which is alot more then they get now under the current setup. So. I dont buy Wilf's argument, with all due respect.

Scott Tribe said...

I'll also add that the Globe's study showed that in Quebec, the BQ would not have gained any additional MP's - they either stayed the same or lost a few... so tht's why I'm skeptical of Wilf's claims in addition to what I already stated - even if the Tories in Alberta gained a couple more to what they normally get in the current setup (since we're using Alberta as the example) the other Parties are also guranteed to get more then what they currently have (which is 0 at the moment).

Anonymous said...

Whatever we think of the Harper government and his policies, imagine if he had a phoney majority of seats how he would be governing. Canada's fingers would be deep in sticky situation called a Fallujah.

To be fair, phoney majorities have also applied to Liberal governments federally and all major parties including the NDP provincially in some places.

The current Conservative minority government and future coalition governments will bring policies that invite moderation rather than ideological--conservative or not.

Anonymous said...

I'll just add that moderation occurs because the Conservatives need to deal with other parties in a minority parliament no matter how badly Harper wants to govern like he has a majority.

Olaf said...

IP,

Very convincing post, and as always, I leave your site more informed.

As I'm sure you've gathered, my skepticism (although emphatically not opposition) regarding the idea of PR is based more on a "gut feeling" about the nature of politics in Canada and the political culture with which I am most familiar. And apparently, my gut feeling is rather unconvincing to others (but I feel it!)

In any case, hockey beckons, which, as a good Canadian, is of more immediate import to me than substantive conversations about improving overall governance in the country.

I'll be back tomorrow and do my best to poke holes in your argument (if I can), or, if I can't, I will admit that my 'gut feeling' is misguided (perhaps it's just a cramp), swallow my pride and henceforth drink from the PR trough. Or at least, not make a peep when others do.

Alison said...

"coalition governments as if they were some weird phenomenon that only exists in the Third World when they're the status quo in most of the world's democracies"

In BC, where 58% approval was insufficient to get us out of FPTP, one of the myths I ran into most frequently at my little sidewalk soapbox was the one you cite above.

So I put together an electoral pop quiz of two lists of countries - one group using FPTP and the other using one of the proportional systems, but without labelling which was which - and invited people to guess which of the two groups Canada, US & UK fell into.
No one got it right. No one.
The lists are here.

I think this particular myth carries more weight than we think - that as long as we follow a model similar to US and UK, we're doing ok. Certainly the media out here pushed it.

Jen said...

Thanks very much for an informative post! I have to say that your run down was a lot less... how should I put it? patronising and more actually informative than the little that I actually saw generated from Fair Vote since I joined. Perhaps I just wasn't looking hard enough. I have downloaded the recommended reading, and hope to delve into it after my computer quits acting up.

I have to agree that it does seem rather absurd to suggest a country like Canada (of all countries!) works best in conflict situations! Sure it 'might have been so from the start', but that's because the federal government was an attempt by one side of Canada to assimilate another... imagine how different our history might have been had Upper and Lower (or to call a spade a spade, English and French, respectively) Canada actually sat down to (God forbid) talk with one another, and try to reach a compromise. I would question what makes a person tick who would prefer Canada to be governed by conflict rather than compromise. I would suggest moving just south of the border... Canada already has the ethos that even a majority rule should fully respect the minority, so it seems we're well positioned to take the next step by giving a minority some influence as well.

bza said...

Very nice summary of some excellent arguments in favour of electoral reform. Agree 100%, especially about the point of how rarely FPTP is actually used. Canada, UK, and US, thats it!

We are clearly in the minority for using this system with good reason. A 19th century two party model has no use in a 21st century multi party system.

Olaf said...

IP,

As promised, I've returned to take a crack at your post, which is very difficult since it's so long and thus to stay on point will be challenging. Here goes:

During these talks, the parties not only agree to a common policy framework, but they also negotiate about who is going to get various cabinet positions and take charge of the corresponding ministries.

As I've said many times before, I'm not against PR in theory at all and am actually in favour of introducing it in some capacity, however I'm skeptical as to how it might work in practice.

Regarding the results of this past election, how would you predict a majority coalition would have been formed? First of all, I suspect an alliance between any federal party and the BQ is essentially untenable, and would never happen.

So, the Conservatives would have to choose between the NDP (where very very little middle ground exists) or the Liberals (although the Conservatives raison d'etre is to provide an alternative to the Liberals, and attempt to make themselves as different as possible).

The Liberals and NDP would not have the numbers to form a majority coalition, and would need the Green party support. However, in this case, the party which won more support than any other party would be excluded from government altogether, which is troublesome to me.

Although it sounds good in theory, it may not work as well in our system of government based on the current distribution of votes and the number and types of parties we have. Not an excuse to ignore the possibility of PR, but something to consider.

The average length of government in countries that use Canada's First Past the Post system is three and half years. In countries with various proportional representation systems, the average length of a government is two and half years.

This is slightly misleading I think, in so far as comparing majority and coalition governments for stability. I claimed at my site that majority governments were more stable than coalition governments, however not that systems which include both majority and minority governments are always stable.

For example, between 1935 and 2004, majority governments stability is a remarkable average of 11.2 years of consecutive rule per ruling party.

Now, this is not necessarily a good thing (I find it scary a bit), but certainly to argue that coalition governments are as stable, based on consecutive years in power, as majority governments is difficult to maintain. It seems to me that in assessing stability, if one is comparing majority to coalition governments, you'd have to take only into account examples of the two options as opposed to including the abberations.

Finally, the subject which I'm most interested in (since I recognize the advantages of PR in theory), is whether it would work in Canada.

But attributing this rarity to something inherent in Canadian culture seems farfetched at best.

Political culture and culture are two very different things. The argument is not that Canadians are necessarily combative, but that our entire system of government is based on this idea, as indicated by the existence of the "official opposition".

In our system, we've always had one government and one official opposition, the lines of accountability are clear, and the opposition is responsible for holding the government to account. This is fundamental to how Canadians and politicians understand how government should work, and is not easily changed, in my opinion. Not that it shouldn't be changed or other options shouldn't be considered by any means, but it won't be as simple as it may seem.

Essentially, I agree with your argument that PR systems can have stable governments (although not as stable as our majorities have proven), and I've always agreed with the theoretical benefits of PR. I've never said it was a bad idea, although I remain skeptical that it would be easily implemented in Canada, as I think it is not a small change from the system of government most are used to, and relatively comfortable with.

However, based on the theoretical appeal of PR, in some form or another, and it's widespread use throughout Europe, I would definitely be interested in hearing workable ideas of how it could be best integrated into our political system, especially if minority governments continue to be the norm.

It seems that right now, we're somewhere in the middle: between our old two/three party system usually producing majority governments, and a genuine multi-party system where natural majority coalitions could be formed between a number of parties with similar policy preferences. It will be interesting to see which way we eventually settle, and I think that the more minority governments we have, the more likely Canadians will be to accept your prescription.

Anyways, great post, IP, sorry my response was so muddled. Likely because I'm not on the "other side" of the debate so much as I'm skeptical about the side I'm on.

Alison and IP:

coalition governments as if they were some weird phenomenon that only exists in the Third World when they're the status quo in most of the world's democracies

This is a convincing argument for implementing some kind of PR system here in Canada. I mean, if it works throughout Europe, why couldn't it work here?

By the way, does this argument also apply for a parallel private health care system? Just wondering :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Scott,

Well, I'm not Wilf Day (though I wish I had half his knowledge about electoral systems), but if I talk to him, I'll let him know you're looking for him. ;-) You have nothing at all to say about any of my points, though? Really?

anon @ 4:47,

I actually didn't mean to suggest that there was no compromise in a minority parliament, because there certainly is if people play the game well. But if it's compromise based on threats, ad hoc arrangements, and political grandstanding rather than something more long-lasting, then it leads to the sort of instability we're seeing right now. And that's how minority governments tend to work, unfortunately.

Alison,

Great idea! Sounds like a good conversation opener for talking about electoral reform, too.

Saying Australia has a PR-based system is a bit oversimplified, though--only their Senate is elected through PR (their House is elected by the non-proportional instant runoff voting).

Olaf,

I was actually waiting for someone to make the point that it would have been very difficult for the Conservatives to find a coalition partner in the last election! You're very right that it would have been almost impossible to imagine who on earth the Conservatives could "coalate" with. It would have been a very similar situation, actually, to what happened in the last German federal election. In that case, the anticipated coalition partner of the winning CDU didn't get enough seats to add up to 50% when combined with the CDU, so their only option for forming a majority government was a coalition with the SPD, their main rivals.

It took six weeks, but the CDU and the SPD did eventually come up with agreements for a "Grand Coalition," i.e. a coalition of both big parties with all three of the smaller parties forming the opposition. It's run surprisingly well, too--even though everybody had their doubts at the beginning.

It should be mentioned, though, that situations like these are very rare in practice. The reason for this is that coalitions make the need for unwieldy "big tent" parties unnecessary because there's no need for one party to strive for a majority government on their own. If we'd had PR and/or a tradition of coalition governments, for example, Reform and the PCs almost certainly never would have split, and there would be an entirely different playing field on that front. In fact, when New Zealand switched to PR, their party structure altered quite significantly because of this. The old big parties that used to form their two-party system both exist, but in a form that's smaller and no longer about holding very disparate viewpoints together with a hope and a prayer.

This is slightly misleading I think, in so far as comparing majority and coalition governments for stability. I claimed at my site that majority governments were more stable than coalition governments, however not that systems which include both majority and minority governments are always stable.

Actually, my data is a comparison of First Past the Post countries and proportional representation countries, not of coalition governments on one hand and majority or minority governments on the other. In fact, if you compare, you will tend to find approximately equal numbers of minority governments under both kinds of electoral system--in both, they are vanishingly rare (Canada really is an anomaly on this front). So the data stands as-is, and still indicates that coalitions are as stable as single-party majority governments.

As for your attempts to show how Canada would just be different from everybody else, I can only point you again at New Zealand. They, too, had a system that worked pretty much exactly like ours before they switched, antagonistic political culture and all. In fact, they actually had a rather more difficult time of it than Canada probably would, since they didn't already have a full-fledged multiparty system when they switched. And they still managed to adjust to coalitions.

(In fact, I should say that New Zealand is just generally a really interesting case to read up on if you want to find out more about what it might look like for Canada to switch to PR. Might be some fun reading for a political geek!)

Thanks for your comments, by the way. I remain in awe of your diplomacy, and your all-too-unusual willingness to admit that someone else has a point when engaging in an argument. Have you ever thought about running for office? (Preferably in Calgary West?)

Olaf said...

IP,

In fact, when New Zealand switched to PR, their party structure altered quite significantly because of this.

This is what I would expect would have to happen in Canada as well, were it to work.

my data is a comparison of First Past the Post countries and proportional representation countries, not of coalition governments on one hand and majority or minority governments on the other

I know what your data was comparing, but my point is that if you wanted to show that coalition and majority governments are comparably stable, you'd have to compare instances of the two, instead of PR and FTTP countries. So, for example, Germany has had x coalition governments since 1945, which have stayed in power for x years on average, Canada has had x majority governments which have stayed in power for x years. If the average years are close, than I'd accept that coalition governments are equally stable, however I highly doubt these numbers would be close. Again, I'd prefer if governments weren't in place for 10+ years. I'm just taking issue where I can, you didn't leave me much wiggle room to disagree with this post.

In any case, I've actually been interested in New Zealand politics for a while, as they seem to be particularly enterprising for some reason (their public service structure is particularly intriguing), they're definitely on my reading list... any suggestions for a particularly good read?

Also, since I seemed to have had a hand in sparking this post, I might as well make a similarly uninformed comment about PR which you could make into your "Myth #2". My provocation is as follows:

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, nor could their be in the mind of any reasonable man, woman or child, that coalition governments in PR systems blur the lines of political accountability, and therefore would unequivocally exacerbate the democratic deficit, as opposed to alleviating it.

Josh Gould said...

If you look here, you'll see that Germany has had 16 elections since the war. Over the same period, Canada has had 19. Also, Germany never had elections less than three years apart, whereas Canada had three sets of elections one year apart (57/58, 62/63, and 79/80) and three sets of elections two calendar years apart (63/65, 72/74, 04/06).

So... I don't see how our system conveys greater stability.

Olaf said...

Josh,

You're missing my point (if you're responding to me). My point is that majority governments are more stable than coalition governments, if stability is to be crudely measured by the length of time a government spends in office consecutively. Not that our system has less elections or longer periods between elections. Do you see the difference?

The point is that when we do have majority governments, they are more stable than when they have coalition governments. Does this make sense?

Josh Gould said...

Hmm...

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, nor could their be in the mind of any reasonable man, woman or child, that coalition governments in PR systems blur the lines of political accountability, and therefore would unequivocally exacerbate the democratic deficit, as opposed to alleviating it.

Can you be a bit more specific? If the members of a coalition need to be held accountable for whatever reason, they'll lose votes, presumably. In the last election, I suppose you could say the Liberals were "held accountable" but that is not equivalent to wanting a Conservative government, as indeed the 64% of Canadian voters did not in the past election.

Anyway, given the recent pattern of minority government - and no signs that we'll have another majority anytime soon - are not coalitions inevitable as a stabilizing factor? Also, the adoption of MMP would go a long way to reducing the Bloc's disproportionate power afforded to it by FPTP. Though there would be a period of adjustment, I see no reason why we should not be moving to a more cooperative system right now.

Anyway, the sense of "accountability" is conferred by the principles of responsible government, which are in no way undermined by having a coalition government of two or more parties rather than a majority government consisting of a "big-tent" party, itself a coalition of two or more disparate elements.

Josh Gould said...

You're missing my point (if you're responding to me). My point is that majority governments are more stable than coalition governments, if stability is to be crudely measured by the length of time a government spends in office consecutively. Not that our system has less elections or longer periods between elections. Do you see the difference?

I do, but again to use Germany as an example, the CDU was in power continuously from 1949 to 1969 and again from 1982 to 1998. The fact that coalition partners may change on occasion (and they didn't in Kohl's case) is rather beside the point - cabinets change on occasion whether the government is a coalition or a majority.

The point is that when we do have majority governments, they are more stable than when they have coalition governments. Does this make sense?

Olaf said...

Josh,

I tried to make it clear that my "uninformed" proclamation about the unaccountability of coalition governments was not based in genuine conviction but rather was an attempt to grossly exaggerate a common criticism of PR (that it produces less accountable governments), so that IP, if the energy finds her, could make a post out of it.

Secondly, regarding the stability of coalition governments, I believe the composition does make a difference, even if the CDU was the main partner for many years. The point is that the coalition changed, and assumedly the power balance, where as between 1935 and 1957 in Canada, it was firmly in the grasp of single party, for example.

In any case, we're splitting hairs here. As I said, coalition governments are not necessarily less effective than majority governments, even if the latter tend to rule more completely and unilaterally for longer periods of time (which, again, is not necessarily a good thing). So there is really no use continuing on from here, I'm afraid. In any case, good chat.

Olaf said...

IP,

By the way, I loved this line:

When put like that, it sounds pretty convincing, right?...It would be a lot more convincing if it were true.

It's a classic... you warm the crowd up, making them think perhaps their Wrangler is right (which they want to believe)... and then you slam the door shut on their fingers.

Touche.

The JF said...

Absolutely one the best posts I've ever read. Hear, hear!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Olaf,

So, for example, Germany has had x coalition governments since 1945, which have stayed in power for x years on average, Canada has had x majority governments which have stayed in power for x years.

*puzzled* This was exactly the data I provided you with earlier in the post, though. I gave you the breakdowns for time between elections for Ireland (Single Transferable Vote), Germany (Mixed Member Proportional), and Canada (First Past the Post). As you can see, the two countries with the proportional electoral systems are comparable to Canada on that measure. Furthermore, both Germany and Ireland have had primarily majority coalition governments (which I discuss in more detail in the paragraph after that data), and these have in fact been slightly *more* stable than Canada has been with primarily single-party majority governments.

But more importantly, length of time between elections isn't entirely a fair measure of stability, as I elaborate later in that section. Even in the more unstable (by this measure) countries, looking only at length of time between elections is misleading. Many and even most of the "changes in government" under proportional systems involve only a change in the smaller coalition partner rather than a change in the entire government, leading to a more gradual, incremental shift in policy over time. In fact, many political scientists regard FPTP systems as leading to more instability than proportional ones because changes of government under them tend to be so total.

Incidental aside from this post #1: I'm glad that you want to read up on New Zealand. The very best place to start is this series of books based on New Zealand election and polling data since 1990. It's an absolutely wonderful series because it takes readers through the public outcry for system reform (which resulted from a situation a bit different from ours, as their FPTP system was behaving much more the way it was supposed to!), the referendum in 1993, the period of instability after the reform due to the necessary changes in their political culture, and eventually to a much calmer, more stable system and culture. There's a lot to slog through there, and I haven't actually finished all of them myself yet, but you might just be geeky enough to appreciate them. *grin*

Incidental aside from this post #2: Something that might interest you as you think about the effects of electoral system on political culture. Germany (the country with a tradition of coalitions that I'm most familiar with) actually has a political culture that's extremely mistrustful of single-party governments. They think they're a bad thing because they give one party too much of an inward focus and not enough of an accountability check by having to work with a group of people not entirely like them. In fact, there's even a historical instance of one party gaining a slim majority on their own, but opting for a coalition anyway so as to have a stronger majority. It's hard for Canadians to imagine, but it's true.

Which leads me to your provocative comment, which I'll repeat here: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, nor could their be in the mind of any reasonable man, woman or child, that coalition governments in PR systems blur the lines of political accountability, and therefore would unequivocally exacerbate the democratic deficit, as opposed to alleviating it.

I may or may not have anything to say about this (and if I do, it might take a while), but I'll try. First, though, a question so that I can make sure I understand where you're coming from: what exactly is it about coalition governments that blurs the lines of political accountability? I need to see what your assumptions are, so pretend I'm stupid and spell it out for me.

P.S. You never answered my question about running for office! *grin*

Olaf said...

IP,

The point I was trying to make is that when we do have majority governments, they stay in office for longer than most coalition governments. So, comparing data which includes both majority and minority governments in a FPTP system, to minority and coalition governments in a PR system, would not be in my opinion they proper technique for comparing just majority and coalition governments.

Apparently no one knows what the hell I'm talking about, regardless how clear it is in my head, so maybe we can just drop this one, especially since I completely agree that length of time between elections isn't entirely a fair measure of stability.

Now, regarding my blatant provocation on PR and accountability: I've heard it often said that because coalition governments necessarily has multiple members, it's more difficult to ascertain which bastards to throw out of office when need be.

From my post, here is the general rationale, provided thankfully by someone other than myself:

The problem is compounded by coalition governments (a frequent by-product of PR) because there is a strong incentive for the governing parties to assign the blame for unpopular policies to their coalition partners. With cabinet decisions made in camera and fingers pointed in all directions, voters cannot tell who is telling the truth. Of course, a coalition partner may attempt to convince voters of its sincerity by leaving the coalition and bringing down the government. But this may merely signal that the party has seen some strong poll results and is attempting to seize an opportunity to increase its power. And why should it not? PR lowers the cost of these sorts of electoral gambits.

I of course exaggerated these claims for the case of a good soundbite, but that's the general idea.

Thanks for the books and further reading ideas. I also found your characterization of germany's political culture interesting, as I think that the rationale behind it accords closely with my own sentiments.

Also, I appreciated your nomination for office... but why exactly would you suggest Calgary West? :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Olaf,

You've actually managed to stumble upon an argument against PR that I've never heard before. I thought I'd have some time to hunt down some information about it, but I haven't as of yet. So let's give you credit for stumping me and leave it at that. *grin*

Seriously, I may come back to this over the holiday break when I have some extra time, but for now I wanted to at least give you the point.