Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

"Winning it all" is not desirable

In response to some of my friend Confused's comments in my "Out of the mouths of innocents" post, where she talked about how Canadians had "voted for a minority government," Joseph from Canada's Debate responded:

I didn’t vote for a majority or a minority, I voted for a single MP, and I wanted my party to win it all.
The first part of this statement is a simple fact--Canada's voting system does, in fact, mean that we get only one vote, and so we have to direct our preferences for the local riding and for the shape of the government into the same action. The second part of this statement, though--the part that says "I wanted my party to win it all"--is personal to Joseph. And I'm curious how many people feel the same. Putting aside questions of what was realistic, I'd like to know how many of you thought the ideal outcome of the last election would have been a majority government consisting only of the party you voted for. 'Cause I'll tell you quite honestly that wasn't the case for me. And this is due not to a lack of faith in the NDP, but to a well-founded nervousness about single-party majority governments.

I wonder how many Canadians are aware how rare it is across the world's democracies for a single party to assume complete control of a country's governance. Parliamentary systems that use some form of proportional representation to elect their MPs
--that is, most parliamentary systems--tend to form stable government coalitions in which multiple parties govern together. In some countries, like Germany, there have even been government coalitions when a single party did manage to squeak out a majority on its own, simply because it's seen as better to have a strong multiple-party majority than a weak majority alone. Even the U.S., which still elects its Congress by means of the outdated first-past-the-post voting system, has checks and balances in place to make it unlikely for the same party to control the House of Representatives and the Senate and the Presidency. Only in Canada and a few other countries is it considered normal to want one party to "win it all."

A smart British historian once mused that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And unfortunately for us, a look at many of Canada's longest-running single-party majority governments--the federal Tories under Mulroney, the federal Liberals under Chrétien and Martin, and the Alberta PCs for most of recent history--doesn't exactly seem to contradict that. Given the combination of this and the unlikelihood of Canadians uniting behind any single political party these days, isn't it time to start thinking seriously about a better way of doing things? One that looks more like the successful political cultures of stable European democracies, and not like giving in to the worst aspects of our current political culture?


Anonymous said...

Although I agree with you there are valid historical reasons for this.

Given that the Dominions are birthed from the British parliamentary tradition where the House of Lords were the senior body, where the Prime Minister and the monarch often agreed, and of course the validity of a single party in charge when a democracy was facing off against a series of polities that were all ruled by near-absolute monarchs.

That said our system is sadly out of date today. However I tend to think something along the Australian model with a Senate that has power (and is elected under STV) and whose members regularly serve in the cabinet is at least something we should explore. Opening the Constitution should not be the bug-a-boo it is if we just want to do incremental change.

Of the other dominions Australia follows a model where the Senate has real power and New Zealand has a unitary but MMP system (that said, it hasn't worked out as well as expected there—the minor parties have continued to weaken and both National and Labour have been able to generally operate as if they were in charge by themselves. In addition the 4th Labour government and the National government following would have been unable to implement the unpopular but needed economic policies to save New Zealand from becoming a third world country if it been under MMP).

As long as we're talking about other models, adopting the Australian Labor Party model of the caucus electing the leader of the party would solve all these silly one-member-one-vote or convention problems :) Easy and cheap to change leaders if you're in opposition.

Also both the New Zealand and Australian Labo(u)r Party caucuses elect members to cabinet, which serves as a useful check on the Prime Minister's power given that he is of course an elected dictator.

Plus people tend to overlook that proportional representation would serve to much strengthen party loyalty and MPs would be much less independent.

CES Franks idea of expanding Parliament by a hundred or more MPs and reforming the system so that the route to power is not solely through the PM/Cabinet/Committee is also an interesting one.

Combine the above with Independent riding associations that can defy the PM (no more unilateral parachuting or even that silly women only nominations idea that's popped up) would also be nice, but wouldn't happen under PR. That a popular MP would have a power base outside the parliament and couldn't be turfed just because he disagrees.

What I'm getting at is that just switching the Commons to some of proportional representation (MMP, if we had to) is not the be-all and end-all situation. I'd like to see some discussion about adopting the best parts of other dominions systems as well.

Oxford County Liberals said...


I could start again about how Canada has no historical precedent for coalition governments.. and I doubt any of the parties - particularly in the poisonous atmosphere (maybe with the exception of the Greens) would agree to doing it... but I wont ;)

(I do obviously agree with Keller though that the preferred method is MMPR).

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

wednesday keller,

Some points of disagreement:

* I have different data from New Zealand. Coalitions were unstable at first, as the parties were getting used to the new system, but seem to be working much more as they should now. The books published as a part of the New Zealand Election Study are thorough and fascinating, detailing the ups and downs of accommodating a country's political culture to a new system.

* There also isn't a whole lot of evidence to support your notion that proportional representation would "serve to much strengthen party loyalty and MPs would be much less independent." Indeed, Canada has one of the most whipped party systems in the democratic world, and we have first-past-the-post. There's nothing inherently more party-promoting about forms of PR like MMP, and STV even arguably promotes more independence.

That said, some of your proposals have merit. Keep them coming!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, funny how you just made those claims about how coalition governments "just wouldn't work" in Canada by stating them over and over again instead of actually providing some evidence from the world's democracies. I mean, if we look at New Zealand, we can see that switching to proportional representation does tend to make the parties realize they have to form coalitions. A counterexample or two would go a long way toward making you sound like an open-minded discussion partner instead of someone who utterly refuses to acknowledge he might not have all the answers.

One thing I think even you can't disagree with, though: a coalition between the Liberals and the NDP is certainly much more likely to happen than a merger. (And thank goodness for that.)

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand me. Coalitions in New Zealand are stable, but the minor parties have bleed support and this trend is continuing.

Furthermore based on actual running of the government the coalition partners that aren't National/Labour have limited power relative to what is seen in Europe. Furthermore even the newly centrist National Party has at best two coalition partners, and that's iffy. If they get they might well be stuck with a minority full stop, coalition or not.

You also failed to address my point: If the 4th Labour government and the following National government had been under MMP I doubt the harsh but needed fiscal restraint would gone through and New Zealand's currency would have collapsed—at that point they would have been functionally equivalent to t a third world country and the World Bank/IMF would have had to step with their (horrible, and I'm a classical liberal) SAF programs.

That said the papers I've read on New Zealand PR do indicate an increased trust in government and over-all satisfaction with the PR system (bar standard left/right partisanship) and people believe their votes count for more (excepting the Maori).
Australia under FPTP has a long-running coalition called (conveniently) The Coalition which is a near-permenent alliance of the Liberal and National Parties—something along the lines of the PC and Reform parties agreeing to not compete and merge cabinet posts/governance.

So to some extent I agree with Tribe, it's not in our political culture at the moment but there isn't anything stopping us if Australia can do it.

I stick with the dominions, by the way, as they share very similar political, economic, and social cultures as compared to Europe or the United States.
Oh no doubt Canada is one of the most whipped parliaments but I was proposing weakening those bonds. Based on the evidence I've seen PR would not weaken those bonds, but you're probably right—it would be hard to strengthen them.

While if one were to combine MMP with independent riding associations, 100+ more federal MPs, and a few other reforms I'd be much happier with PR. As it is though I dislike just bringing in MMP without other reforms.

Anonymous said...

I have got to proof-read better.

Australia uses an instant-runoff system rather than FPTP.

Essentially you rank in order of preference (as you feel like it, or following the How-To-Vote cards handed out by your party) and they flow based on elimination of lower ranking candidates.

Nevertheless the system is closer to FPTP than PR.

valiantmauz said...

I didn't want majority for any of the three major parties. I wanted the Liberals chastened, the Conservatives given a chance to show their stuff, the NDP with enough seats to have influence and at least one seat to go Green.

Of course, that kinda sorta happened by accident (missing Green seat notwithstanding) and had exactly zero to do with my one vote for my single MP. I don't like majorities; with a healthy majority, the government can do whatever it damn well pleases for the duration of it's tenure, even if, as has happened, the majority is in fact granted by a minority of citizens. That is a recipe for resentment and apathy in the voting population. What point is there in voting when your views can be safely ignored?

I think that holds true wherever one happens to be on the political spectrum. I have no doubt that three consecutive Liberal majorities contributed to general feelings of disenfranchisement among conservative voters - that utter powerlessness translates to a rather unpleasant spirit of vindictiveness when the disenfranchised regain power.

My opinion, for what it's worth.

Alex said...

The power of the party leadership vis-a-vis individual candidates has plenty to do with financing law, manner of nomination, whether the system is open- or closed-list, and how the actual rules of the parliament work, in addition to the electoral system, so saying that PR must have a certain effect isn't accurate. (Especially given IP's point that Canada already has a very whipped system).

Yes, Australia elects the lower house using instant runoff, and if you want a multiparty system it's worse than FPP, since second preferences flow to the big parties. (IRV works better for single offices, e.g. US president). On the other hand MMP in NZ hasn't worked exactly as was thought. But I'd argue that Canada has many more societal cleavages (linguistic, regional especially) than relatively quite small NZ and one could expect more of a variety of parties with strong backing to emerge. After all, there's already five "national" parties with FPP!

Not being Canadian I am curious... IP or anyone else... what is the opinion of Socons about PR? I would think it would benefit them just as much as the left and Greens.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your observation that Canada already has a multiparty system is an important one. This is one of the major differences between New Zealand and Canada: in New Zealand, the shift to PR was expected to create a multiparty system where one did not already exist, but in Canada, that change to a multiparty system has already taken place. Switching to PR in Canada would therefore just be a way to allow the already-existing system to function as the voters want it to. I would expect some changes in the party structure under PR in Canada, but not the radical ones that might be expected if we didn't already have a multiparty system.

To answer your question, then: from what I've observed, the majority of the Canadian electoral reform movement is made up of the left and the centre-left, but then again, so is the Canadian political scene. They're by no means the whole shebang, either--there are even sitting Conservative MPs who support PR. And I suspect the social conservatives would support it if they knew more about it.

Many of us have tried to move the electoral reform discussion away from a discussion of "which parties would benefit," though, arguing instead that it's Canada would benefit. Given the way FPTP reinforces already-fractious regional divisions, that's pretty difficult to argue with. In Canada, electoral reform is not just a matter of fairness, but a real chance to take a bite out of some of Canada's worst demons.

Phugebrins said...

You forget that there exist a sizeable number of countries whose governments are formed from the parties who do win it all. Countries like Tajikistan, Singapore, and Zimbabwe, where the governing parties win outright. And then you've got the more subjective situations of one-party majorities: countries in which the ideological difference between the first and second parties is either negligible or at least smaller than that between different members of that party: places like Venezuela, the US, a number of European states, and probably quite a few places elsewhere.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


How does stating the fact that it's rare among the world's democracies for a single party to assume complete control count as "forgetting" that it ever happens at all?

Are you trying to argue that it's not rare? If you are, you'll have to name a lot more than three examples, all of which are from rather marginal "democracies" anyway...

Anonymous said...

Many so-con voters would love it. I know many conservative religious people (including my mom) who hold their noses and vote Conservative simply because it's the only choice they have.

If she was in Europe she'd make a good Christian Democrat. She (and others like her) deserve a voice in parliament.

JG said...

Singapore's a democracy now?

James Bow said...

I sort of thought Singapore _was_ a democracy. Zimbabwe, on the other hand...

JG said...

It is... sort of. Singapore's more of a managed, vaguely authoritarian, one-party state with the institutional trappings of a parliamentary democracy. They haven't had a change of government in 48 years, the sort of longevity even Alberta governments don't dream of.

Anonymous said...

The best article I've ever read about Singapore is called Disneyland With The Death Penalty by William Gibson for Wired Magazine in the early 90s.

Google the title and it's the top hit.

Pull quotes:
"It's like an entire country run by Jeffrey Katzenberg," the producer had said, "under the motto 'Be happy or I'll kill you.'" We were sitting in an office a block from Rodeo Drive, on large black furniture leased with Japanese venture capital.

And, in many ways, it really does seem like 1956 in Singapore; the war (or economic struggle, in this case) has apparently been won, an expanded middle class enjoys great prosperity, enormous public works have been successfully undertaken, even more ambitious projects are under way, and a deeply paternalistic government is prepared, at any cost, to hold at bay the triple threat of communism, pornography, and drugs.

The only problem being, of course, that it isn't 1956 in the rest of world. Though that, one comes to suspect, is something that Singapore would prefer to view as our problem. (But I begin to wonder, late at night and in the privacy of my hotel room - what might the future prove to be, if this view should turn out to be right?)