This is my second kick at the proportional cat but it is a very important issue that goes to the very core of our democracy. It is a long read:
Fair Choice Canada has recently published and distributed a political newsletter titled “This is Democracy?,” which attempts to address Canada’s electoral system of voting. Obviously their initiative is well planned and timed to coincide with the government’s plan to rid us all of this “archaic and undemocratic” voting methodology. Their argument is that the First Past the Post (FPTP) system is unfair, undemocratic and needs to be purged in time for the 2019 election for one of Proportional Representation (PR).
But is it?
I read their newsletter with great interest. I then took a look at the Fair Vote website and found that both the newsletter and the web site’s information to be downright misleading.
The adverse comments made by Fair Vote Canada about the stability or lack thereof of the Canadian system of government and the associated electoral process that supports that system tells me just how misleading the Fair Vote group really is and entirely ignorant of our electoral history with a distortion of the facts. If you take a look at their website and view the backgrounders on “Click on a Canadian” rogue’s gallery their motivation becomes blatantly clear. In essence their efforts reflect a progressive desire to change our electoral system to ensure that there will never, ever be a right of centre, conservative government in this country ever again, but a government focused solely on the progressive agenda of the left leaning parties, i.e., the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens. It will ensure that fringe parties such as the Greens could hold the balance of power in a coalition government without the requisite votes necessary to substantiate that hold.
Fair Vote Canada states that FPTP originated in the 12th Century: a time of peons, serfs and peasants, an electorate that had no clue as to the world around them. After all, the world was flat right? Perhaps, but it was also a time where a very significant democratic document was drafted – The Magna Carta (1215) – a document of which its effects and impacts on our democratic parliamentary system have held up well over time and through a multitude of democratic crises and global instability. The Magna Carta continues to have a powerful iconic status in British society, and other Westminster based parliamentary governments, such as Canada, being cited by politicians and lawyers in support of constitutional positions, its perceived guarantee of trial by jury, rule of law and other civil liberties. The document also continues to be honoured in the United States as an antecedent of the US’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.
FPTP may suck but the alternatives really suck. Our Parliamentary democracy is a flawed system but the only system that has held up through the years. Canada is a large country where one’s political beliefs, place of residence and regional grievances are, or can be, significant determinants of electoral success or failure. But it also holds true that these successes or failures are cyclical in nature and subject to the whims of the electorate and their determination as to how well the governing party has represented itself to the people they represent. We can turf the bastards out (John A in 1873 / 1874, Mulroney in 1993, Martin in 2006). With a PR system turfing the bastards out, especially on the left, will be extremely difficult to do because of the coalition aspects and nature of power. If one left leaning party fails in governing, another could take the helm with the help of the other two, or three, or four! In Canada the Conservatives represent the only credible right of centre party whereas the Liberals, NDP and the Greens are well represented on the left. Indeed, if a PR system had been in effect in Canada it is doubtful that the Conservatives would have won the 1979, 1988, 2006, 2008 or 2011 elections. Is this a fair reflection of the will of the electorate? It is too lopsided in favour of one political ideology. The checks and balances of a real opposition disappear under PR and that is why so many of the people in the Fair Vote Canada’s “click on a Canadian” rogues gallery are in favour of this system.
Fair Vote Canada states that Canada is one of only 3 OECD countries still using the antiquated winner take all system while over 85% use a version of Proportional Representation (PR). This is misleading in that Canada, Australia (revised FPTP in preferential voting in upper and lower houses), New Zealand (Mixed Member Proportional – revised FPTP)) and the United States use a FPTP system or derivative but based upon the English model, not the questionable Canadian model as Fair Vote Canada implies. Perhaps over 85% of the 35 OECD countries do use PR for a total of 29 countries but there are over 50 nations worldwide that use a FPTP system or variant thereof, OECD or not. Interestingly, many of these FPTP countries tend to be either a former colony of the UK and/or a United States protectorate. Perhaps these countries decided, on winning independence, to adopt a system that was tried and true and stable over the centuries.
Tony Blair, defending FPTP, argued that other systems give small parties the balance of power, and influence disproportionate to their votes. Allowing people into parliament who did not finish first in their district was described by David Cameron as creating a “Parliament full of second-choices who no one really wanted but didn’t really object to either.” I think Winston Churchill said it best when he stated that the alternative FPTP vote system is “determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.” (Wikipedia)
New and emerging countries’ democracies, especially those in Eastern Europe and Africa, may have adopted PR due to the instability of their governments, the ignorance and social volatility of a poorly educated electorate and the fragility of their governance structures. They are not mature enough for a two or three party FPTP system. Luckily we do not suffer from that in Canada.
Fair Vote Canada continually compares Canada to New Zealand, especially during the two nation’s 2014 national elections.* Last time I looked Canada had its last national election in 2015. Yet their stats about New Zealand and Canada are very misleading. Under NZ’s Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, a party first had to win with their FPTP electoral votes before they could contend for Party PR votes and appropriate seats in their legislature. These PR seats are apportioned off by a Party List – Closed or Open – dictated by the party leadership and not the voters. NZ holds elections every 3 years and no party can win a majority without a coalition. As a result, nothing gets done because governments will only take power through a coalition or inter-party agreements. The electorate has no control over the horse trading. Is that an acceptable form of government and representation for a nation such as Canada with significant regional differences? I think not.
Australia gets a much higher percentage of voters under their system because it is illegal not to vote there in national elections. In Canada’s 2015 election voter turnout was 68%; in New Zealand, 77% (2014); and Australia, 93% (2013). Not too bad. Of that 68% Canadian turnout, 39% went to the Liberals for 184 seats, The Conservatives with 31.9% of the vote won 99 seats; the NDP won 44 seats with 19.7% of the votes; the Bloc, 10 seats with 4.7% of the vote; and the Greens 1 seat with 3.4% of the vote. The Liberals won a majority of seats, not of the electorate, but of the 5 parties involved combined. If you look at the Province by Province breakdown and percentages of the vote then the election was fairly indicative of what the country wanted. They wanted change! Yet under a PR system in Canada there is a real possibility that one would only see a left of centre government change but no change in ideology.
In my opinion, a great deal of the Fair Vote BC argument for PR reflects sour grapes. Parties such as the Greens, NDP, Bloc, Communists, Bridge, Marijuana, Independents etc may never form a government because their policies are just too extreme or untenable by the majority of Canadians. Even under a PR system, where electoral thresholds are established, these parties may never see the light of day. The Greens and the Bloc in particular are one issue or regional parties and that fact is well reflected in their 2015 electoral results. In fact if Canada had had a MMP system in place for the 2015 election with an electoral threshold of 4-5%, as New Zealand has, the Greens would not have a single seat in Parliament. Furthermore, in a country such as Canada with 5 national parties, if one can count the Greens and Bloc as legitimate national parties, it will be near impossible for any one party to achieve a majority that reflects over 50% of the electorate. Impossible. The likes of 1958 and 1984 are long gone. Yet under our current system, the Greens did elect an MP to Parliament. Saanich and the Gulf Islands went to Elizabeth May with over 8% of the popular vote in BC.
It is too bad that some areas of the country failed to elect a representative of their choice, such as a Green or a NDP or a Conservative or a Liberal, or a Communist, or a Marijuana representative. But that’s our democracy. Nevertheless, it is beholden to the elected representative to support all of his constituents, no matter the party stripe or leanings, once elected to Parliament. If he doesn’t, we can turf him. Yet it is entirely possible that under a PR system my riding could be represented by someone who has never been here or lived here. So how does one turf a poor representative under PR? It is almost impossible because the Party Leadership and not the electorate controls the Party Lists. And don’t forget how the Liberals appoint many of their candidates now. They undermine the grassroots political process by bypassing the nominating committees and unilaterally appoint the candidate who will represent a particular riding. Is that democracy in action? I would also say that under an open or closed list PR system, that kind of dictatorial behaviour will become the norm. And is it fair that a party such as the Greens should acquire 15 seats in Parliament as a result of their 3.4% of the national vote with the potential of holding the balance of power under PR MMP, based primarily on their Vancouver Island result? That could happen under PR.
The Greens and the NDP are blaming the electoral process for their failings and are ticked that they do not hold more seats in the House based upon their percentage of the popular vote, when they should be having a good look at themselves and their policies for their failure to connect nationally. For example, the Green’s Israeli divestment and boycott policy is pure discrimination and perhaps racist. The NDP’s interest in adopting the Leap Manifesto would launch Canada back into the Dark Ages if they were ever in a position of power.
In many European countries PR may work effectively because there are no major regional differences like there are in Canada. Interestingly, much of the governance of the Netherlands, Belgium and other European countries of similar size now default to the EU Parliament and bureaucracy. I would say that the geographical determinant is relevant in most of the countries that have been identified by Fair Vote as being pro PR, i.e., they are very small in area and lack regional differences such as that found in Canada.
Fair Vote Canada states that voter turnout will improve under PR. I would maintain that voter turnout has nothing to do with what form of an electoral process is adopted but has everything to do with age and apathy. According to Elections Canada, the turnout hasn’t been too bad: from its lowest at 58.8% in 2008 to its highest at 79.2% in 1963 – higher than the 1867 election and higher than what NZ normally achieves. Low turnout is normally attributed to the young, who are naturally suspicious of all politicians and symbols of authority, or those people who are just too lazy to get off their butts and come out to the polls. This is the primary reason Australia has made it mandatory for their electorate to vote.
Women and Minorities representation will improve under PR. Yes, if the Party leader can arbitrarily pick and choose candidates without prejudice for an open or closed list. In reality what is happening is a quota system and that is wrong. It is blatant discrimination and racism. And how does one define minority? In Toronto, for example, the white Anglo Saxon population of that city is now the minority at less than 49%. Yet do whites fit into the minority narrative? To a progressive…No! Nevertheless, the person with the best qualifications should be the standard. Our current Liberal government, a government elected under the FPTP system, is well represented by women and visible minorities (?) and is within an acceptable range as highlighted in the “This is Democracy?” newsletter.
The newsletter cites Italy as an example of electoral stability, as compared to Canada. The newsletter goes on to state that Canada is the most unstable of the major democracies. Why? Because Canada has had 22 elections since 1945, whereas Italy has only had 18. Using that logic why wasn’t NZ brought into the mix. They have national elections every three years. Since 1945 that fact would equate to about 23 elections (24 actually). Yet Fair Vote Canada makes no mention of NZ as being an unstable democracy due to their electoral process – only Canada is branded in that light because of their electoral frequency under a FPTP system!
Yes Canada has had 22 elections since WW2 but I would put it that this is a reflection of how strong and stable our system of government is. Canada has a parliamentary system of government based upon Westminster that calls for an election, until Harper’s fixed election date decree, of every 5 years. That alone would require an election every 14.2 years in Canada since 1945 if all governments were majority in nature. But they haven’t been and I would argue that that is also a good thing because the strength of our democracy and parliamentary system of government holds poor governments and minorities to account (Arthur Meighen, Pearson, Joe Clark) by forcing them to go to the polls for public validation. Our system also prevents potential constitutional crises – Mackenzie King, Bing affair comes to mind – something that Italy could only hope for.
Italy may have had only had 18 elections since WW2 but they have had 65 different governments since 1945, and therein lies the problem that can arise with PR. Nothing gets done. Why? Because under a PR electoral system, coalitions are necessary for power and political survival. By their very nature, they are unstable. Can you imagine the political chaos in Canada if the Layton, Dion and Duceppe coalition had taken down Harper’s duly elected minority government back in December 2008? It would have been an electoral coup! Luckily, through our strong and stable system of parliamentary rules and protocol, Harper was able to prorogue parliament and thus avoid political instability in this country. The Liberals backed down from the coalition early in 2009. Whew! The only people who were ticked off with this were those members of the coalition and the left.
As an example of the efficacy and democratic stability of Italy’s PR system, as Fair Vote Canada implies, here are some facts about Italy’s 2008 election:
“An early election was called (in Italy) when Romano Prodi resigned as prime minister in January, after the collapse of his centre-left coalition, which had been in power for just 20 months…only one Italian government has lasted a full five-year term in the last 50 years, led by conservative Silvio Berlusconi between 2001-2006 and even he was forced to resign once during that time by fractious allies.”
“Italians blame electoral laws for chronic instability that brought down the 61st government since World War Two in January. The system, still in use, mixes proportional representation with a threshold of 2 percent for parties in a coalition and 4 percent for single parties. It permitted more than 20 parties to take seats in 2006.”
And the real kicker here is:
“Both Berlusconi and Veltroni favoured altering the system to reduce the PR element and push Italy towards a two-party system.” Unfortunately, for Italy, that hasn’t happened yet.
In closing, it is extremely difficult in Canada for any political party to obtain a true majority government that represents the majority of voters. Why? Because some voters are Liberal, some are Conservative, some NDP, a few Greens thrown into the mix and a few support protest parties such as the Bloc. They all have influence and will direct how a particular voter will cast their ballet.
In the Canadian political landscape a majority really means a majority among many of the parties involved. I would also say with conviction that a PR majority in the Canadian sense is also a majority among many, but only established through a coalition of the left and back room dealings – just like they do in Italy. Interesting that when a Conservative party in Canada wins a majority at 39% of the electoral vote, that government is considered a fraud by the left because the majority of Canadians didn’t vote for them. But their twisted logic makes no complaint when a Liberal government does the same thing. Why? Because the Liberal party represents an element of the left so are therefore acceptable and legitimate. In that respect PR has the potential of becoming an extremely inefficient, ineffective, undemocratic and corrupt electoral process of democracy that could undermine our Parliamentary form of government.
Fair Vote Canada suggests that 70% of Canadians support PR. This is very misleading. They quote various polls and the BC 2005 referendum as examples. Well, nobody asked me! In BC, in 2009 however, 61% voted to retain the current system. In 2005, in PEI, 64% voted against PR or a change to the current system. In Ontario’s referendum in 2007, 63% of Ontarians rejected change and only 5 of 107 ridings did a majority favour a change. Misleading the public with stats such as this underlines the essential requirement for a national referendum and a voice for all Canadians if we are to even contemplate changing the electoral process in this country.
Our current FPTP system is flawed but has stood the test of time for almost 150 years. It has survived and held up during Two World Wars, various constitutional crises, major economic downturns such as the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008, as well as domestic terrorism such as the October Crisis of 1970. It may be flawed but I would say to Fair Vote Canada and the Canadian electorate that it is probably the best flawed system out there. By the way, one of the most effective governments in Canada on record was Lester Pearson’s minority government of the 1960s. It is amazing what he accomplished.
As Mark Twain said in a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments: Lies, damn lies and statistics.
*Fair Vote’s This is Democracy newsletter initially stated that Canada and New Zealand had national elections in 2014. They have since updated that newsletter by comparing Canada and New Zealand’s 2011 national elections.