Are We Afraid of Proportional Representation?

Dr. Carolyn Inch

It was about two years ago now, just in advance of the latest electoral reform referendum in British Columbia, that I had one of those rare moments of insight. I had been an advocate of proportional representation (PR) since I learned about it about 2 years before. I was puzzled by the debate surrounding such a straightforward concept – the percentage of seats a party holds in the legislative body reflects the percentage of votes that it received. Isn’t that what democracy was meant to achieve?

At first, I thought that such a great idea lacked only visibility. But when I started to write about it in local papers and raise it with colleagues and friends, I realized that it didn’t spark the same leap of faith in others that it had in me.

A common argument I heard was that it was too complicated. The outcome is clear – the will of the people is directly reflected in the elected body. How that is achieved is, like electricity, the internal combustion engine and the internet, is a little more complicated, especially when compared to our existing First Past the Post (FPTP) system. The fact that I don’t understand how they work doesn’t stop me from switching on a light, driving my car or hooking up to Netflix so I recognized it must be something else that makes people hesitate.

Among the reasons that the B.C. referendum on electoral reform did not succeed is that large corporations are not in favour of the concept. They recognize that the ease with which lobbying can be done with one or the other of the large political parties would be impaired. Their tactics were to scare the populace in advance of the referendum by highlighting that it would have a negative impact on the economy. I didn’t see that as a real threat as most Canadians can see through that kind of self-serving logic. I thought, in fact, it would be more of an incentive to support the cause.

Clarity on why Canadians are not embracing PR happened for me when I heard Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, speaking at the Broadbent Institute on June 25, 2018. She was not a proponent of PR but the people of NZ had spoken and she was Prime Minister and had to make it work.

Her objections to PR were summarized in a sentence. She said she was afraid of a step into the unknown and that she didn’t know much about PR because of the heritage of our Anglo-American democracies. Most of the English-speaking world is managed by a FPTP system and all that we hear about PR is the negative impact of failing coalitions in Italy or Israel. Stable, highly successful democracies using PR such as Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands are not newsworthy in the English speaking press. Tada! Now I understand what is holding back electoral reform!

To return to the success story that is New Zealand, for the previous 20 or so years, New Zealanders been very disatisfied with false majority leaders who, in her words, “behaved like dictators”. The road to PR was long and winding but once achieved, the country has enjoyed continuing success. Under Helen Clark’s leadership from 1999 to 2008, New Zealand achieved significant economic growth, low levels of unemployment, and high levels of investment in education and health, and in the well-being of families and older citizens. She and her government prioritized reconciliation and the settlement of historical grievances with New Zealand’s indigenous people and the development of an inclusive multicultural and multi-faith society.  She credits much of this success to the fact that every bill that was introduced was crafted by all the parties. Nothing went forward that wasn’t guaranteed to pass. She said that it was a learning curve to be so collaborative but that it’s really the only way for countries to successfully govern.

Now that I better understand what is holding us back, I invite Canadians to become more familiar with the concept and how it could work for us to heal regional divides, right long-standing wrongs with our aboriginal population and give minorities a voice.

Fair Vote Canada, an advocacy group for PR, is inviting public participation at their Annual Conference to be held on line May 29 and 30. There are a number of interesting speakers, among them a New Zealand academic who will recount how the success of New Zealand’s response to the pandemic is attributable in large measure, to their electoral system. Hope to “see” you there!

One comment

  1. Many unintended consequences of PR in a country as large and diverse as Canada. We are not NZ in so many ways. How many parties will there be in the end? The umbrella party concept will be dead. Instead we’ll have a plethora of narrow interest groups. For example, welcome to the Social Conservative Party. They got a hardline vote of 20% of the Conservative leadership vote. Add in softer supporters and expect let’s say 50-80 seats under PR. They’ll negotiate their demands more effectively while there’s a search for enough votes to form a government. How might that work out? Even the NDP will split into many pieces. A Western oil-supporting faction, a union faction, a harder line environmental group and probably more. How about regional/provincial parties similar to the BQ? And so much more. THAT’S what’s wrong with a massive step into the unknown and why the vast majority of Canadians are unwilling to be pushed into it.


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