The horrors of proportional representation? Faster climate action, more women elected, lower debt, increased voter turnout.
THE SITUATION SOUNDS AS THOUGH it were tailor-made for scare-mongering by defenders of BC’s current First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system. Nearly a month after the New Brunswick election, it is far from clear which party will form the government. Two longstanding, mainstream parties are just one seat apart, neither with a majority. Two much smaller parties each hold a handful of seats. One, populist and right-of-centre, was formerly regarded as fringe. An agreement between either of the two smaller parties and one of the mainstream ones would resolve the impasse. But weeks of uncertainty have produced no such agreement. One week before the legislature was to resume, the continuing standoff between the two main parties meant that the legislature may be unable to elect a speaker. In that case, another general election would be called.
But this is not an example of the kind of untold disasters that anti-democrats love to claim befalls jurisdictions under Proportional Representation (Pro Rep). Rather, it occurred in New Brunswick after the general election last September 24—under FPTP. Liberals won 21 seats, Tories 22, Greens 3, and People’s Alliance 3. The People’s Alliance supports economic conservatism and opposes parts of the Province’s official bilingualism and language duality policies. And until this September, it had never won more than 2.1 percent of the popular vote nor elected an MLA . After the September election, however, it potentially held the balance of power, though neither the Liberals nor the Tories wanted to link with them. As of Focus’ deadline, a new general election appeared likely.
All this could have been avoided had New Brunswick been operating under a Pro Rep electoral system, as the accompanying table (below) shows. Under Pro Rep, New Brunswick would now have a Liberal majority government, with a workable three-seat margin. And the NDP, which was wiped out in the seat count despite winning just over 5 percent of the popular vote, would have ended up with two seats in the 49-seat legislature.
To be sure, minority governments not only occur under Pro Rep, they are more likely except in special circumstances, such as when the electorate is evenly divided between just two parties. But it’s false to suggest that FPTP inevitably results in stable, majority governments, while Pro Rep does not. Look at both New Brunswick and, to a lesser degree, BC.
Stephanie Smith presides over the 76,000-member BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents the majority of non-executive BC government staff. “You don’t have to look far to find examples of how our current first-past-the-post system delivers skewed results that essentially waste votes,” she said in an email to Focus. “I’m not sure why anyone would say no to having a stronger voice and more robust democratic institutions,” Smith added.
The FPTP system is so completely undemocratic it’s hard to believe it has any defenders at all. But it does. Consider Bob Plecas and Lawrie McFarlane. Both are former BC deputy ministers. Also on the status-quo side are former Glen Clark sidekick Bill Tieleman and former (unelected) NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh. And, naturellement, those well-known defenders of democracy, the Fraser Institute. Plecas and Tieleman are both directors and founders of the No BC Proportional Representation Society.
McFarlane was deputy minister of health during the 1990s NDP government. He said in an email that he knows of no deputy minister in favour of Pro Rep. “For that matter,” McFarlane said, “I don’t know a single former colleague from government who supports it. That doesn’t mean there is no support, only that the people I know are opposed.” In a Times Colonist December 29, 2017 column, McFarlane wrote that Pro Rep could result in perhaps a half dozen parties, some of them representing single issue constituencies such as anti-abortionists. Because the commitment of such parties may be to single agendas, they have little room to compromise, he wrote. “This isn’t a legislature, it’s a chamber of irreconcilable differences.”
Admittedly, Pro Rep can allow parties without a hope under FPTP to hold seats. However, the risk of minuscule parties blocking any chance of compromise is partly alleviated by the proposed 5 percent popular vote threshold for a party to be awarded any district seats for the only Pro Rep system currently in use, the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. (For details, see the Elections BC site.)
What do FPTP’s defenders find so loveable about the system? Research on the respective electoral systems provides a hint. Netherlands-born political scientist Arend Lijphart compared 36 democracies over 55 years and found that Pro Rep countries outperformed FPTP ones in 16 of 17 measures of sound government and decision-making. His work is summarized on the Fair Vote Canada website, from which this information was taken. Countries with Pro Rep electoral systems have lower income inequality, faster climate action, more renewable energy, lower national debt, enhanced civil liberties, higher voter turnout and more women elected. No wonder the Fraser Institute hates Pro Rep, except maybe the bit about debt.
But why do deputy ministers dislike it, assuming McFarlane is right about that? Evert Lindquist is the editor of Canadian Public Administration, and teaches in the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration, where he has served several terms as director. Among his numerous research specialties are the public service and government transitions. Responding to emailed questions from Focus, Lindquist said he knows of no published research regarding senior government executives’ attitudes towards electoral systems. However, he said that all other things being equal, one would expect deputy ministers and other public service executives to prefer more certainty to less, and more clarity in direction to less. “Adding even more ongoing, rolling negotiations (which of course is already a part of their jobs) is not something they would likely prefer,” added Lindquist, “unless they thought it might provide more opportunities for dispassionate advice to be heard and considered.”
Even if deputy ministers might prefer FPTP, Lindquist said a switch to Pro Rep should not be career-changing for them. “Preferences are one thing, but could they adapt and function well in such an environment? Yes, of course.”
Over the coming few weeks, BC voters have the chance to ensure the first general election after June 30, 2021 will be held under Pro Rep. All BC households were due to receive a voter’s guide by late October, and registered voters a voting package by November 2. Voters can answer either one or both of two questions: (1) Choose between FPTP and Pro Rep (2) Choose between 3 Pro Rep systems, only one of which (MMP) is currently in use. Completed mail-in ballots must be received by Elections BC no later than 4:30 pm, November 30. For more information, see: www.elections.bc.ca/referendum/
Formerly a political columnist and reporter, Russ Francis recently returned to journalism after a stint as a BC government analyst. During his 10 years with the government, he worked in strategic policy, legislation and performance management for a number of ministries.