6.07.2007

proportional representation?
why or why not?

In my recent post about the Creation Museum, Lone Primate mentioned that this is why he doesn't support proportional representation: the opportunity for fringe parties that many of us consider dangerous and anti-democratic to share a role in government.

My instincts and my reading tell me this is not the case, but I'm not well-versed enough in the issues to argue effectively. So I tapped someone who is; I invited Idealistic Pragmatist over to comment.

Since I don't have time to write anything original right now, I'll rerun their discussion here, and I'll invite MSS of Fruits and Votes to join us. MSS is a professor of political science who specializes in elections.

Here's the story so far.

Lone Primate:
...this is the reason I get cold feet every time someone waxes eloquent about proportional representation. Sure, sounds great when you imagine it's just Latin for "the NDP gets more seats"... till you realize it also means folks like this, who couldn't get elected God catcher under the present system, suddenly wind up guaranteed a handful of reps who will give cheer and encouragement to the like-minded as they wind up on the CBC every night, quoted ad nauseam in The National Post, and potentially hold the balance of power in a system that promises minority government after minority government.

They're out there.

Let's KEEP 'em out there.

Idealistic Pragmatist:
Fortunately, this isn't actually true. Only two potential systems have floated for use in Canada, the one currently under consideration in Ontario (Mixed-Member Proportional) and the one currently under consideration in B.C. (Single Transferable Vote). BOTH of these systems have thresholds that would prevent small fringe parties from being elected unless they had significant support. Scroll down in my FAQ to the question about "small regional or ethnic parties" for the full explanation.

LP:
"BOTH of these systems have thresholds that would prevent small fringe parties from being elected unless they had significant support."

Yeah, and the GST was "revenue neutral". As you've pointed out, it's possible under the current system for these people to get elected, with "significant support". We've had upwards of, if I remember correctly, six parties in the Commons at any given time, and some of these parties have significant support out west. Anything that lowers the threshold of what constitutes "significant support" makes me nervous. It gives them a voice that would almost certainly bleed off right-wingers who figure at least their vote counts for something if they vote Tory/Reform/CCRAP, whatever. Empowering a move away from moderation towards fragmentation... cripes, isn't that trend bad enough in this country already? I certainly think so.

I suppose it's bound to come to this sometime. All I'm saying is when you're tiptoeing through the tulips of democracy, be prepared to step... or even slip... in the fertilizer.

IP:
My point is that proportional representation wouldn't lower the threshold for significant support--and in some ways, it would raise it. If anything, first past the post is far, far more dangerous in this respect than either of the two PR-based systems proposed for Canada, as the inflated seat count of the Bloc Quebecois indicates. We've been slipping in the fertilizer for years, and it's time to wake up and smell the democracy.

And your assumption about "more fragmentation" isn't particularly warranted if you look at what happens in other jurisdictions. It's not impossible that PR would create more parties, but I actually find that highly doubtful, given how many we have already (I suspect there would be a realignment of the current parties instead, with lots of politicians changing teams for a year or two). Regardless, though, there would still be less fragmentation under PR because it demands true intraparty cooperation within stable, majority coalition governments. If you're sick of the infighting and grandstanding, PR is actually the solution, not something that would create more of the same problems.

(See also six reasons to support proportional representation and myth #1: proportional representation leads to minority governments.)

LP:
You've done little to reassure me, I'm afraid. I understand how coalitions work — they're the issue for me. We effectively had one for most of Mulroney's tenure; he'd co-opted the sovereigntists and his constitutional and economic peddling to them and their eventual defection nearly brought an end to our country. Without their support, it's highly unlikely he would have won in 1984 and certain he wouldn't have in 1988. Thank God Harper has had the sense not to step into that mine field... but he does have to watch his step with them, all the same. I foresee even more dances with the Devil in a system that pretty much assures no single party in Canada will ever be able to plot a course without worrying about shoals around the fringe.

I look at Italy. The place has had nearly as many governments since WWII as it's had years. Israel is a country full of bright, progressive, educated people whose political process is perennially in thrall to a handful of people who really believe Samuel was right to denounce Saul for merely enslaving the Amalakites instead of killing them man, woman, and child as God commanded — a big part of the reason the place can never find peace with its neighbours or the rest of the people of the very same land.

Coalitions. And so a coalition between the minority Tories and, say, the Family Party? Would the recent vote on same-sex marriage been the non-issue it was under such circumstances? What would it mean for abortion rights? Immigration? The equality of faiths? The independence of the judiciary?

In the abstract, I love the idea of PR. It is more fair. It does give people more of what they want. But I'm not such a democrat and I'm not so generous that I don't look at what that means in practical terms in this country and look away in sang froid. When I think of what we have to lose, and I look at how close the example of that is even in a two-party system, I find myself retreating to the safer shores of known waters.

Feel free to jump in. Fact, opinion, gut reaction - all are welcome.

25 comments:

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

My responses, in order:

1. Italy and Israel are strawmen. I could cut and paste that bit from the post I wrote about coalition governments, but I linked to it to save space--my argument is there. In a nutshell, though, it makes no sense to point to two governments that have a) completely different forms of PR than the kinds that are proposed for Canada, and b) other issues going on, and say "that's what it would be like here."

2. "Effectively" having a coalition isn't the same thing as actually having one. Real coalitions are absolutely nothing like the Mulroney government. I lived in Germany, so I got a chance to observe them in action, but there's plenty you can find out about them yourself with an armchair and an internet connection. You don't have to take my word for it.

3. As for your comment about "a coalition between the minority Tories and, say, the Family Party"--that seemed to come from out of nowhere. Would PR suddenly give Canada more right-wing voters than we have now, in your view? Because if the current Conservative party can't get a majority of the vote, the Conservatives plus a hypothetical Family Party wouldn't be able to, either. Under something like the current party configuration, a much more likely scenario would be a "grand coalition" between the Conservatives and the Liberals (like they currently have in Germany). Or, if the Liberals started doing better, a coalition between the Liberals and the NDP, or perhaps the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens. Would it be ideal? Of couse not. But if the parties each had to give up the pipedream of a majority government of their very own, the politicians would be forced to find a way to make it work.

4. You want "known waters"? PR is known waters, because the vast majority of the democratic governments in this world are PR-based. We can look at how the two systems that have been proposed for Canada work in other countries, and we can even look at how a country adjusts to the changes of switch from our system to MMP, because we've got New Zealand as a nice little test case (those changes are nothing like what you hypothesize, by the way). Much more unknown waters are what happens when the first past the post system starts behaving in a way it's not designed to as a result of the party configuration. I know it's hard to imagine, but in Canada's case, it really is sticking with the status quo that means boldly going where no one has gone before. And we're seeing right now where it's leading--unstable minority governments in perpetuity, increased partisan tensions in the House, growing disgust with politics in general among the electorate. It's not just about a better democracy at this point--it's about the fact that the current system doesn't work anymore, not even for those who think first past the post is the best system under more normal circumstances. And that's not going to fix itself on its own.

loneprimate said...

Italy and Israel are strawmen.

Well, hold on. Since we don't have PR in this country, you're presuming it works because you've seen aspects of you like elsewhere (see below). I'm doing nothing more than the same: using examples to illustrate a case -- moreover, not even one that necessitates PR at all, but merely a system, PR, first past the post, election by alphabet soup, whatever, that encourages the fragmentation of political representation into small groups that require bowing to more and more extreme ideas in order to maintain power. As such, my point stands, I think. Calling them "strawmen" is itself a strawman argument.

Real coalitions are absolutely nothing like the Mulroney government.

Yeah, tell that to Brian when first the separatists split to form the Bloc and the right wingers split to create Reform. You had three parties stuck together with bandaids under the PC banner and it all fell apart for a decade.

Would PR suddenly give Canada more right-wing voters than we have now, in your view?

Given the decade-long darkness from which the Tories have only just emerged, I'd say certainly. The right abandoned them en masse for the favours of another party, one far more conservative than the "progessive" rump they left behind. Had Ontario been more fertile soil for it, it's likely that would have hauled the political process in Canada well to the right of what we have. But under our current system, the Grits benefitted from the split right-wing vote and Reform was never in a position to push right in any serious way; that is, in fact, exactly what drove the conservatives back under one banner again. Under PR, I think it's arguable that the notwithstanding clause would have been evoked federally for the first time when the courts began ruling on same-sex marriage, with the Tories relying on Reform to daily wind its parliamentary pacemaker, and having the option to yank the mainspring if they didn't — something you didn't see happen from within the caucus of a single party when the vote actually did occur.

Like I said, I love the idea in the abstract. But I don't like it when I think about it in practical terms in Canada. I'm not saying we'd go instantly down the drain but I do believe it would retard us or turn back the clock on a lot of the things most people in the country hold dear. It doesn't take a lot of wackos to be the kingmaker in a system where no one is king but everyone is a frog prince a kiss away from the throne. And with the influence of the US washing over us daily, we have our share.

because we've got New Zealand as a nice little test case

As I pointed out above... wouldn't this be a "strawman"? Or does that only count when I use a foreign example to illustrate my case?

unstable minority governments in perpetuity

How, exactly, would making majority governments harder to achieve remedy this?

increased partisan tensions in the House

Were you living in Canada in 1990? I was. What we have in parliament today is nothing remotely like what we had when the Progressive Conservatives fragmented like a clay pot in a cyclotron.

growing disgust with politics in general among the electorate

How can I put this succinctly... I only have one life to life, and it's here, and it's now. I'd far rather live in a Canada where people who want me to pray when I enter public buildings are disaffected with politics and don't vote than one where they're encouraged by the realization they're going to get a handful of people elected to stand up every day in the Commons demanding it, and having the power to get it when some otherwise more centrist right-wing party can almost, but not quite, form a government on its own. Like I said... too many opportunities for dancing with the Devil for my liking.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

lone primate,

I started responding to this in point form, but all of your questions here--quite literally, all of them--are addressed by the posts I have already written and linked to either in the original discussion or in my first comment on this post. One was even addressed by the comment you responded to. Either you didn't read these things, or you read them and are ignoring the points I made there. Either way, it makes me lose any interest I might have otherwise had in continuing this conversation.

I look forward to hearing what MSS has to say, though.

James said...

As I pointed out above... wouldn't this be a "strawman"? Or does that only count when I use a foreign example to illustrate my case?

Italy and Israel are strawmen not because they are other countries, but because they are using PR systems that are not being proposed here.

New Zealand is a much better example because it's a country that had a system very like Canada's and changed to one of the PR systems currently being proposed for Canada -- so it does, in fact, illustrated what could happen if you go from a system like Canada's and change to one of the proposed PR systems. Italy and Israel aren't suitable examples, because they don't actually match what people are suggesting we do.

loneprimate said...

I started responding to this in point form, but all of your questions here--quite literally, all of them--are addressed by the posts I have already written...

What I saw – quite frankly -- was a lot of abstraction... nice points; the kind of thing that makes me think, "Yeah, that'd be nice" too. But what I've presented you with – what you essentially wanted – were concrete examples of my misgivings that are rooted in the realities of our own country, as well as less savory instances I've seen around the world that have made me think twice. The most you've done is gainsayed them or dismissed them. Discounting them may be personally satisfying, but it doesn't address them and certainly doesn't counter them. Proportional representation may indeed become commonplace in Canada. But Canadians need to be aware of the realities of the country when they weigh that change, yea or nay. A significant number of deep right-wing thinkers exist in this land; pretending they don't is folly. Need I remind you that the thread was prompted by the fact that Alberta now features a creationist museum? Not Arkansas. Not Alaska. Not Alabama. Alberta.

There's little point in purporting these people are powerless; at least not to me. I bear witness to the change in the Conservative Party from the PCs I knew when I was young to what exists now. When Reform broke off, it gave a lot of people voice, uncountered within a federal party for the first time in decades, that they did not have in the PCs. There was no one like Stockwell Day holding a portfolio position in Brian Mulroney's or Joe Clark's or John Diefenbaker's cabinets (much less leading the party!). Diefenbaker gave us the Bill or Rights; Mulroney replaced the War Measures Act with the less draconian Emergencies Act. Contemporary Conseravatives have different ideas... Stockwell Day wants pre-emptive powers of arrest and Stephen Harper muses darkly about measures to rein in a judiciary too concerned with the rights of this country's citizenry. And this is without being beholden to fringe parties in the Commons. And you ask me if dividing the right in Right Lite and Real, REAL Right (again) would be bad for the country. Look at the difference in Tories in 1990 and 2007 and tell my you don't think so.

Angus-Reid polls... one from Feb. 13, 2007 tells that 29% of Canadians oppose adding sexual orientation to the equality rights section of the Charter, and that 34% think Parliament should have the final say on rights-related issues and not the courts; a June 15, 2006 poll shows that 34% of Canadians consider abortion immoral and a Nov. 12, 2006 poll shows that 31% of us believe life should be legally protected from conception; a poll from May 4, 2007 shows that 44% of Canadians still believe in the death penalty... Now, you can fairly say that they're just polls, just a snapshot... but if they're anything like indicative, they're enough to give me pause. I mean, these are not small numbers. They can't be waved off as inconsequential even under our current system. At the moment, there are no parties in Canada who advocate these measures (at least, not ones within striking range of electing MPs under the current system). Under PR, parties championing such causes would almost certainly be represented, given voice before the cameras, access to funds and resources, and the potential to advance their agendas through coalitions with otherwise more moderate parties... all of which I believe would cream off such people from the Tories and get those disaffected people you speak of out voting for parties who can and would represent these views.

Democracy is always a risk; I understand that. PR makes it riskier still. If I'm being fair, I have to bow to the fact that giving people their fair voice, even when their views frighten me, is the right thing to do. But I think you have to be honest and acknowledge that these people are out there, right now, that our current system moderates their influence, and that PR is the key to them having an effective voice and maybe changing Canada in ways we wouldn't like. It isn't all going to be socialist sweetness and leftist light, not by a long shot. Under PR, people like us stand to lose, and people who build creationist museums stand to win.

impudent strumpet said...

Weird, I was going to blog about this today myself. But I'll ask here too, since there are more knowledgeable people here:

I want to see what would happen if you apply the PR model we're voting on in October to previous election results - i.e. what would have happened if previous elections were conducted under PR instead of whatever our current system is called. Does anyone know if anything like that is available?

loneprimate said...

Italy and Israel are strawmen... because they are using PR systems that are not being proposed here... New Zealand is a much better example because it's a country that had a system very like Canada's and changed to one of the PR systems currently being proposed for Canada...

How do you know PR in Canada would resemble New Zealand's and not some other country's? It's not a fait accompli; you have no way to knowing, much less flatly demanding, what that will be any more than you can tell me what flag Australia will eventually fly if and when they finally do dispense with the Blue Ensign. The exact nature of it has yet to be worked out; hence ”proposed”. You can champion a model, you can promote it, argue for it... but that's not the same thing as knowing it'll be the one you favour, or assuring me and people like me “it can't happen here”. No, it can. It might. And until one model or another is actually in place, you can't categorically deny it with any intellectual honestly.

Secondly, while my fear is that PR in Canada would give encouragement to a real right-wing element that currently has little voice in Canada, I've already said that that's not the whole issue. That can happen even in a first-past-the-post system; we've already seen the Tories lurch right in their decade-long courtship of Reform such that guys like Joe Clark seem as out of place among them as Eisenhower does among today's Republicans. It's bad enough as it is. I don't see any material benefits that outweigh that risk, other than the possibility Quebec won't be foisting quite so many sovereigntists on the House of Commons every four or five years. ...And that said, the rather conservative ADQ, with its disquietingly rural base, has been making rather strong gains lately on the fairly leftist PQ. It's not inconceivable they'd start showing up in Ottawa under a PR system.

L-girl said...

I want to see what would happen if you apply the PR model we're voting on in October to previous election results - i.e. what would have happened if previous elections were conducted under PR instead of whatever our current system is called. Does anyone know if anything like that is available?


I believe - although I'm not positive - that MSS might be able to tell us. He might be unavailable or on vacation or something. We'll sit tight and wait.

L-girl said...

How do you know PR in Canada would resemble New Zealand's and not some other country's?

Isn't it because that's the system that's being discussed as a possibility for Canada?

L-girl said...

I dug out my post from after the Ontario citizens commission voted to recommend mixed member proportional voting: it's here.

In comments, Scott M linked to some excellent, easy-to-understand explanations of the different systems.

Although I'm lying low in this discussion, it's because I'm writing four different stories, and lack focus for anything else. I support proportional representation because it's more democratic. I come from a place tyrannized by a tiny minority, at best. I want Canada to move further away from that model and closer to real representation.

However... I'm not in a position to argue in depth. I do recomment the links found in comments on that earlier post.

Carry on. :)

L-girl said...

How do you know PR in Canada would resemble New Zealand's and not some other country's?

Isn't it because that's the system that's being discussed as a possibility for Canada?


I just realized that James answered this, above:

New Zealand is a much better example because it's a country that had a system very like Canada's and changed to one of the PR systems currently being proposed for Canada

Sounds pretty clear to me.

Linuxluver said...

MMP in New Zealand saw more partes - in the centre. There aren't really any "fringe" parties among the 8 in the NZ Parliament. They are all aspects of the centre-right / centre / centre-left. Perhaps the ACT party, who are unreconstructed economic neo-liberals, would qualify as "fringe". The Green Party in NZ is very much mainstream, having been warning about climate change for many years now while the supposedly "more responsible" parties kept their heads firmly in the sand.

Perhaps this merely highlights that today's "fringe" is actually tomorrow's mainstream.....and is ust waiting for the nay-sayers and willfully ignorant to catch up. Either way, under MMP it's the voters who get to decide who represents them, not some narrow, self-defining group who decides what is acceptable and what isn't. Arguing that we can't have democracy because some minority, like 'loneprimate', disapproves of some of the choices is clearly silly. Hopefully loneprimate will learn to respect the votes of others as they respect his.

L-girl said...

Either way, under MMP it's the voters who get to decide who represents them, not some narrow, self-defining group who decides what is acceptable and what isn't.

That's the main point in a nutshell, I think.

L-girl said...

Good link about MMP voting.

James said...

How do you know PR in Canada would resemble New Zealand's and not some other country's?

I don't; however, it's more likely to be like New Zealand's than, say, Israel's or Italy's, because the system New Zealand is using is one of the ones proposed for Canada, while no-one is even considering systems like those in Israel or Italy. That's one of the things that makes New Zealand a better (not perfect) model to look at than Israel or Italy.

It's tremendously unlikely that the country'll be called on to make a decision between systems A or B, and end up choosing Q.

Wilf Day said...

The OCA discussed the threshold issue very well before settling on 3%. One of them explained it this way: "We wanted to open the door to more choices for Ontario voters, and we don't see dangerous fringe groups barking at the door in Ontario."

Another one said "we don't want Ernst Zundel or a motorcycle gang disrupting the legislature." Three percent excludes irresponsible groups.

The OCA model is quite like New Zealand's, but with one very important difference: New Zealand has a loophole for parties that win one local seat; this then exempts them from the threshold. This has kept three parties in their House that would otherwise have shrivelled. The OCA model omits this.

Will it always produce coalitions? Germany has 13 provinces that use MMP. Nine of them have majority two-party coalitions. Four of them have a majority one-party government. It depends what voters vote for. I can live with that.

Wilf Day said...

"what would happen if you apply the OCA's MMP model to previous election results - i.e. what would have happened if previous elections were conducted under MMP?"

Those aren't quite the same question. If the election was under MMP more voters would have voted who stayed home because they lived in a safe riding or their party had no chance. More would have voted for their first choice, not against their last choice.

If you just translate the votes, you can get some interesting figures. But in 2003 the Greens were just under 3%. I'd rather assume they would have gotten 4.5% and won 6 seats. In that case the results would likely have been:

Libs: 61 (all local)
PCs: 44 (23 local +21 list)
NDP: 18 (6 local +12 list)
Green: 6 (all list)

A Liberal-Green coalition government?

Perhaps 1995 is the most interesting. That was when the Liberals were virtually wiped out outside Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor and the North:

PCs 60: (57+3)
Libs 42: (21+21)
NDP 27: (12+15)

redsock said...

LP quoted some polls:

... 29% of Canadians oppose adding sexual orientation to the equality rights section of the Charter ... 34% think Parliament should have the final say on rights-related issues and not the courts ... 34% of Canadians consider abortion immoral ... 31% of us believe life should be legally protected from conception ... 44% of Canadians still believe in the death penalty ...

and adds:

these are not small numbers. They can't be waved off as inconsequential even under our current system. ... Under PR, parties championing such causes would almost certainly be represented, given voice before the cameras

While I would stand firmly against any voter who agrees with the views polled above, if one-third or nearly one-half of all voters feel a certain way, shouldn't they be represented?

We're not talking about .01% of fringers getting a seat, which I think is somewhat along the lines of what LP had been talking about. 44% is another mattter entirely.

M@ said...

... 29% of Canadians oppose adding sexual orientation to the equality rights section of the Charter ... 34% think Parliament should have the final say on rights-related issues and not the courts ... 34% of Canadians consider abortion immoral ... 31% of us believe life should be legally protected from conception ... 44% of Canadians still believe in the death penalty ...

That's why these rights are protected by the constitution, not guaranteed by the legislature. These issues simply have no traction in parliament because parliaments will tend to avoid making laws that will be overturned at the drop of a hat in the courts.

Representing views that do not fit my concept of human rights doesn't bother me. Those views may have vocal, organized support; I've got the constitution. Hell of a trump card, that thing.

Wayneon said...

Lone Primate points out that 44% of Canadians "still believe in the death penalty." Under our current system, 44% of the votes will get you 60% of the seats and 100% of the power, With PR, it doesn't.

LP's fears of the extremist tail wagging the dog are greatly exaggerated. The fact is that PR leads to centrist politics.

Wayne Smith

L-girl said...

Under our current system, 44% of the votes will get you 60% of the seats and 100% of the power, With PR, it doesn't.

Ah, that's it. That's the central point in my opinion.

In US federal elections, a 50.1% majority in a given state wins all electoral votes of that state. Thus we have those highly skewed maps showing red and blue states, making it appear that an overwhelminmg majority of the elctorate has been represented.

A state that is (for example) two-thirds red, one-third blue, shows up as 100% red. The blue voters, a full third of the state, have been wiped out. Their votes don't count at all.

In a more democratic system, that state would be represented by two-thirds red reps and one-third blue reps.

I'm oversimplifying, obviously. There should be many more choices than just blue and red, the parties should reflect a great spectrum, etc. etc.

But Wayne Smith's point is exactly right.

L-girl said...

M@ also makes an excellent point. Rights protected by the courts and the Charter shouldn't really be part of the equation.

L-girl said...

MSS of Fruits & Votes is swamped with the end of the academic quarter, but sent along these links.

If the US had PR

Canada's dysfunctional electoral system

Tail and dog in PR systems - this rebuts one of the most common complaints about PR from people who don't understand it.

Read and learn. :)

MSS said...

I thank L-girl for posting the links.

Several people, predictably, cite Italy as a reason for not adopting PR. However, Italy has not used PR for a national election in about 15 years!. It has had two different electoral systems in that time, both far more majoritarian than anything used in or proposed for Canada. And yet it still has problems with party fragmentation. That says more about Italy than it says about PR. Sometimes we expect too much of an electoral system. And sometimes we employ our analogies carelessly.

Yes, the experiences of countries like New Zealand and Ireland are far more relevant to predicting what PR might do in Canada than are those of Italy (or Israel).

Law School Blog said...

One thing that MMPR does not address is vote dilution, which results in unbalanced parity for urban populations.

More importantly, it severely hinders the proportional representation of minority groups that are often centered in urban areas.

See: http://lawiscool.com/2007/07/29/vote-dilution-means-minorities-have-less-voice/