The Electoral System is not the Problem, and Proportional Representation is not the Answer

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Now we know what Andrew Coyne was really up to in his first full page article on the “threat” of another Liberal government propped up by the NDP after the next federal election, even if they do not win the most seats or the most votes.  (Globe and Mail, “Rule by the Second Place: The Coming Crisis of Legitimacy in Canadian Politics,” July 9, 2023)

Ostensibly he was trying to scare the Poilievre Conservatives into abandoning their current lunatic right-wing message if they are to have any hope of forming the next government. Keep in mind that Coyne has never had a kind word to say about Pierre Poilievre and his merry band of Trump-like populists. But as Coyne himself notes in a follow up article in the Globe on July 19, (“There is no “convention” that the party with the most seats gets to govern”) he was never very optimistic that he would succeed. He claims he actually anticipated the angry and uncompromising response from Conservative politicians that he received. “I had expected them to try and paint any such outcome as an unconstitutional power grad, a dictatorial attempt to “steal” the election, to ratchet up the sense of crisis, even to invoke the threat of violence…” , all of which they have done.

But he also confesses he did not expect “the party’s own intellectual class to provide cover” for this nonsense. Silly him. He actually expected them to pay attention to the facts. We are long past that with this crowd, and only Coyne seems not to know it. He is aggrieved to find that “Ever since I first raised the question there has been a steady stream of commentary claiming that, whatever pointy-headed “academics” may say, there is a “convention”, an “unwritten rule”, a “century of precedent” that the party with the most seats gets to form the government, and moreover that is “what the people believe.” He spends the rest of that article demolishing these claims and proving them not only wrong but frequently absurd.

So, having laid those claims to rest, what is left? Now we turn to Coyne’s second full page opinion piece in the Globe of July 16, (“The Liberal-NDP deal has Changed the Game in Ways We Still Have not Grasped”) where we learn what he was really gunning for: the reform of the current First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system to adopt some form of Proportional Representation (PR). Here we go again. And just when I thought we had driven a stake through the heart of that misguided idea.

What is wrong with this plan? Where to begin? First, as I explained in an earlier article (“With Six Parties, No One is Getting 50% of the Popular Vote “, July 11/23) Coyne and others assume there is a problem with the electoral system, and all because the Conservatives cannot seem to win an election, and the Liberals cannot seem to win a majority of votes even when they form a majority government. This is not actually a problem in a parliamentary democracy. The real problem is the Conservatives’ inability to offer an attractive platform or an appealing leader that Canadians across the country, and not just in western and rural Canada, can support. There is also an underlying problem — the splintering of the party system — thanks to the actions of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who destroyed the venerable Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Even after the so-called “merger” uniting the right into the new Conservative Party, (in which the Reform/Alliance tail continues to wag the Progressive Conservative dog) the party system is still heavily regional rather than national in nature, with the Bloc Quebecois seemingly entrenched in Quebec and the new Conservatives in the west.

This dysfunctional situation is compounded by the disruptive role played by the fringe PPC and Green parties syphoning off votes, and the fading appeal of the traditional NDP which seems to have lost its way ideologically. All of which to say, as I did earlier, that no majority government will receive anywhere close to 50% pf the popular vote as long as these six political parties are vying for support at the national level. A case can easily be made, therefore, that it is the political parties, not the electoral system, that need to be restructured. Only when the political parties coalesce around truly national rather than regional organizations, on the basis of genuine philosophical/ideological differences, will we likely see the kind of classic majority government victories for which Coyne yearns and which, in any event, have never been that common in Canada even in a three-party system. (In the post-war era, only the 1958 and 1984 elections produced that result.)

Nevertheless Coyne has also chosen to frame the situation as one in which he can criticize the Liberals for not following through on a 2015 election pledge to reform the electoral system. However like almost everyone else he fails to note that what the prime minister committed to was not proportional representation, but a preferential ballot system (see Australia for an example) which, incidentally, results in majority support for each elected MP. Trudeau was in fact quite specific about this distinction in his leadership campaign proposal of 2013, and then in the party’s 2015 platform. It was this system that a parliamentary committee was expected to study and report back on after that election, and they did, but they did not agree on it. Nor did their broad canvass of citizens come up with any particular interest in electoral reform in general. As a result, no further action has been taken. It is therefore more than a little ingenuous to say that this is a “broken” campaign promise. 

But there is another problem with Coyne’s unstated assumption that proportional representation would prevent the outcome he fears, namely, a Liberal victory without majority support. Even if he were correct that the electoral system is the problem, proportional representation would not solve it.  Quite the contrary, it would likely exacerbate many of the current perceived problems, and definitely would not result in majority governments. Instead, the most likely result of introducing some type of proportional representation is a coalition government, the very thing the new Conservatives under Stephen Harper claimed was undemocratic. A coalition by definition involves two or more parties forming a government, one in which each party is represented to some extent in the cabinet. Thus issues of cabinet confidentiality apply. Although there is no legal or constitutional reason why Canada could not have a coalition government, as Harper pointed out this has not been the practice here, (except during wartime when the appearance of a solid front was deemed essential).

A coalition government is of course, very different from the current Liberal/NDP Confidence and Supply agreement. No NDP MPs are in the cabinet, only Liberals. Instead, the NDP has agreed to support the Liberal government in instances where a non-confidence vote is called, to ensure the government is not defeated. In exchange, the Liberals have agreed to pursue, further and faster, a number of NDP platform proposals such as national dental care, which they themselves favoured as well. This leaves the NDP free to vote against other government bills in committee or in the House, and to criticize the government on almost any issues they choose, such as the alleged Chinese government interference in electoral politics. None of this would be possible with a coalition government.

Let us look now at the situation elsewhere in those western democracies where some form of proportional representation is in effect. The most commonly cited examples of this electoral system in action are Italy, Belgium, Germany and Israel. What do they all have in common?  First, a multi-party system. Second, coalition governments. In Israel, for example, where there are twenty-five recognized parties and twelve parties represented in the Knesset, there has never been anything but coalition governments since its creation as an independent state in 1948.  Currently prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding onto power after a recent election by forming a coalition of his centre-right Likud party with the two farthest right parties in the system. The inclusion of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party and the hardline Religious Zionism party has shocked many Israelis, but is seen by politicians as the price that must be paid for stable government under that system.

Similar situations have unfolded in the other countries cited. In Germany, the moderate right-of-centre  party of Angela Merkel was obliged at one point to join forces with the very far left Green Party of Joschka Fischer in order to form a government, a scenario that led to months and years of policy gridlock when the coalition members were unable to agree on any common policy positions. Meanwhile in Italy newly elected prime minister Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy, the first far right party with fascist roots to be elected in Italy since World War II, was unexpectedly able to form a government by forging an alliance with two other right-wing party leaders – Matteo Salvini and Sylvio Berlusconi — both of whom were well-known admirers of Vladimir Putin. Simply put, coalition governments most often require a degree of compromise or acquiescence that gives new meaning to the term ‘strange bedfellows.’

A third outcome of proportional representation is the instability of the government system. Coalitions are often temporary and rarely very stable. Since the end of World War II in 1945, Italy has had 69 governments, at an average of one every 1.11 years. In Belgium, a country which should give Canadian proponents of PR pause, a caretaker government was obliged to handle the day to day operation of the country for 500 days after the 2019 election, until SEVEN political parties were able to form a coalition government.

Turning now to Canada, this concept of proportional representation appears even less likely to succeed. For one thing, many proponents of the system, largely from western Canada, mistakenly believe that it will enhance the west’s influence in national politics, but nothing could be further from the truth. The system is designed to provide greater equity for votes cast regardless of region. As a study overlaying the results of the 2021 federal election with the model of German proportional representation demonstrated, there would have been a few changes in representation for the Conservatives and Liberals, but it is the NDP that would have gained more seats and the PPC would have received 8 seats instead of 0. Nevertheless the end result would still have been a Liberal victory.

Proponents also conveniently ignore the fact that a plethora of new political parties will spring up once the new system is in place. It is true that there is no reason to suppose that all or even most of these parties will be located on the far right of the political spectrum, a point legitimately made by Fair Vote Canada, a voluntary association of proponents of proportional representation. But many if not most of them will be based in central Canada. Many if not most of them could easily be able to elect at least a few representatives to the national parliament. Mainstream parties will be disadvantaged, regardless of region. Power will be diffused and the ideological basis for parties may be further eroded. Needless to say, in a country the size and diversity of Canada this is not likely to lead to a desirable outcome. The role of political parties is to aggregate interests, while interest groups represent very specific narrow interests. This is an especially important distinction in Canada, where the three mainstream political parties in this country have traditionally filled an important role in terms of national unity by being nationally appealing parties, not parties fixated on appealing to a specific region, sector or interest group.

Last but hardly least, given the Conservatives’ declared concern over “what people think” about imaginary parliamentary “conventions”, it is useful to note that both the province of BC (2018) and Ontario (2007) held Citizens’ Assemblies to educate voters about PR, and then held province-wide referenda to determine whether to reform the electoral system by moving to some type of proportional representation. In both cases, nearly two-thirds of voters emphatically chose to remain with the FPTP system.       

Andrew Coyne knows there is a real problem with the current iteration of the Conservatives. Proportional representation will not solve this issue.  When will he, and they, recognize this fact?