In Canada, a lot of attention has been given to the issue of electoral reform, when, really, I don’t really see where the issue lies. Objectors to our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system have advanced proportional representation (PR) system as a means of remedying the inequities in Canadian politics.
Apparently, there are many virtues of PR systems that are supposed to be beneficial in the Canadian context. However, not only do I think PR systems are an ineffective means of remedying issues in Canadian politics, but I also don’t think electoral reform should be an issue at all. As associate professor, Heather MacIvor, has put it succinctly: “Electoral reform is not a burning issue in Canada and everyone is probably wondering why we are running around trying to put out the fire when no one smells smoke.”
A reason why PR is extolled is because it is said to be more favorable for voter representations due to its encouragement of minority parties. By giving parties legislative seats in proportion to their vote percentage, a voter’s choice of minority parties—no matter how small—is able to thrive. In the 2008 Canadian federal election, due to “regional distortion,” one million voters cast their ballot for the Green Party which did not elect a single representative. PR in the Canadian context could mean that those who voted for small parties like the Greens are represented, given that regional disparity of votes does not affect a party’s seat count in PR.
In response, Toronto lawyer and former Progressive Conservative candidate John Peppall notes that perhaps minority party representation is harmful in that “the purpose of Parliament is not to serve parties.” Instead, Pepall says it is the other way around. Pepall suggests that small parties, like the Greens, would become indolent—they wouldn’t bother seeking a larger voter appeal given that their election is guaranteed under PR. So, in actuality, PR’s allowance of minority parties is not a good thing in the respect that it may stifle any motivation for a party to improve its standings and “seek broader support.”
Moreover, political commentator David Horowitz and Pepall question whether FPTP’s exclusion of minority parties is necessarily a bad thing. Executive vice-president of Marquette University, Quentin Quade, notes that a closed-list PR system facilitated the rise of Nazi and communist parties during twentieth century Germany. The toleration of these extremist parties indicates PR’s susceptibility to “tyranny of the minority.” So, maybe it’s a good thing that FPTP doesn’t tolerate minority parties in the same way PR systems do.
A second reason for why PR is advanced is because it’s been assumed to be fairer. PR systems, in general, are extolled for enhancing legislative and voter representativeness. In terms of the voter preferences, Canadian parties with widespread and dispersed, but not regionally concentrated, support may not obtain legislative seats representative of their vote count. In the 1993 Canadian election, the Conservatives garnered 16.1 percent of the vote, resulting in the election of two MPs. The Bloc Quebecois received 18.1 percent of the vote, yet this resulted in the comparably inordinate election of 54 MPs. It is argued that this disparity between vote and seat count can be remedied by PR, which translates votes directly into a party’s number of seats.
In “Understanding Democratic Politics: An Introduction,” Michael Dyer objects by saying that PR proponents rely on the assumption that a high degree of voter representativeness is equated with fairness. Dyer states that this assumption is false since high voter representativeness may still result in unfairness. He cites the case of West Germany’s Liberal Party which, under MMP, enjoyed five per cent of the vote and seats, yet still exerted disproportionate influence through coalition governments. While it may be true that PR better reflects voter representation, this does not mean PR is fairer.
If anything, the lesson to be taken away from this discussion is that Canadians must think twice before believing that an alternative electoral system is a solution to the perceived faults in the operation of Canadian democracy.