A second look at proportional representation

By Michael Jankovic

A recent trend among democratic reformers is a clamour to change the way in which we elect our officials, especially at the federal level.

Right now, our system is a first-past-the post-system. So, in every riding no matter the percentage of the vote, the person in first place wins. Democratic reformers want to switch proportional representation.

In its most basic form PR goes as follows: each party submits a slate of candidates before the election in order of priority and then the seats of the elected house are distributed according to the percentage of vote acquired. There are few, if any, countries that subscribe to this very rudimentary version of PR, however, the basic ideas remain the same.

The first and most obvious argument against PR is that it was the voting system in the Weimar republic when Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor. The PR system allowed the Nazi party to gain a foothold in the German consciousness and allowed them to become part of a governing coalition under which they proceeded to gain popularity.

This argument is quite weak. Since World War Two many countries have adopted the PR system and we have seen nothing like the rise of Hitler in the 1920s and ’30s.

There is, however, a more cogent argument. The fact is systems of PR divide the populace. With PR very small groups can achieve some power because of the necessity to form coalitions. This leads to devolution of the party system, and eventually to a system no longer based on political parties, but on factions.

In Canada, where the main social cleavage is based on regional affiliation, the obvious result would be regionally based factions. Some may argue this would not differ greatly from the situation in which we are now in. The difference would be on two points.

First, it is not clear how far the party system would devolve. Right now it is based on broad regions with the big three parties: the Liberals, Conservatives, and Bloc Quebecois having their bases in Ontario, the West, and Quebec respectively. With PR it is almost certain in my mind that the Maritimes would establish their own party and, less certain, that the current regional system would devolve further into provincially based parties.

Second, there would be no ruling party. Since PR divides its electorate it is certain that there would never be a party capable of attaining 50 per cent of the vote. All parties would be forced into coalition building.

Despite what democratic reformers would have us believe, this would be hurtful not helpful to Canadian politics, both at home and abroad. Some of the world’s most powerful nations, notably the United States and Britain, employ the first-past-the-post system. This system works because it forces factions that exist within a society to come together to form government, instead of bargaining while in government. This means policy can be developed and implemented at a much quicker pace.

This is a good thing. We are better off with a government that is able to respond quickly to events than we are with a government that must stall in its responses so it can balance the multiple interests just to keep afloat. That is not to say, however, that accommodation does not exist in the first past the post system.

Look at the 1990s in Canada as an example. The Reform Party basically steered the agenda of the country to the right based on the validity of its ideas. So, the current system preserves the "marketplace" of ideas that makes a democracy function.

So, if you want to look after Alberta you may still want to support PR. If you care at all about Canada, I think you should take a second look.

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