Proportional is more direct, but less fair
Advocates of proportional representation support PR because it provides greater fairness, defined as correspondence between the percentage of seats for each party and the percentage of votes for each party. This is a clear advantage, but my argument is that it is overshadowed by two significant disadvantages.
The first disadvantage is one of process. Under PR, at least half of all elected members will be determined after the electoral vote from ranked party lists. Those members have not been chosen by voters and are not directly accountable to them. So the democratic process is much less direct than under the current system.
The second, and more important, disadvantage is that PR always means — as the government’s own brochure acknowledges — the proliferation of parties and inevitable coalitions. Coalitions are not necessarily bad.
The first-past-the-post system, based on the Westminster model, is generally dominated by two major parties, each of which is a “big tent” of members who are agreed on ends and broad strategies and resolve differences on tactics by pragmatic, and usually private, negotiation. So, essentially, FPTP works with broad, stable and pragmatic coalitions.
In elections, the party with the biggest plurality, rarely a majority, of votes wins a working majority of seats that results in stable majority government until the next election.
Under PR, the broad, stable coalitions collapse into much looser and less stable coalitions of multiple parties with specific, often single-issue, agendas. In this situation, the coalition that forms government is always in thrall to the specific interest of a small party whose support is essential to the survival of the coalition.
B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver’s three-member stranglehold on the current B.C. government is a case in point; indeed, the referendum and its biased and partisan process were Weaver’s minimum price for collaboration.
There are many other current examples. In the last election in New Zealand, one party won 46 per cent of the vote and 56 of 120 seats, but the current government is run by a party that won 36 per cent of the vote and 46 seats supported by two very different small parties, the New Zealand First party (7.5 per cent of the vote and nine seats) and the Green Party (5.9 per cent of the vote and eight seats), each of which has effective power far exceeding its voter support.
And these small groups can hold extreme views. In Israel, the Likud Party has 30 of 120 seats with 23.4 per cent of the vote, but has a coalition majority of 67 seats with the support of five smaller parties that are strongly nationalist or orthodox — the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigor Lieberman, is foreign minister — and exercise effective veto power on matters such as accommodation with Palestine. In Europe, similar situations have arisen in Austria, Poland, Hungary, Italy and Sweden, and most critically in Germany where the two “big tent” groups are beginning to disintegrate into groups of single-issue parties of both the right and the left.
A glance at history suggests that the collapse of stable majority governments in Germany is a major risk to European prosperity and peace.
In practice, we are seeing the collapse of stable majority governments with (relatively) clear programs into a tyranny of minorities — minoritarianism, if you like — with a hodgepodge of special-issue and highly fragmented and unstable coalitions.
So where does that leave us? PR might provide a more direct relationship of percentage of votes and percentage of seats, but it leads to less direct democracy, the collapse of stable, “big tent” coalitions, party proliferation and policy platforms that are a hodgepodge of concessions to minority interest groups.
In effect, a tyranny of minorities, which in the final analysis is less stable, less effective, less efficient and less fair than FPTP.