Pro­por­tional is more di­rect, but less fair

Times Colonist - - Islander - JAMES CUTT James Cutt is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the School of Pub­lic Ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria.

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.

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