Sunday, May 20, 2007

Not Sold on Electoral Reform

Yesterday's Toronto Star had an interesting column by Thomas Walkom, a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of racing ahead with electoral reform. He tells the tale of electoral reform in New Zealand, a country that switched to a system of proportional representation in 1996.
[It was] the result of widespread dissatisfaction with a system that over decades had awarded government to only two parties – Labour on the centre-left and the National Party on the centre-right.
The new pressures and incentives of proportional representation resulted in the fracturing of the countries two largest parties, Labour and National. The centre-left Labour party split into Alliance and ACT, while the centre-right National party split into several others including the anti-immigrant New Zealand First party.
When the votes were counted in 1996, neither old-line party had enough seats to form a majority government. But this didn't signal a victory for the left. After two months of horse-trading, the government that emerged was a conservative coalition of two parties that had vowed never to co-operate – National and New Zealand First. "Grumpy protest voters ... got the government they least wanted," concluded one newspaper.
Another indecisive election was held in 1999, after which a left-leaning coalition was cobbled together between three parties. However, the Iraq war put an end to that alliance as, predictably, the coalition was unable to survive multiple conflicting opinions between its members.
Walkom details the troubles New Zealand has suffered during that time, struggling to find stable governing alliances election after election. He makes some important observations about the lessons learned from the Kiwi experience.
First, expect existing parties to fracture. The NDP alone could spin off a radical socialist party, a trade union party, a market-friendly party and a northern party. Second, don't expect coalitions to result in progressive, or indeed any kind of ideologically coherent government. Big parties will make deals with anyone to stay in power. Since proportional representation creates a plethora of small, opportunistic political parties, there are always plenty of candidates to choose from.
Most important, don't expect radical changes. Critics of electoral reform say it would create deeply unstable governments. Fans say it would make politics more responsive. In New Zealand, neither happened. The country muddles along much as it did before.

Personally, I have deep reservations about abandoning a first-past-the-post system in favour of proportional representation. Is FPTP perfect? No. But as Walkom illustrates, neither is proportional representation. In our haste to "fix" the system, we may simply be replacing one set of problems with another. FPTP has in its favour the fact that it is entirely elected and easy to understand. The proposed Ontario amendments would include electing some MPPs, but selecting others from a 'list' to ensure proportional representation. This raises obvious concerns. To whom are these 'list' members accountable? They haven't been voted in by anyone in particular. Should they have the same privileges in the House as elected members?
A couple of years ago, I voted against implementing a similar measure in British Columbia (the Single Transferrable Vote), partly because of the reasons outlined above, but mostly because it seemed a difficult system to understand. Electoral reform is sold on the basis of making our system of government more 'democratic'. As voters, we should therefore be completely clear on what exactly we are buying. The political headaches now experienced by New Zealanders seem a steep price to pay for rushing into "improving" our democracy.


MD said...

Red Canuck: Excellent post once again. Here in Ontario, I have deep reservations about the entire "citizen assembly" process that led to the MMP proposal. I'm equally disturbed by the uncritical enthusiam by which progressives seem to have embraced this idea. I suppose it would be nice if the legislature, taken as an aggregate, generally reflected the popular vote. But the more democratically legitimate test of the system is whether I am represented by an MPP elected by his constituents and responsible to them. It is absurd to have "list" MPPs with an equal voice and an equal vote. There are many variations of proportional representation around the world, from one extreme in Israel, to the pure FPTP system here. I don't see any evidence that our governments have been less representative than those elected by these other systems.

MD said...

I think there is an inherent accountability in a pure FPTP system. What I think is most important in terms of fairness is that every vote counts equally. The major problem with our system is the underrepresentation of urban voters. I live in Toronto-Centre, and as such my vote counts for less than many rural voters. The new Tory proposal doesn't really address this issue properly for a number of reasons, which I haven't time to explain just yet, but will later. The problem is not related to the fact that our system is FPTP.

The major systemic advantage to our system is that it encourages inclusive parties that are forced to develop centrist, consensus policies. We have had changes in the governing party several times in our history, but very few radical ideological shifts. The same cannot be said for a number of european countries.

Red Canuck said...

MD - Thanks for your comments. It seems to me that the idea of changing the FPTP system to a PR system is appealing primarily to 2 groups:
1. Those that feel "unfairly" disadvantaged by FPTP. Walkom refers to this primarily as the "left", although I think he is overly restrictive in this characterization. Nonetheless, he points to the Ontario NDP, who won 15% of the pop vote, but only 7% of the seats in the last election.
2. Those that are, for lack of a better term, "reform junkies". These people are undoubtedly well-intentioned and are preoccupied with an almost activist effort to improve our democracy.
Both operate from the assumption that democratic deficits exist, and more importantly that changing the system will address those deficits. The latter is a particularly dangerous assumption.

Re:The major problem with our system is the underrepresentation of urban voters
I live in Vancouver Centre and have the same sense that urban ridings tend to be underrepresented on the basis of population density. However, I don't currently have the numbers to back that up...will have to check with Elections Canada.

Anonymous said...

If parties fractured, will this lead to the emergence of new coalitions? Coalitions that can form to pursue a three to four year agenda, rather than trying to get re-elected.

Look at New Zealand now. It is now a coalition government managed by the Labour party and New Zealand First. This is similar to the Chretien's Liberals forming a coalition with Manning's Reform party. Yes, unlikely coalition partners but one willing to work together to promote policies such as immigrant restrictions, anti-American foreign policy, and enhancing the social safety net.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have always had with the "lists" method of PR is that those on the list are selected by the parties, not the voters and are therefore not accountable to them. This lets the parties put their agendas ahead of voter interests.

There is an alternative. One idea I had for Senate reform was to basically populate the Senate with the losers from the House of Commons. One would group the losers by party, then rank them nationally by absolute number of votes received. Then from these lists you would assign Senate seats.

I actually ran this scenario with the last election, see for details; naturally there are fatal problems with this particular application of the idea, but perhaps it would be more applicable on a provincial level.

The key here is that anyone who gets into the legislature (or house or senate) should have as a credential some group of voters who have voted for them.

It also works as an incentive to get out the local vote -- every vote on a (national|provincial) level counts towards the proportional representation; and groups in bitterly split ridings are far more likely to send both representatives into government.

Red Canuck said...

Mushroom - Yes, as Walkom points out, coalitions most definitely form between various parties, and even individual MPs. But these tend to be coalitions of convenience with respect to a few issues on which ideologically distinct parties can compromise in order to gain power. As the war in Iraq demonstrated in NZ, new issues can cause these inherently unstable alliances to fall apart just as quickly as they were cobbled together. At the very least, it seems a recipe for more frequent elections.

Red Canuck said...

Anon - The issue of accountability of list MPs is a serious one. I suspect that even the most ardent proponents of PR would have a hard time explaining how list MPs improve democracy.

Having said that, I also think we need to be cautious with Senate reform (i.e. switching to an elected Senate). How long would elected senators serve for? What would they campaign on? Would they be loyal to parties, or to PM's? If they are just shills for their parties, would the senate just become a secone HoC?
Anyways, it may seem like I'm a stick in the mud when it comes to reform. I just think that we need to avoid overestimating the extent of democratic deficits in this country. For the most part, things here run pretty smoothly, so why the rush to tinker?

Anonymous said...

Red Canuck,

The thing is, the coalition between Labour and New Zealand First will last until the next election. Both have a primary interest in stake, and that is to keep the National Party from seizing power. Furthermore, New Zealand First's agreement with Labour is unique as it guaranteeing supply for the duration of Parliament. This means that it can vote against Labour on other issues.

Red Tory said...

You’re not alone in being a stick in the mud about FPTP. I voted against STV when it came up last time because I could never get a satisfactory answer from the STV advocates as to how the arrangements would work for dealing with various issues within the proposed expanded ridings that would have multiple representatives. It made no sense to me at all. Would they divide this up by mutual consent? Based on their given expertise, presuming they had any? How would complaints, etc. from constituents be handled? And so on. Not to mention the whole inherently convoluted messiness of it. PR will always have appeal to the smaller parties of course and to the perpetually aggrieved, but as for it being a good system… I’m unconvinced.