A Parliamentary committee on how to replace Canada’s First-Past-the-Post (FPP) electoral system has reported: Proportional Representation (PR), without agreeing on what form; no change without a referendum.
They should have been asked the bigger question: compare strengths of FPP as well as problems to that of the alternatives.
Under FPP, Canada has succeeded as a multicultural society, without European-style anti-immigrant parties to fan division. These flourish under PR where vote share equals seat share, unlike FPP where parties only win seats if acceptable enough to place first in ridings.
The main criticism of FPP is small local leads for a party, when trending nationally, can yield majority governments with less than a majority of the vote. In 2011, Conservatives received 39.6 per cent of votes and 54 per cent of seats. The true majority, it’s said, is the 60.4 per cent who voted ‘other.’ Yet other parties oppose each other, too, not only the winner, and ‘against’ is not the same as ‘for.’
PR leads to coalition governments, single party majorities having been placed out of reach. Power to block replaces power to lead with ideas that have fairly broad support. Saskatchewan CCF-NDP majority governments under FPP, without a majority in the popular vote, created Medicare despite strong opposition from other parties. An idea proven provincially was later adopted federally. By contrast, under PR fringe parties can extract concessions for unpopular policies as coalition makers and breakers.
Not only does FPP frustrate extremist parties, it moderates larger parties by dangling the prospect of power — if they will become more inclusive. ‘Unite the right’ in 2003 merged PC and Alliance parties by each side becoming more national.
Another criticism of FPP is small shifts in popular vote yield large swings in seats. The 2008 Conservative minority regime had 46.4 per cent of seats with 37.7 per cent of the vote. 1.9 per cent more votes in 2011 brought a majority government. However, an electoral system that empowers the trying of different ideas also makes it easy to replace a party when its shelf-life expires.
In 2015, Conservatives lost power with 3.8 per cent less total votes than in 2011: and 40.4 per cent less seats. Liberals with 39.5 per cent of the vote have 54.4 per cent of seats.
FPP interacts with the party system in rhythms of empowerment and replacement of single-party regimes of fallible humans, with a chance do some good before wearing out. Inclusive parties of the center left and right alternate as “ins” and “outs.” Ins enter office with new ideas and zeal, to house-clean. Power brings ability to innovate, target public spending, attract star candidates, etc. As ins are overtaken by perplexing events, outs re-invent themselves with a new leader and policy book, and rise in stature as critics of the mistakes and entitlements of ins.
A less ideological politics of ins versus outs has a swing factor of moderating voters with weak or no party ID, who vote-switch between federal and provincial levels, especially in Atlantic Canada. After almost two decades of federal Liberal power, all four provinces had Conservative governments when Conservatives returned federally in 1984. Then a reverse flow began, in a recurring cycle.
When Liberals returned to federal power in 1993, all four Atlantic provinces had Liberal governments. By 2006 and the Conservative realignment, all four had Conservative regimes. With federal Conservatives now out, all four Atlantic provinces have Liberal governments. How long before that tide goes out?
Rhythms of renewal and replacement of fairly moderate single-party governments happen with FPP. By contrast, PR would make majority governments impossible, fragment the party system, likely disrupt national rhythms, and empower small, extremist parties.
David Baugh is an instructor and head of political science at Red Deer College.