Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Déjà Lu

Jeffrey Simpson was talking about proportional representation today in the Globe and Mail (subscription required - you may be able to find the article by searching google news). Those of you with a good memory might want to skip this post because he wrote the same column (and I wrote pretty much the same response) back in November.

The column re-run was prompted by the recent elections in Germany and New Zealand, both of which have led to very evenly balanced governments in which neither side holds a commanding edge.

Much of Simpson's column is made up by caveats and on-the-other-hands, but in the end, what it comes down to is Simpson telling us that,
"PR's great in good times when tough decisions can be avoided; it's lousy when hard decisions must be made, as in Germany today."

I thought he put it more directly and slightly more eloquently back in November when he wrote,
"PR systems can make hard decisions if they absolutely have to, as in a crisis. But they don't instinctively put a premium on long-term thinking or provide the smack of strong government."

Unsurprisingly, Greg at Sinister Thoughts also wasn't overly impressed by this column. I'm going to reproduce some of what I wrote in a comment over at Greg's place, mainly because I am lazy, but also because I think it is a point worth making here.


Simpson is a pretty careful writer, which I appreciate, and his columns on PR tend to be better than a lot of what you see in the fearful media (admittedly, this isn't saying much).

But by the time he's allowed for how our system produced a similar result, how PR is a better representation of what people want, how voter turnout is higher under PR, etc. etc., pretty much all he's got left is (like you say) an argument for authoritarianism, coded as 'effective government'.

Primarily, I don't buy an end-justifies-the-means argument that we should randomly modify the voting results to ensure that one party gets a majority government.

But even if we accept that it is worth sacrificing the idea of 'one person, one vote' to get slightly better government, I'm not sure that there is a connection between one party (one person) rule and better government.

Simpson talks about government unwilling to make the hard decisions, but is there a better example of a government unwilling to make hard decisions than the U.S. government?

Guns, butter, pork and ponies for everyone, no sacrifices. And this is a government where one party has control of all branches.

In fact, the conventional wisdom in the U.S. (which seems to be borne out by events) is that it is having all branches of the government in one party's hands (what Simpson would consider an effective government) which is dangerous. Also worth noting is that it was under a divided government in the 90's that the U.S. deficit was turned into a surplus.

In general, I think the ability to make hard decisions rests with the population's willingness to accept hard decisions, which in turn is a function of education and the media and the strength of civil society. I'm not sure the electoral system really makes a difference (to the ability of government to make hard decisions) in the long run. What I am sure of, is that a system that provides us with representatives who are an accurate representation of who we voted for is better than one that doesn't.


  • Very good points. My attempt at trying to stop his (misleading, even incorrect) points from becoming a meme are up at my own blog.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 3:55 PM  

  • Blah. Having lived in New Zealand and experienced their MMP system, my impression was it worked pretty well. The three previous elections under MMP have all yielded minority/coalition governments (like Simpson's column said) but they were all stable and none of them came close to falling between elections.
    The fringe parties have a bit of influence but not much. They know Labour or National sets the agenda and they can tweak it but it's dangerous to try to hijack it (oddly enough, this week's election in NZ saw the highest percentage of votes and seats go to the two main parties since MMP was introduced... yet it could be the most unstable MMP parliament yet. Hmmm, must be some way to pin it on those evil fringe parties...).

    I think in his rush to use the elections to further his anti-PR/MMP argument, Jeffrey overlooked that whenever public opinion gets evenly divided in a multi-party system, you tend to end up with messy election results (i.e., our current parliament, Germany and New Zealand). When opinion isn't so evenly split, you get majority government in FPTP or stable coalitions in MMP. A stable coalition isn't really much different than a majority government. I suppose if you really hate the spectre of minority governments, you can go the route of the strict two-party system or, as you suggested, the benevolent dictator. Hardly perfect alternatives.

    One last comment (well, anecdotal story) -- I also didn't see any impairment of the govenment's ability to think long-term and make tough decisions. While I was there, the gov't introduced the Superfund (i.e., a fully funded CPP). There was no crisis, they simply foresaw a large liability 30-40 years down the road and thought they'd start preparing for it now. Business hated it (they wanted tax cuts), economists said it would hamper growth and the opposition party said they'd scrap it as soon as they took power. The government stuck to their guns and found a way to get it through the minority parliament. Five years later, business accepts it and the (still) opposition party reversed their stance and said they would leave the Superfund alone. As Declan said, the electoral system doesn't necessarily effect a government's ability to make tough decisions. I'd just add that in addition to the population's willingness to accept tough decisions you also need a government that's willing to make a tough decision and stand by it.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:09 PM  

  • While I can sympathize with some of PR arguments, I still prefer the First-Past-The-Post voting system. I have yet to be totally sold on PR for a variety of reasons. That is not to say that I don't think it has some merit, I do, I just don't know if I buy that it will cure a lot of our democratic deficits. There are lots of other things to consider with it as well in regards to constituency work, which is an important part of MPs.

    The one pro-PR argument that I don't buy and I think is the wrong argument to go about is that increases voter turnout. Personally, I think that going about this change in order to increase voter turnout isn't going to cure any of the ails of the current political system. There are perhaps better ways to increase voter turnout that don't involve changing the system. Most of them deal with the politicians having actual platforms and policy that would get people out to vote. I don't think that increasing the voter turnout 5% is going to correct any of the institutional problems of the current Canadian political systems, nor do I see it having that large of an impact on the grand scheme of things. I could see people start advocating referendum style democracy next if they believe that will increase voter turnout and that is not a good thing.

    In regards to voter turnout, I've always been intrigued by the idea of the relationship between smaller ridings and voting turnout. Mostly this comes from the fact that PEI has the smallest per capita ridings in Canada, while have the highest turnout. But also it comes from that I think if people knew their MPs better or their candidates a bit better they might participate more in the democratic process. Growing up in Nova Scotia, I knew my MLA and was glad to help him out on many occasions. He was a good guy and knowing him on a personal level helped out. Everyone in the riding knew who he was, many on a personal level since he was a Doctor for many years. During his last two elections, he won mainly because of who he was as a person, not because of the party he represented. (He was Liberal and in Halifax-Dartmouth provincially they were non-existent with the exception of him in one of those elections) The last election he didn't run and the seat switched parties despite the increase of Liberal voting the Halifax-Dartmouth area.

    I think that can be true anywhere, if people knew their candidates better, they'd be more inclined to go out and vote for him/her. Now living in Toronto, I don't see that kind of voting as I did in Nova Scotia. I feel more distanced from the MP and MLA in my riding. In the big ridings of well over 100,000 people, the chances are very slim that you'd get to know any of the candidates on a personal level.

    Anyways, I would be interested to see if there was a relation between the smaller populated ridings and a higher voter turnout. I do fully realize, for the record, that the idea of increasing the amount of MPs would not go over well with the public and the discussion is more or less a non-starter since for many people the last thing we need is more politicians.

    And I do understand that there are counter-arguments like looking at the low voter turnouts at municipal level but to me that's because it's well, municipal politics, and not many people are interested in that at all and that's a whole other topic.

    By Blogger Bailey, at 8:54 AM  

  • There are two principal problems with the Candian political system and I do not believe that any form of PR will adequately address them.

    These problems are:

    1. The Executive branch is subsumed within the Legislative branch and the separation that existed between the two in the early nineteenth century is no longer recognized.

    2. Rigid party discipline as a result of #1.

    Our federal Parliament has evolved to the point where it is believed that the Opposition party is supposed to check the government party, but this is not the way the parliamentary system was intended to work.

    The Cabinet (the de facto Executive branch) is supposed to be checked by all non-Cabinet members, that includes members of who are of the same party that make up the Cabinet.

    However, enforcing party discipline makes it easier for the Cabinet to maintain the confidence of the house if a majority of their members are elected. Why bother appealing to other party's members if you have a majority bloc of members you can coerce to voting for you because of their party affiliation?

    So rather than the give and take of the Cabinet vs. all-other-members which is the way the system was designed to work, we get the Cabinet enforcing discipline over their own members and the Opposition members having little influence.

    The result is that citizens end up voting for a party, in most cases, rather than an individual because voting for a party is more effective, given all of the above.

    PR is an attempt to adapt the voting system to a broken legislative system. Where FPTP over emphasizes the importance of the individual candidate at the expense of representing party power, PR would over emphasize the importance of party at the expense of voting for an individual. Both are equally bad in the same, but contrasting way, because we have lost the original parliamentary tradition.

    Under a PR system we would get a Parliament much more representative of the public's party divisions. However, this would once and for all confirm that individual party members are required to be largely interchangable with other members of the same party, except perhaps for the leader and a few key top-ranking or celebrity members.

    The more important problem, but much bigger challenge, is to reform Parliament and its workings to re-empower the individual member, not to accept that party executives are actually the people shaping our nation's policies.

    By Blogger Matthew, at 10:09 AM  

  • IP - good post, between the two of us I think we covered most of the main issues.

    Shaun - thanks for the NZ insight. As IP noted, it's not like the Germans have never made any tough decisions either.

    Bailey - increased voter turnout is just a side effect of switching to PR, it's not really the main point. The main point is that if 2 milion Canadians vote for Party A and 2 million Canadians vote for Party B and we end up with a parliament with 50 representatives of the 2 million who voted for party A, and 2 representatives of the 2 million people who voted for party B, the system is broken.

    I'm not really convinced there is a connection between small ridings and high turnout, except for the fact that small ridings tend to be rural areas with low growth and old populations and big ridings tend to be urban ridings with high growth and young populations.

    Also, I think we probably could have more MP's. Whether there is 300 or 400 of them I don't really see as a significant issue one way or the other.

    Matthew - I agree with your concerns about party discipline, but I disagree with your assessment that there are only 2 problems with our politics. Personally I think the disconnect between party vote and party seats is a problem. I appreciate that we vote for individuals as well as parties which is why I support hybrid systems like MMP or STV instead of Pure PR.

    I don't think that PR would confirm once and for all that MP's can't vote against their party (espsecially STV). It would depend, like it does now, on their willingness to do so and the public's willingness to re-elect them if they do so.

    In a nutshell, my point is that PR is an attempt to change the voting system to fix a broken voting system.

    By Blogger Declan, at 2:15 PM  

  • Declan,

    A couple things:

    Of course there are more than two problems with the Canadian political system, there are dozens, if not more.

    My point was that there was one primary problem, which, in fact, you did not address.

    The fact that our Executive is subsumed within the Legislature and a proper separation is no longer recognized is the primary problem of Canadian governance. It is the reason for party discipline, it is the reason for the rampant power of the PM, it is the reason for the disjuncture between voting and the result. Name another problem with Canadian government and it probably flows from the confluence of the Executive and Legislative powers. Everything else is secondary to this.

    This is where I am sure we disagree. You say you want to change the voting system to fix a broken voting system, while I do not believe that the voting system is broken at all. It only appears to be broken because Parliament no longer functions the way it should.

    You say, "Personally I think the disconnect between party vote and party seats is a problem." And I don't. I don't care that the party 'standings' as the media so grossly refers to them, as if it was a sports league, don't match up with how people voted nation wide. Becasue people should not be voting for parties and Parliament should not be run by parties.

    Parliament is meant to be run by individuals, our nation is meant to be governed by the citizens' individual representatives. Parties are corporate bodies extraneous from Parliament. Citizens should elect individuals who happen to organize themselves into parties (really it should be loose coalitions). We should not be electing parties who only by necessity place individuals as representatives in Parliament.

    The one-member one-riding system is the way Parliament was meant to operate. Citizens are supposed to elect a person from their community to represent their community nationally. At the same time, the elected member should represent a broader national interest reached in consultation with his fellow MP's, and not just those from his own party.

    Admittedly, a system of STV used whithin each individual riding would likely be an improvement on the victory by plurality that is common in most elections.

    However, I continue to disfavour any system that transfers the onus to voting for a party rather than a person.

    By Blogger Matthew, at 9:38 AM  

  • Matt, you wrote: "Parliament is meant to be run by individuals, our nation is meant to be governed by the citizens' individual representatives. Parties are corporate bodies extraneous from Parliament. Citizens should elect individuals who happen to organize themselves into parties (really it should be loose coalitions). We should not be electing parties who only by necessity place individuals as representatives in Parliament."

    I agree with this completely, and that's one of the reasons I had my doubts about PR. However, when I learned more about STV my impression was that it still is about individuals, even in the multi-member riding scenario.

    By Blogger Andrew Spicer, at 10:48 AM  

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