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Electoral reform could curse Canada with a Parliament full of Trumps

The problem isn’t with winner-take-all electoral systems, it’s a problem within Canada’s political parties.

The sun sets behind Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick.

The sun sets behind Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the Financial Post

Donald Trump’s surprise win is leading many repulsed Americans to propose the abolition of the Electoral College to prevent a future election of someone they view as a demagogue, a racist or worse. The Trump victory holds many lessons for America but drastic electoral reform isn’t one of them. The U.S. constitution all but guarantees the Electoral College’s endurance.

But there is an electoral lesson here for Canada, with proportional representation a live option to replace our current winner-take-all system. Every Canadian who would fear the attainment of power in our country by a bigoted right-wing populist — or a bigoted left-wing populist, or a fringe movement — should shudder at the thought of exchanging Canada’s sure-footed electoral system for proportional representation, a system with a century-long history of empowering fringe and abhorrent candidates. Europe, largely governed through proportional representation, has long nurtured racist parties that later come to wield power. Israel, with one of the world’s purest proportional representation systems, has for decades denied its citizens public transit on the Sabbath because religious parties — who garner but 10 per cent of the vote — have been able to impose their will on the remaining 90 per cent. Under proportional representation, the tail wags the dog.

Trump’s victory was an anomaly. For the first time in U.S. history, both leading candidates were loathed by the majority of the populace, most of which voted against, rather than for, the choices on offer. In any normal race, Candidate Trump, despite a large, hard-core base numbering tens of millions, would have been drubbed.

In contrast, in a parliamentary system using proportional representation, a party passing a modest threshold, typically five per cent or less of the popular vote, will join the ranks of lawmakers and often be positioned to be a kingmaker. Any party leader amassing as large a share of the populace as Trump had — 30 per cent or more of the vote — would usually be the kingmaker, able to impose policies on the mainstream parties.

Because Trump won the election, if he wishes to he’ll be able to impose policies so many find reprehensible, such as deporting Mexicans or barring Muslim immigrants. But if the U.S. instead had a European-style proportional representation parliament comprised of many parties, including a Democratic party, a Republican party and a Trump-led populist party, Trump would likely have been able to impose some of those policies even if he lost. That is the nature of proportional representation — with no one party holding enough seats to form a government on its own, all are forced to horse-trade with the others in cobbling together coalitions that give coalition members half a loaf rather than none.

In Canada’s case, under proportional representation the Conservative party would almost certainly split into social and economic conservative factions; the Liberals and NDP might also see disgruntled factions hive off, and other special-interest parties would arise. The pared-down Conservative and Liberal parties might each then need to woo the social conservatives for support, reluctantly adopting, for example, capital punishment or stringent anti-abortion policies in order to form a government.

Winner-take-all electoral systems, ironically, tend to produce governments that are more representative of the population as a whole than proportional representation systems. We see this even with Trump, who is already walking back some of his harder-line policies and becoming more conciliatory.
Under Canada’s winner-take-all system, the Conservative party had been able to tamp down the demands of social conservatives because they were subsumed within the party. Should the social conservatives have a party of their own, under proportional representation they could hold the whip hand, able to decide which party formed a government and thus able to force on all Canadians their policies, even those without much public support. More threatening still to Canada would be the separatist Bloc Quebecois — the drip-drip-drip of the concessions it would demand holds the potential to slowly destroy Canada.

Winner-take-all electoral systems, ironically, tend to produce governments that are more representative of the population as a whole than proportional representation systems. We see this even with Trump, who is already walking back some of his harder-line policies and becoming more conciliatory. The incentive of a president of all the American people is naturally to seek common ground, to be a uniter, not a divider. Had Trump been a loser under a system of proportional representation, his incentive would have been the opposite — to press hard-line policies in order to demonstrate his bona fides to his diehard constituents.

A winner-take-all system promotes stability as well as reconciliation; a proportional representation system — akin to perpetual minority government — is inherently unstable, with coalition partners continually jockeying for position, threatening to leave the coalitions if they don’t get their way, and looking for opportunities to trigger early elections. Little wonder that proportional representation countries tend to have short-lived governments, and often no elected government: Proportional representation countries are typically in limbo after elections — the negotiations among the parties as to how to divide the spoils typically take many weeks, often months and sometimes more than a year. During that period of absentee government, countries are rudderless.

Winner-take-all systems, though unparalleled through the centuries in promoting civil liberties and stable government, are far from perfect, especially in Canada where in recent decades our prime ministers have seized power from the party’s grassroots, leaving local MPs toothless. This isn’t a problem with winner-take-all electoral systems, it’s a problem within Canada’s political parties. The solution doesn’t lie in throwing overboard the most successful electoral system the world has ever known; it lies in empowering the political parties’ grassroots.

Lawrence Solomon is policy director for Probe International. He will debate proportional representation with National Post columnist Andrew Coyne at Green Beanery’s “Grounds for Thought” in Toronto on Tuesday, Nov. 29 at 8 pm. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

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