The Unintended Consequences of Proportional Representation

Now that the election is over, many disappointed Canadians are talking about proportional representation, and how much fairer it would have been than our first-past-the-post electoral system.

I have never been a fan of proportional representation, partly because I think its supporters are mostly unhappy with the results of the most recent election and want to re-run it under different rules that they think are more favourable to their side, and partly because I’m a big fan of holding members of Parliament accountable to a constituency. But also because I’ve seen how PR systems operate in other countries. Not in the intricate, technical, here’s-how-it-works terms that PR advocates like geeking over — the real-world effects. And some of those real-world effects are precisely the opposite of what PR advocates want.

Let’s begin with party discipline, because there’s a lot of overlap between people who want electoral system reform and people who want their members of Parliament to be subject to less party discipline (in either case, they’re unhappy with the status quo). Problem is, PR and relaxed party discipline are mutually exclusive. If you’re elected from a party list in a pure or mixed PR system, your status as an elected representative is entirely due to the party and its fortunes. Make trouble, and you’ll be further down the list next time, if on the list at all.

There are, of course, options: if you have a mixed PR system you can still run as an independent, as you can in a FPTP system. But one option looms large in a PR system that isn’t nearly as workable under FPTP: you can split off and start your own party. In fact, a disgruntled representative has every incentive to do so, because you stand a much better chance of being elected at the head of the list of a smaller party that elects a couple of MPs than you do further down the list of a larger party that elects a few dozen.

In a FPTP system, parties tend to be coalitions of like-minded but rather discrete factions that are often at odds. Social conservatives and fiscal conservatives don’t always see eye to eye inside the Conservative Party, the Liberals’ focus on civil liberties hasn’t always sat well with its historically Catholic voting base (abortion, gay marriage), and the NDP is often a battleground between its various constituencies (case in point: the Waffle). But these factions hang together out of mutual self-interest, because failing to do so guarantees a lack of electoral success.

But in a PR system, these internal factions would very quickly become external. Each of Canada’s major parties would split into several smaller parties, because it would be in their self-interest to do so. For one simple reason: leverage.

Take the Conservatives. Say what you will about our dear, soon-to-be-departed Stephen Harper, but one thing he did was refuse to reopen debates on things like abortion, capital punishment and same-sex marriage that social conservatives in his party would dearly loved to have had. This was electorally expedient for him: in order to take power he needed the votes of moderate Canadians who would have been been repelled by a such an agenda.

But in a PR system the social conservatives would almost certainly have their own party. Instead of being told behind caucus doors to bite their tongues, they’d be able to advance their agenda by making it the price of their support for a coalition government.

Because almost every parliament after the implementation of proportional representation will have a coalition government. That’s good, PR advocates say: governments will have to draw their support from several parties with diverse views and their policies will represent a greater swath of public opinion. Right?

Not necessarily.

It’s not necessarily going to be like Germany, with its mixed system and five-percent rule to keep fringe parties out, where large, moderate parties enter into grand coalitions with one another. Sometimes it’s like Israel, a pure PR system where Benjamin Netanyahu won only 23.4 percent of the vote (and 30 out of 120 seats), but was able to form a coalition with the help of Orthodox religious parties.

Sometimes coalitions draw their support from the extremes, not the centre.

So if Canada were to adopt some form of proportional representation, the election results wouldn’t automatically lead to a minority Liberal government obliged to enter into a coalition with the NDP. Because there would be no advantage for Canada’s political parties to remain as they are under proportional representation. Instead we might see jockeying among a dozen or more parties — prairie-based Christian conservatives, urban radical socialists, right-wing Quebec nationalists, Charter-obsessed liberal democrats, Ontario rural conservatives, an actual labour party — for position and advantage.

The resulting coalition might well be less moderate or inclusive — or even representative! — than a majority government would have been under FPTP.

It woudn’t necessarily be worse than what we have now, so long as you understand that the price of having a successful Green Party with a dozen seats is probably a Christian conservative party with forty seats. It does cut both ways.

I just think that PR advocates haven’t considered what the unintended consequences might be if they actually got what they wanted.