By David Bulger (guest opinion)
Reichstag fire, Berlin Feb. 27, 1933
To Wayne Young: It’s not time.
Proportional representation is a European import. It is the political equivalent of another European import, namely, Dutch Elm Disease.
In 1924, PR was the means by which the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) managed to acquire the legitimacy attaching to membership in the Reichstag. Between 1945 and 1993, proportional representation sent Italians to the polls 53 times, or slightly more than once a year. The political insanity that is the Israeli Knesset is due entirely to PR.
Now, instead of admitting that it is an unworkable system and drop-kicking it, supporters have come up with a Band-Aid called mixed-member proportional representation which retains the evil first-past-the post system for most seats, but allows for list members appointed to the legislature in proportion to the electoral results. (As Ian Rankin has his character, John Rebus say “Just whom is it that the list member represents? It certainly isn’t me” – or words to that effect).
The list member will represent the party, and since the party is the problem in our system, not the solution, anything that expands the power of parties is to be avoided.
There is nothing particularly wrong with our electoral system. It does what it is supposed to do, namely, it hands a governing mandate to the party which has managed to convince the largest number of people that it deserves that mandate. It is not designed to make every vote count nor should it be.
Those who dislike this system are those who have not managed to convince large numbers of voters to support them. But rather than have to make a convincing case and acquire a real mandate, what they want to do is to slip in the back door as list members and achieve a legitimacy that they could not otherwise win. Let them stop trying to place a thumb on the electoral scales and work at making the kind of case that will give them seats. That they don’t have seats may be due, not to the system, but to their ideas and platforms.
But if we must revisit the whole electoral issue, then let the exercise be an honest one. There are more than two possible systems. Election to the Australian Senate, for example, is on the basis of what bears the daunting title of a single transferable ballot. In the U.S. this is sometimes called choice voting. We use the concept in some leadership contests. Voters rank candidates according to preference and the candidate most preferred wins.
What makes this system problematic is the relatively complex mechanism of determining preference, which makes it harder to explain and sell. (And, of course, preferences are likely not to be for fringe parties, so those groups are not likely to want it introduced into the discussion).
It will, however, work very well with any system – like those of Nunavut and the NWT – in which political parties are not involved in government.
Now, for that discussion, it’s past time.
David M. Bulger is Adjunct Professor (retired) at the University of Prince Edward Island