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RM Issue #040214

Voting initiatives alluring, but bad
Feb. 8 2004


With its seductive slogan that every vote should be made to count, proportional representation has become a hot topic in the nation's capital, in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, New Brunswick and PEI.

At Queen's Park, the issue gained momentum immediately after the last election. Winning only seven seats one short of the requirement for official party status New Democrats felt they had been cheated by an electoral system in which they had garnered 15 per cent of the popular vote. Their supporters were quick to point out that under proportional representation, the voting system practised in some form or other in 75 countries, the NDP would have captured as many as 15 seats.

And while four other provinces are considering the merits of proportional representation, the Law Commission of Canada has produced a report recommending Ottawa add an element of proportional representation into the federal voting mix, as nations such as Germany do.

Unlike the first-past-the-post system in which the candidate with the most votes in an electoral district wins that constituency's legislative seat, the system of proportional representation distributes seats to political parties according to their percentages of the total popular vote.

It has obvious appeal to single-issue groups, which argue that if they have the support of, say, two per cent of voters, they should get two per cent of the seats. They say our present system gives too much political clout to the most popular viewpoint, while denying other viewpoints a fair say. Backers of proportional representation claim the current system also exaggerates regional differences instead of emphasizing common perspectives that are held to greater or lesser degrees across regions. The result, they say, is massive voter alienation and low turnout at the polls.

The supposed virtue of proportional representation, by contrast, would thus seem to lie in the way in which it effectively does away with electoral districts or geographical constituencies by treating both nation and province as if each of them were, in fact, an amorphous, homogeneous mass.

The underlying premise of proportional representation is that the interests of, say, Alberta farmers, Ontario factory workers and Maritime fishermen overlap to the degree that none of them needs to choose their own federal representatives to champion their specific concerns.

Despite this unrealistic premise, proponents claim the interests of such diverse groups would, in fact, be better represented in Parliament or a legislature because power would be sufficiently diffused among the political parties to ensure every special interest a meaningful say in public affairs.

In that case, the inevitable result of proportional representation would be a sort of permanent state of minority government, in which political parties form de facto coalitions and alliances under an operating rule that says, "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."

So instead of voters having to choose among the platforms of parties A, B, C and D, as they now must, they would know that the outcome of the election would probably enable them to treat certain combinations of platforms as menus from which they could pick and choose.

That might be fine were it not for the fact that the costs of these ? la carte menus typically exceed what taxpayers can afford, and that the most important government initiatives might not see the light of day in the orgy of payoffs to special interests posing as new political parties. That's what happens in Italy, a fiscal basket case, where proportional representation has brought endless political instability.

In light of these inherent dangers in pure proportional representation, some proponents advocate hybrid systems, in which the legislature is made up of an amalgam of directly elected constituency representatives and party appointees "elected" by proportional representation.

Under one variant of the hybrid system proposed by the Law Commission, for example, in the last federal election the Liberals would have ended up with a somewhat smaller majority, with the Alliance, New Democrats and Conservatives each gaining a few additional seats. But it's hard to see what difference such an outcome would have actually made.

It's far from clear what advantages hybrid systems hold, especially given that they are, by definition, totally contrived political forms.

Whatever its deficiencies, our current system forces voters to make choices. To us, that is clearly preferable to a system that throws choice into a blender and comes up with mush.



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