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Proportional representation: a permanent Bloc effect

If you like minority government, you're going to swoon over proportional representation.

Proportional representation, now all the rage in certain political quarters, almost guarantees minority government. New Zealand, for example, switched to a form of PR in the mid-1990s, and has had minority governments in the subsequent three elections. So if you want variations on the kind of minority government Canadians gave themselves yesterday, sign a petition for PR.

Proportional representation is on the nation's agenda. Four provinces are studying various forms of PR. British Columbia's constituent assembly is almost certainly going to recommend that a form of PR replace the existing system. The federal NDP has said that the price for its support in a minority parliament will be a national referendum on PR.

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Most Canadians, of course, haven't the foggiest idea about proportional representation, of which there are many varieties. They don't know PR because, except for some brief periods in Western Canada many decades ago, PR systems have not been used in Canada. Or in the United States and Britain, the two countries that most influenced Canadian democracy.

PR systems do a better job matching share of votes cast to share of parliamentary seats than the Canadian (and British) first-past-the-post system. Our system has been periodically plagued with wide discrepancies between votes won and seats captured -- a gap that infuriates PR proponents. The Bloc Québécois won one seat for every 31,000 votes, the Liberals one for every 37,000, the Conservatives one for every 40,000, the NDP one for every 110,000. The Greens won more than 500,000 votes but no seats.

The beauty or the bane, depending on your perspective, of the first-past-the-post system is that it produces majority governments most of the time. Twelve of 18 post-war Canadian elections had produced majority governments before the June 28 election. None of the minority governments lasted anything like a four-year mandate. Most collapsed within 18 months, or sooner.

If you like strong government, therefore, you'll like the existing system. If you like weak government -- or government by constant negotiation and coalition -- you'll like PR, because it produces constant minority governments. (PR systems around the world also have slightly higher turnouts than first-past-the-post systems because fewer votes are "wasted.")

Small parties love PR because it gives them a chance to negotiate a share of power. That's why the Greens and the NDP are all for changing the electoral system. They have never won a federal election and won't for the foreseeable future. Under PR, they could parlay a modest share of the popular vote into a share of real power. No wonder they are wild about PR.

PR is certainly the most representative electoral system. If representation alone was all citizens needed to worry about, then a form of PR should be instituted immediately.

A political system, however, should produce governments that are representative, but also transparent, accountable and effective.

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PR systems are sometimes, but not always, transparent. Negotiations among parties can precede elections, so voters know coalitions before they vote, as in Germany. Or, PR elections can be followed by frantic, behind-the-scenes bargaining, in which the shape of the government is negotiated among power brokers after the vote, the antithesis of transparency.

PR rather consistently fails in producing effective government. PR requires parties to negotiate everything on an ad hoc basis or inside a coalition for a fixed period of time. It's not impossible to get important things done under minority governments, but it's hard.

Minority governments, as we are about to observe, are lowest-common-denominator governments, in which the partners keep the government going for a day, a month or a year by haggling among themselves. They compare wish lists and swap. They certainly don't make hard decisions, if by hard we mean decisions that entail sacrifice, cutting back, saving today for spending tomorrow, taking on sacred cows or powerful interest groups.

That's been the pattern of continental European governments that try to reduce bloated bureaucracies or excessively rich programs. They can't do it.

PR can also lead to parties that represent just one region, language, religion or ethnicity. The Bloc Québécois, a key element in the new Parliament, is the harbinger of what a full PR system might bring to Canada: narrow parties that then negotiate influence in Ottawa on behalf of one region or language group.

So if you like the BQ, and want more of parties like it, and if you like minority government, you're going to absolutely love PR. If you are worried about that prospect, of course, you won't want anything to do with it.

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jsimpson@globeandmail.ca

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