Monday, February 15, 2010

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The issue of Proportional Representation has been one that I’ve cared about for many years now. I can recall writing school papers in grade school on the issue. I remember referring to it as PR throughout the paper as it save me from writing Proportional Representation dozens of times. This is a tradition I intend to continue.

We have had a few votes in this country on the issue. One in Ontario and One in Prince Edward Island returned very similar results. Downtown ridings voted narrowly for PR while non-down urban, suburban, and rural ridings voted against it, sometimes by large margins. BC voted twice, and while the result was generally favorable all throughout the province, it failed both times. The question then becomes why?

The biggest argument used against PR is that it will result in more minority governments. Here in Canada, we are familiar with them, but not used to them. As I write this, all provinces in the country have a majority government, ranging from thin majorities in Quebec and BC to very large ones in Newfoundland and PEI. In the recent past we have seen minority governments on the provincial level. Quebec, and Nova Scotia have both come out of this situation in the past few years. In fact, every province has had a Minority government at some point. Newfoundland had one that collapsed nearly instantly, and PEI had a 15-15 tie over 100 years ago. New Brunswick has never elected one, but has seen them due to loss of seats, while Saskatchewan has elected two that both were quickly solidified into Majorities via coalition.

Federally, however, we are most familiar with minorities. Not only because we have been in this situation for the last 6 years, but perhaps mostly because they make for good news stories, even decades after the fact. Politicos across this country know what Pearson did with his minority, and they know that Diefenbaker used them to enter and exit his time in office. King had the most famous minority that, upon further research, turns into a majority. Of course, party lines of the 1920’s are not what we know today.

The one thing that is true for minorities on every level is that they are far more unstable than majorities. It is this instability that people fear when they hear about PR. In order to quell these fears, we must find a way to implement PR without causing a significant increase in the number of minority governments. Doing this is no easy task. PR, by nature, tries to make seats equal votes, and we as a country do not tend to elect parties with over half of the vote. I say there is a way to do this. Find out more below the fold.

A question we must then ask is; what is the reason for PR? Some want these minorities, but in general, most just want everyone’s voice to be represented. That means, in short, two things. First, giving smaller but spread out parties more seats. Historically, this has meant the NDP. Today it also means the Green Party. Most provinces have a clear two party system. Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland have the Liberals and Tories fighting for government, with the NDP picking up what is left. This mirrors the federal situation to a degree. In Quebec, the two big parties are the PLQ and the PQ, with others such as the ADQ and QS being clearly behind. Manitoba and Saskatchewan both have similar systems, with the Liberals in third, and the government a battle between the NDP and the Tories (who are called the Saskatchewan Party in that province). In BC the difference between the two main parties, the Liberals and the NDP and the third placed party, the Greens, is even more stark as the Greens have never won a seat. In Alberta, the Tories are clearly at the top, but there is no clear and long lasting leader amongst the opposition parties. The Wildrose Alliance currently is polling in the high 30’s, but the Liberals managed the same back in the early 1990’s. And lastly in Nova Scotia, and even in the Yukon Territory, the three parties battle it out on an almost equal footing.

The other voices that go unheard are regional. Beyond doing poorly on the provincial level, the Federal Liberal Party has always had trouble in the Prairies, or at least since the 60’s they have. This quite often will mean that a Federal Government may go with very little or no representation from the west. 1980 was one such occurrence where a grand total of 2 MP’s were elected to the government from Western Canada, and both were from Winnipeg. This regional imbalance is part of what causes many of the problems we see today in federal politics. With the Tories ‘locked in’ to winning Alberta, the Liberals winning Toronto, and the Bloc winning Quebec it is difficult to find the right person to turn things around. The NDP, for example, has only recently been able to gain a real foothold in Quebec. We see now how this is changing the politics of that province. What if, however, the NDP had maintained an MP from Quebec for decades? Surly we can all agree that would certainly change the balance of politics. Imagine if you will, a Canadian Alliance MP from Atlantic Canada. An NDPer from Rural Alberta. A Bloc member from the West Island. A Liberal Saskatchewan Farmer. These things would certainly change the way people look at our political parties.

This last point also applies in an important way to the provinces and opposition parties. Currently, in Prince Edward Island, there are 24 Government MLAs and 3 Opposition MLAs. Newfoundland has 44 in the Government, and 5 in the Opposition. Alberta has over 70 in the government and a dozen in the opposition. PEI has seen, on two recent occasions, the entire opposition caucus made up of a single member. New Brunswick, in 1987, elected the Liberals to every single riding. I contend that this is not good for democracy. Some provinces have a history of electing very small opposition caucuses. Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland in particular, though Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan have each had their problems in this field.

So we end up back where we began. Clearly we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Or can we? I say we can. The want for more regional balance and proper representation of the “losing” parties, is not incongruent with the desire of Canadians for stable majority governance. In effect, we are looking for a system to bolster the opposition, without defeating the government. For the answer to that, we must look to a country where this occurs and was needed. For that, we turn to Japan.

For decades, Japan had a one and a half party system. The governing Liberal Democrats would consistently capture majorities in the lower house, while the Japan Socialist Party would form an endless string of solid oppositions. Every once in a while, disgruntled members would break from the Liberal Democrats and form their own small parties, but these would not last.

This began to fall apart in the 1980s when the JSP started to go on a more moderate trajectory. Over time, the opposition began to fracture. Finally, in 1993, the LDP faced a number of problems, and a series of large defections crippled the party. In the election that year, 9 parties were elected to the Diet (House) and the LDP lost its majority. The opposition used this rare opportunity to form a government of their own. Two weak coalition governments were formed that made many reforms. One of which was to officially apologize for Japan’s actions during WW2. The other, was electoral reform.

Sadly, this opposition government did not last. The LDP was able to return to government by forming a coalition with the Socialists, having one of them serve as Prime Minister. In the following election, the LDP returned to power and would remain there until 2009 when the Democratic Party (which was formed when, over time, the parties from that 1993 government slowly merged into one) won the first non-LDP majority government in modern history.

So just what did they do in Japan? Clearly it has not impeded the formation of Majority governments, nor has it caused smaller parties to spring up out of nowhere. In fact, over this same period, the number of major parties shrank. This is due to the type of PR used in Japan. Let’s review some of our basic options.

Ireland uses a type of PR called STV. This is what BC wanted to do. Due to the popularity of that debate I won’t go into great detail. Ontario and PEI wanted MMP. This is what is done in Germany and New Zealand. Parties can win local seats, but the PR seats are then applied so that when all is said and done, at the end of the day, the total share of seats each party has is as close as possible to the total share of vote they received. Japan has a system somewhat similar to MMP, but with a key and crucial difference. Japan uses a so-called Parallel system. That means that the number of seats won from the PR lists is decided by the share of vote, with no consideration given to the “end of the day” number. Parallel PR, in a way, treats the seats won in ridings, and the seats won from lists as parallel, or separate entities. Lets examine some examples.

The country of Samplestan has 100 seats. 80 ridings and 20 seats in the PR list.
The Sample Party has won 55% of the vote and 54 of the 80 ridings.
The Test Case Party has won 45% of the vote and 26 ridings.

MMP would give the Sample Party 1 PR seat, and the Test Case Party 19, for an end total of 55 and 45 respectively.

Parallel PR however would give the Sample Party 11 PR seats (55% of the PR seats) and the Test Case Party 9 of them (45%) for an end total of 65 and 35.

So what does this mean? To put it simply, Parallel PR has a much more difficult time overturning a majority government than MMP does. Parallel PR also makes it far easier to estimate the number of list seats that a party will win, rendering nearly impossible the chance that a party can win more ridings than expected and have as a result, candidates from its list not make it into parliament.

So, what does this all mean for Canada? Well lets go back and look at Samplestan. The winning party has managed to win over two thirds of the seats, but this by no means guarantees them a seat in all the areas of the country. The opposition’s chances are even lower. Under MMP, the government would only get a single PR seat. That top seat is usually reserved for the leader, meaning areas of the nation could well go under represented within the government. In countries like Canada, where politics are very regionalized, this can be a problem. Imagine if you will, a Liberal victory in the 1990s with only a few extra PR seats. Nearly all these PR seats would need to go to the West or Quebec to properly balance the party.

Perhaps more importantly is the concept if the official opposition as the “Government in waiting”. Again, back to the 1990s, when the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance never managed to elect more than two members east of the Manitoba-Ontario border. On the flip side we have the Bloc Quebecois. Normally, parties place their leader in the first PR slot, as the leader represents the entire country, not just one riding; however in the Bloc’s case, there is a good chance the leader may not even make it into Parliament, as the party is already over-represented.

The answer, then, is to apply Parallel PR to Canada. Let’s look at a past election as an example; The 2000 Federal Election. The results were as follows:
Liberal – 172 – 40.85%
Alliance – 66 – 25.49%
Bloc – 38 – 10.72%
NDP – 13 – 8.51%
PC – 12 – 12.19%
This is a total of 301 seats. I am going to add 80 PR seats to the mix. Let’s compare the two systems. Under MMP:
Liberal – 172
Allinace – 97
Bloc – 41
NDP – 32
PC – 46
In this example, the Liberals have taken their 172 ridings, more than the 155 seats they would have qualified for, and so the extra is kept as over-hang seats. This example also puts us into a minority government. Now we compare to Parallel
Liberal – 205
Alliance – 86
Bloc – 47
NDP – 20
PC – 22
The Liberals would retain a majority government, although by a smaller margin. They would get 33 extra seats from the PR lists, and they could, and likely would use these seats to bolster their standing from the West and Quebec, while still leaving slots for those from Ontario and the Atlantic. The Alliance would have had 20 seats to play with, enough to get some real representation from Central and Atlantic Canada. The Bloc would have 9 seats, enough to get a Leader elected, a few extra MPs, and perhaps Anglo MPs. The PC Party, which finished 5th, would get 10 extra MPs, enough to vault them into 4th, and enough to give them some big names in all areas of Canada. Lastly the NDP, who had one of their worst elections ever, would still win 7 seats, and would likely have at least one Quebec MP.

This allows both the government and opposition to be represented across the country, it allows votes for “losing” parties to still count, while at the same time, maintaining the stability of Majority governments.

The above are simple examples to explain my ideas. In my following post, I will provide more hard and fast examples. For now, an extra bonus; I’ve applied 80 PR seats to the 1993 election, and achieved the following results:

Liberal – 210
Reform – 67
Bloc – 65
NDP – 15
PC – 15