Why proportional representation is likely to produce better public policy

We are in the midst of a historic opportunity to strengthen our democracy. Our federal government has committed to making the 2015 election the last under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, and an all-party parliamentary committee has been consulting experts and the public on how to make our elections fairer and more representative.

Many likely view electoral reform with eye-rolling indifference—a wonkish debate relevant only in the Ottawa bubble. The arguments on both sides may seem remote, even a distraction, from the real issues we ought to be tackling. This paper makes the case that a more proportional electoral system, in which the results of our elections more accurately reflect how we actually voted, indeed matters for the strength of our democracy and for the quality of our governance and public policy.

Since most advanced democracies have adopted some form of proportional representation (PR), there is no shortage of evidence on how electoral systems affect governments’ performance. Of course, no electoral system is perfect, nor does electoral reform provide some magic bullet that will fix all that ails us. But a more proportional system offers important advantages for tackling the challenges before us.

The debate

The electoral reform debate is often mischaracterized as a choice between local accountability (as provided by FPTP systems, where each Member of Parliament is theoretically accountable to a local constituency) and better representativeness (as provided by PR, where the political makeup of the House of Commons more accurately reflects the parties’ share of the popular vote). But this is a false dichotomy.

In a federation such as ours it is inconceivable that a proportional system would not include local representation. In fact, of the 13 commissions in Canada that have examined electoral reform, all have recommended either mixed-member proportionality or a single transferable vote because either approach not only ensures that the outcome of elections more closely reflects how people voted but arguably also strengthens local representation.

In the last election, under FPTP, the votes of about nine million Canadians had no impact on the composition of Parliament. That would never be the case in a more proportional system in which virtually every vote matters, and, further, every citizen has more than one representative and is therefore far more likely to find one that shares their values and interests.

Henry Milner (2016), one of the experts testifying before the parliamentary committee, put the central issue this way:  “If our primary goal is to normally have single-party majority governments resulting from our elections, then the FPTP system should be maintained. If, on the other hand, the primary goal is to fairly represent the preferences of the electorate, the alternative is a form of proportional representation.”

In FPTP, two major parties typically alternate power. While important smaller parties may arise, as they have in Canada, they are badly underrepresented unless their support is regionally concentrated (as it was for the successful Bloc Québécois). Proponents of FPTP argue that the great strength of our current system is it offers stability, favours relatively centrist parties, discourages the proliferation of parties, disadvantages more ideological parties and keeps out fringe or extreme voices.

The critics of FPTP argue that our current system produces false majorities, giving control of the government to parties that do not have the support of the majority of voters. In fact, rather than guaranteeing “centrist” policies, as we have seen in Canada, it can allow an ideological party to win majority control even with less than 40% of the vote. With a more proportional system, majorities (typically coalitions) would have greater legitimacy because they would actually represent a majority of voters from every part of the country. We would no longer risk entire regions being shut out of government, as has happened on a number of occasions under our current approach.

While concerns about the proliferation of parties are exaggerated, it is true that smaller parties would be better represented under PR, reflecting more accurately their electoral support. This would actually make our Parliament and government more representative of the diversity of our values and interests, and require co-operation across those diverse views. Importantly, proportional systems typically elect more women and minorities to government. In New Zealand, for example, after turning to PR in 1996, representation of women, Maori and minorities increased significantly.

Public policy benefits

So, how do these differences play out on the issues that matter to us; on economic and environmental policy, on social justice and inclusion, on how well our governments perform?  One of the major costs of any winner-take-all approach is that it promotes adversarial politics, as each of the major parties seeks to win a majority in which co-operation with the others would be unnecessary. That often yields polarized politics reflected not only in negative election campaigns but also in an adversarial parliament (witness question period).

The adversarial approach often means major policy lurches when the government changes. For example, the Harper government undid some important initiatives of the previous government, including the Kelowna Accord, signed by all provinces and aboriginal leaders, and child care agreements signed by all provinces, to name a couple. Now we are watching the current Liberal majority spending much of its legislative time undoing Harper government initiatives (e.g., restoring the census, and undoing various refugee and immigration policies). We see similar lurches with virtually every change of government, but especially when that change also represents a significant shift in ideology.

These policy lurches belie the claims that our FPTP system offers stability. They undermine our capacity for long-term planning, even long-term thinking, and waste considerable legislative time effectively going around in circles. Such policy lurches are far less common in countries with more proportional systems, where cross-party co-operation is the norm. It’s not surprising, therefore, that political scientist Arend Lijphart (2012), who has undertaken the most extensive comparison of policy outcomes in countries with differing electoral systems, found that for those issues that require a long view and policy continuity, countries with proportional systems—where coalitions are the norm—outperform FPTP countries.

For example, countries with proportional systems score significantly higher on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, which measures how well human health and ecosystems are protected. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. Countries using PR were more ready to pay the price of strong environmental policies, more likely to use renewable energy, and therefore produced a lower share of carbon emissions (Orellana, 2014; Cohen, 2010). The greater co-operation and continuity in proportional systems evidently yield environmental dividends.

Lijphart also found that countries with proportional systems are more responsive to the median voter. In our current system, parties may ignore great swaths of voters in regions where they have no or little chance of electoral success, focusing rather on their base voters and a few swing ridings where the outcome of the election will be determined. So-called micro-targeting becomes standard practice and the interests of the many too easily get lost in the shuffle.

That’s less the case in more proportional systems, where just about every vote makes a difference and no voters, ridings or regions can be taken for granted or safely ignored. Orellana, building on the work of Lijphart, argues that countries with PR electoral systems are less vulnerable to powerful special interests and political pandering. Perhaps this is why numerous studies have found these countries have also been more successful in combating inequality.

Orellana further argues that PR-elected governments are less inclined to “quick-fix” solutions and, because of the greater diversity of their governments and parliaments, more open to policy innovation.   For example. they are more likely to have adapted their welfare and tax policies to changes in the economy and labour market.  Orellana also demonstrates that they tend to be policy leaders on highly sensitive issues such as assisted dying, LGBT rights and freedom to marry.  This openness to change and policy innovation is particularly relevant in a fast-changing world where old nostrums and standard practices are increasingly part of the problem. It should be no surprise, then, Orellana (2014; 2016) and Lijphart (1994; 2012) also find better fiscal performance in countries with PR. There is even some evidence, though it is admittedly mixed, that countries with PR produce more robust economic growth (Knutsen, 2011).

This view that PR countries outperform the rest on fiscal responsibility was recently challenged by the Fraser Institute, which published a paper arguing the reverse:  that PR—because of the inevitable trade-offs coalitions require—produces governments that spend more money, resulting in higher deficits and debt. The institute is not wrong that countries using PR are more likely to have coalitions and do spend more, proportionally, than Canada. (This is not much of a test: most rich countries, whatever their electoral system, tax and spend more than we do.) But those countries are not, in fact, more likely to run high deficits or carry more debt.

Orellana (2016) provides a point-by-point response demonstrating that countries with the kind of proportional system we would implement (Germany or New Zealand, for example) were more likely to produce fiscal surpluses and lower cumulative deficits (Carey and Hix, 2009; Orellana, 2014). Perhaps coalition governments have more courage or “cover” to implement politically difficult measures, including tax increases, to ensure that citizens actually pay the bills for the public services they enjoy.  A number of researchers also find greater political sophistication, engagement and openness among the electorates in PR countries, in part no doubt because media give more space to policy issues and less to political tactics (see Milner, 2002).

Orellana and Lijphart find important policy differences between PR and non-PR systems across virtually all sectors. For example, countries using PR have more inclusive and equitable social policies, balanced (rather than costly and punitive) criminal justice policies, and less militarism. Of note, research by John Carey and Simon Hix (2011) finds government performance and accountability are strongest in countries that combine local representation and greater proportionality, just the kinds of electoral reform the many commissions have proposed for Canada.  Of course, all of this must be interpreted with caution. There are no guarantees. There are exceptions and outliers. Obviously, many factors unrelated to electoral systems will influence the quality and direction of public policy. But it is clear electoral reform does matter.

Public policy can only benefit from a system that is less vulnerable to special interests, in which every vote influences the outcome; a system that yields more diverse representation reflective of the diverse values and interests of the electorate, and promotes less adversarial elections and more co-operative parliaments. Governments elected by PR would experience fewer policy lurches, take a longer view, be more responsive to the interests of the many, and even, arguably, more creative and open to policy innovation.

Equally important, especially in a country such as ours, a more proportional system would eliminate the advantage parties with regionally-concentrated support have under the current FPTP system. With PR, no region would ever be entirely excluded from the governing majority. A more proportional system is more likely to lead to policies that promote both solidarity and sensitivity to our regional diversity (Broadbent, Himelfarb and Segal, 2016).

It is time that our electoral system caught up with the evolution of our society and the expectations of a more savvy and diverse electorate who demand both greater accountability and a greater voice. Under a proportional system, elections would be more than the alternation of parties, “throwing out one set of bums in favour of a new set of bums” (see Potter 2015). They would become, rather, a “conversation about policy,” an opportunity to participate with our fellow citizens in making choices for our shared future. It’s time for a more proportional system.

Alex Himelfarb is chair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario Advisory Board and former clerk of the Privy Council.


References

Broadbent, Ed, Alex Himelfarb and Hugh Segal, “Only Proportionality Will Fix Our Democratic Malaise,”  Globe and Mail, May 10, 2016

Carey, J.M. and Simon Hix, “The Impact of Constitutional Structures and Collective and Competitive Veto points on Income Inequality in Industrialized Democracies,” European Journal of Political Research, 34, 1998

Carey, J.H. and Simon Hix, “The Electoral Sweet Spot,” American Journal of Political Science, 55, 2, 2011

Cohen, Darcie, “Do Political Preconditions Affect Environmental Outcomes?  Exploring Linkages  Between Proportional Representation, Green Parties and the Kyoto Protocal,” Simon Fraser University, Summit Institutional Repository, 2010

Knutsen, Carl “Which Democracies Prosper?  Electoral Rules, Forms of Government and Economic Growth,” Electoral Studies, 30, 2011

Lijphart, Arend, “Democracies: Forms, Performance, and Constitutional Engineering,” European Journal of  Political Research, 10, January, 1994

Lijphart, Arend, Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries, New Have: Yale University Press, 2012

Milner, Henry, Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work, Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2002

Milner, Henry, “Objectives Should Inform Electoral Reform,” Ottawa Citizen, January 28, 2016

Orellana, Salomon, Electoral Systems and Governance: How Diversity Can Improve Policy Making, New York: Routledge Press, 2014

Orellana, Salomon, “Governments elected by proportional representation may spend more money, but they get good return on investment and they don’t have higher budget deficits, ” unpublished, 2016

Potter, Andrew, “Canadian Elections For Cynics and Naifs,” In Due Course, June 24, 2015

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