Proportional representation isn't a cure-all: there are strengths & weaknesses inherent in any system. Criticisms often levelled at PR systems include unstable governments, too many small parties, and the fact that many times a coalition will have to be formed in order to govern. But the fact is all of these problems can be largely fixed by choosing a good form of PR that is resistant to such problems; let's address each in turn:
What Are You Waiting For?
- A Proliferation of Small Parties - it's true that many countries have dozens of smaller parties in their legislatures, but this is often as much a function of the political culture and the type of PR system they choose rather than with PR itself. This is fixed in most countries by setting a minimum percentage of the popular vote required before someone from any party is elected. If a party gets more than this percentage of support (eg. 5%), they are deemed popular enough to merit representation.
- Chaos Theory of Government - Ever heard people complain about how bad things are in Italy and Israel? "Those countries are so unstable they have elections every year! New governments form & fall every few months!" goes the cry. But out of the more than 75 nations using PR, naysayers will only complain of these two, and never about others like Switzerland, Germany, or Sweden who have very stable governments. Might instability be more a result of the political culture in those places rather than the system shared with so many other countries? Current research indicates little difference in the time between elections when comparing countries using PR-systems and FPTP systems. In fact, a comparative study on effective government showed that countries using fair voting usually are better economic and social performers than those (like Canada) who use single-party governments.
- The Problem With Coalitions - Under PR, it's rare that a single party will ever get more than 50% of the popular vote, so majority governments are uncommon. Two or more parties will often have to negotiate, compromise, and cooperate to form government. But is this really a problem? Isn't that what democracy is really all about? We may be used to phony majority governments governing from the backroom as if they represented a majority of voters, but in most countries coalition-building is done in the public view where compromises are transparent, and coalitions always represent a true majority of voters.
The situation is serious enough and the solutions sufficiently clear that we should start a national discussion on this issue right away. But it's been on the shelf for almost a century in Canada because politicians are not motivated to change an electoral system that got them where they are, no matter how unfair it is. The only way proportional representation will be seriously considered is through public pressure. The good news is voters are starting to take notice, and groups like Fair Vote Canada are providing that pressure for reform. And we're growing: a few years ago, Fair Vote Canada didn't exist, and now there are thousands of ordinary Canadians taking part in the movement. Help us take action to better our democracy.
:: posted 06/Sep/2012