Debunking the claims of proportional representation naysayers
This post is part of a series explaining the benefits of proportional representation and debunking myths from the ‘No’ side of BC’s 2018 electoral reform referendum. More from the series is available at policynote.ca/pr4bc.
Over the last few months, I’ve spent quite a lot of time debating and following the ‘No’ side in the electoral reform referendum. For the most part, they are waging a highly negative campaign based on fear-mongering about extremists and falsehoods about what might happen to local representation (which I have debunked here and here).
But in the rare moments when the ‘No’ side makes a positive appeal, it goes something like this: why mess with a good thing? Former BC Attorney General Suzanne Anton, when I’ve debated her, concludes her remarks by stating, “We have a very stable system in British Columbia right now. We have a fantastic province. We have a successful province… Nothing is broken, nothing needs to be fixed.”
Of course, BC is indeed a wonderful place. That’s why so many of us choose to live here.
But all is not well with the state of our democracy. Voter turnout is in long-term decline and disillusionment in our democratic institutions is growing. And, people don’t feel well represented by our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which routinely produces a legislature that does not accurately reflect our wishes or who we are.
From a policy perspective, our broken politics has meant we’ve failed to tackle many of the core societal challenges of our time. Whether the issue is housing affordability, poverty, inequality or the climate crisis, our current system has been unresponsive and weak. On all these fronts, we have witnessed years of foot-dragging. We have been national and global laggards. Something is indeed broken.
All is not well with the state of our democracy.
Do countries using proportional representation (pro rep) do any better on these matters? Short answer, based on clear evidence: yes, they do.
Overall, the empirical research across the OECD shows that pro rep countries outperform those with ‘winner-take-all’ systems like ours on measures of democracy, quality of life, income equality, diversity among elected representatives, values of tolerance, environmental performance and fiscal policy.
Prof. Arend Lijpart, one of the world’s foremost political scientists when it comes to comparative electoral systems, has spent decades comparing the policy performance of pro rep versus winner-take-all systems like FPTP. He describes the pro rep countries as “more caring and gentle societies.” He and others find clear evidence that pro rep countries have less inequality (and the results are highly statistically significant). When looking at the OECD rankings on income inequality, the two main outliers with the highest level of inequality are the US and the UK, two of the few remaining countries still using FPTP (along with ourselves).
Similarly, economists Per Frederiksson and Daniel Millimet (2004) found that countries with proportional systems set tougher environmental policies. They score higher on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, they were faster to ratify the Kyoto protocol and their share of world greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions had declined.
Pro rep countries also garnered higher scores on the United Nations Index of Human Development, which incorporates health, education and standard of living indicators.
How does economic performance compare? Most analysis finds no relationship between electoral systems and economic growth, so there’s nothing to fear on that front. In fact, nine out of 10 of the top economies in the OECD (measured as GDP per capita) use pro rep. Pro rep countries are also more likely to have fiscal surpluses, less likely to have deficits and have lower overall debt levels.
But, pro rep countries do have more robust social welfare systems. They make fundamentally different choices about what spending is needed and this is reflected in income inequality data noted above.
Pro rep countries outperform those with ‘winner-take-all’ systems like ours.
I’m not saying there is a causal relationship between pro rep and better policy in every case, but there certainly is a correlation. In some cases, however, it is quite likely that the connection is more than coincidence. Here’s why.
First, pro rep liberates us from a fundamental problem under FPTP known as “policy lurch.” Meaning, under FPTP, as power and false majorities swing between two main parties, each new government tends to spend a chunk of its first years essentially undoing the policies of the previous government, and so on the pendulum goes.
Alex Himelfarb, former federal Clerk of the Privy Council, wrote about the harmful effects of this dynamic for the CCPA here. He notes:
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.
If you want to see the problem of policy lurch in action, look no further than what’s happening in Ontario now. Doug Ford is undoing the policies of the Wynne government, rolling back new protections for workers and reversing climate actions. And Trump has done the same with Obama’s policies.
This reality is inefficient and it’s bad for business. Imagine if you are in the clean energy business in Ontario and you’ve invested millions, only to have the new Ford government completely undo the policy context on which your business was based.
Policy lurch isn’t just an esoteric concern—it’s downright dangerous as the world struggles to get a grip on the climate change crisis. Think about the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change warning us that we have only 12 years to dramatically cut GHGs. Forgive me, but the climate is telling us that we don’t have time for this BS; time and forward progress is of the essence.
Pro rep encourages deeper action on core challenges.
In contrast, because the minority outcomes produced under pro rep require compromise across parties, they are more likely to produce policies that have broad appeal and stand the test of time.
Second, pro rep encourages deeper action on core challenges because it produces more accountable government. In the minority legislatures pro rep tends to produce, governments must continually secure real majority support that corresponds to a majority of the popular vote (not just seek a one-off mandate every four years).
But it’s deeper than that. If a party only needs support from 40% or less of voters to win outright power (as is the case under FPTP), then it doesn’t need to concern itself much with the other 60%.
For example, the last BC government, I would contend, spent years stubbornly refusing to adopt a poverty reduction plan, was content to leave welfare rates frozen for 10 years, and for far too long dragged its heels on the housing affordability crisis. Cynically I’m afraid, they likely determined that the people most impacted weren’t part of their 40% of the voter base. I’m sure you can say the same for the NDP on some issues.
The point is, when every vote counts, every voter matters. And with the minority outcomes under pro rep, governments are less able to ignore or break promises with impunity—they must deliver on real progress.
(For more on the policy record of pro rep versus FPTP countries, see this excellent summary from Fair Vote Canada.)