July 14, 2015 - 7:54 AM
"Change" is a slogan used by politicians because it seems to influence us regardless of what exactly is changing. We seem to like change even though we know it isn't always good. Think of the worst and best things that have happened in the world, and you'll inevitably find change lurking behind them in equal measure. Change can be good when it breathes a breath of fresh air into our political culture from time to time, but it can also let bad ideas take seductive root.
We live in a funny first world of flawed democracies. Whether it's liberal democracy or social democracy it will always fall short of its ideal, yet we allow politicians and political scholars to lure us into thinking that if we can somehow change it this way or that we'll arrive at a democratic system that's somehow better than what we now have.
In Canada we live under an imperfect parliamentary democracy, a subset of liberal democracy in which Canadians are represented by candidates from political parties offering "bundled" ideas that we voters have to choose from. The perennial complaint against the parliamentary system is that many of us aren't represented at all, given the first-past-the-post-winner-take-all mechanism which often allows one party with a minority of votes to form government and, depending on where those votes are sprinkled, to frequently form a majority government. It has been said, with some truth in the case of a majority government, that under our present system we hold an election every four years to choose a dictatorship for the next four. Naturally, these complaints are always raised by the electoral losers and those with no hope of forming government. The winners always seem satisfied with the current system.
This week's proposed cure-all for the ills of parliamentary democracy is "proportional representation" (PR). Whereas our current parliamentary system treats each riding like a separate area in which candidates vie for votes with the winner becoming the Member of Parliament for that riding, under the PR system we would no longer vote for a flesh and blood person but instead vote for the party of our choice, whereupon the parties would assign MPs according to the proportion of votes each party receives. Theoretically that would more accurately reflect the wishes of the electorate because it would allow parties like the Greens to hold seats in proportion to the number of votes it received. At the moment PR is espoused by the NDP, the Liberals, and of course the Greens, all deeply worried about the split in the left and each seeking to outdo the other in the hope-n-change department.
The standard argument against proportional representation is that it fragments the body politic and creates a sort of structural anarchy that creates deadlocks and galloping inefficiencies. This is true to be sure, as Italy, Israel and Germany have learned to their chagrin... consider the Free Democratic Party in Germany, which never garnered more than 12 per cent of the vote and yet was present in every ruling coalition government for 50 years, or Israel, where extreme religious groups often hold the balance of power, or Italy, whose fractured government has been in a constant state of instability, ineffectiveness, and occasional outlawry for decades.
But a more powerful argument, it seems to me, is that our existing parliamentary system is structured to maintain a centrist or near-centrist political culture. By excluding fringe parties, it excludes the possibility of any such parties riding a temporary wave of popularity into decidedly non-democratic regime change. History is replete with examples of this - in fact it happens about three times a week and twice on Sundays in Africa - but the starkest historical example is the National Socialist Workers' Party's (Nazis) seizure of power during the virtual anarchy of the Weimar Republic's PR system. One might argue that it can't happen here, and they might be right. But then again it couldn't happen in Germany either, according to just about everyone in Germany in 1932, and it did, in 1933.
We Canadians tend to think of existing mainstream parties when we think of proportional representation - the three traditional parties and the marginally electable Greens - but under PR other parties would come into play as well, including the Accountability, Competency and Transparency Party, the Animal Alliance-Environment Voters Party, the Canadian Action Party, the Christian Heritage Party, the Communist Party, the Libertarian Party, the Marijuana Party, the Marxist–Leninist Party, the Pirate Party, the Progressive Canadian Party, the Rhinoceros Party, the United Party and of course the Communist Party...many of which have from time to time garnered enough votes for actual seats within a PR system and all of them currently registered and actively seeking votes.
More equitable representation means less efficiency at best, and catastrophic regime change at worst.
Our current system is imperfect, but it does allow for moderate change and even the addition of new, battle-tested parties... as the rise of the Reform Party, the Progressives and the CCF attest... while ensuring the stability of a centrist political culture reflective of our values. There is and can be no perfect democracy, but throwing out our present system in favour of proportional representation would be a change from the frying pan into the fire. Remember that next time a politician shows up at your door preaching "change."
— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, commissioned officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.
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