The case for proportional representation

Kinder, gentler democracies

by Sonia Furstenau

Let me start where I’m going to end: we have an extraordinary opportunity to make our electoral system better. But the debate around this referendum, particularly from the no side, has been mostly “messaging” about what you should fear.

I am more of a hope person myself, and an evidence person. So let’s look at what research and evidence have to say.

Arend Lijphart, a world-renowned political scientist, spent his career studying various features of democratic life in first-past-the post (majoritarian) and pro rep democracies. (He calls the latter “consensual” democracies.) In his landmark study (2012), he compared 36 democracies over 55 years.

What did he conclude? Proportional representation democracies are “kinder, gentler democracies.” He also notes that the majoritarian model of democracy is exclusive, competitive and adversarial, whereas the consensus model is characterized by inclusiveness, bargaining and compromise; for this reason, consensus democracy could also be termed “negotiation democracy.”

Hold those images – kinder, gentler democracies, negotiation democracies – and we’ll come back to Lijphart’s and others’ findings later. But first, I want to look back at a moment earlier this year. I want to look back specifically to May 31, the very last day of the spring session of the Legislature.

You will receive this mail-in ballot.

We were eagerly, enthusiastically, maybe even fervently anticipating our release from the House, our returns to our families, our communities, our homes. But first, we were going to have one last debate about the referendum on proportional representation. The debate was opened by Andrew Wilkinson, leader of the official opposition, followed by Premier Horgan.

Then it was my turn.

As I have been saying for the better part of a year, I see electoral reform as a way for us to strengthen our democracy, to improve the culture of politics, to move us away from a system that rewards a party with 100% of the power with only 40% of the vote. More about that later.

I also made a plea.

I stated, “In this conversation, more than most, truth and honesty will be critical. No matter what side of the issue you fall on, whether you want to keep our existing first-past-the-post system or whether you favour updating our system to a form of proportional representation, we owe it to voters to base our arguments for and against in fact, not fiction. If we use fear and conspiracy theories to advance our case, we cheapen the discussion and risk lasting damage to voters faith in our democratic institutions.”

Looking at how the debate has played out over the summer, I fear that my plea did not resonate as deeply as I’d hoped it would. As I mentioned, the no side has focused on its “messaging,” some of it rather questionable. But let’s focus on fact.

All three proportional representation systems will deliver to every voter an MLA, just like today. Let me repeat that: all three proportional representation systems deliver local representation and provide voters the opportunity to vote for the individual candidates they want to support. Indeed, it’s even better than that because constituents will have more than one representative in the Legislature.

Under MMP, each riding will have a local MLA elected – just like today. However, in addition to local MLAs, there will also be regional MLAs. The benefit of this is that you will have representation, just as you do now, from your local MLA, but you will also have representation from regional MLAs, meaning that people will be working collaboratively, and often across party lines, to represent you effectively.

Under Dual Member, ridings would be paired, and would have two MLAs for each riding. Same number of MLAs in the House, but now there are two to represent each riding. Again, you have MLAs working together, and often across party lines, to best represent you.

Rural Urban would be a combination of MMP, with local and regional MLAs for rural ridings, and Single Transferable Vote, with ballots where you rank the candidates, and ultimately have a group of MLAs representing larger urban ridings. MLAs that – you guessed it – would need to work collaboratively and across party lines to best represent their constituents.

What if you don’t like the job that one of those MLAs has done? Same as today – don’t vote for him or her in the next election. That’s pretty straightforward accountability.

All three systems deliver MLAs you choose and you can turn to – just like today.

All three systems deliver local, accountable representatives chosen by the voters. All deliver proportionality. None would result in a significant increase to the number of MLAs in the House (a maximum of eight). All three would have simple ballots.

And by voting yes for proportional representation, we choose to join over 90 democracies around the world that have proportional systems, including 85% of OECD countries.

What none of the three systems delivers is 100% of power to one party based on 40% of the vote. And this outcome, so consistent, is becoming an increasingly serious threat to democracy.

We are seeing daily examples of how “power” as the driving force in a democracy is a distorting and damaging force. We need look only to what has unfolded in Ontario to see the truly distressing impacts the approach is creating.

The Progressive Conservatives got 40.49% of the vote in the election in June. And 58% of eligible voters cast ballots. Which means that just under 23.5% of eligible voters in Ontario voted for the party that currently has a majority of seats in the Ontario legislature.

Fewer than one in four eligible voters delivered 100% of power to Doug Ford. And after the election, an advisor to Ford’s campaign team told the National Post that to win the election, the campaign relied on “literally thousands” of online ads, targeting specific geographic and demographic groups. Apparently, the targeting was so precise, “a husband and wife should not have seen the same ads.”

This is an approach described in Susan Delacourt’s 2013 book, Shopping for Votes. Parties have learned that rather than focusing on an overarching vision and platform, it’s more effective, under first-past-the-post, to identify what specific demographics of voters want and promise to deliver that to them.

Democracy has increasingly become a game of political parties figuring out how to woo small pockets of potential voters based on tapping into self-interest and less and less about parties and politicians putting forward a coherent vision for the future that works to forge consensus. Election campaigns are not bringing us together; they are sowing seeds of disunity and fragmentation.

And so while Doug Ford never produced a costed platform or a unifying vision to the voters of Ontario, he did promise a buck a beer, cheaper gas and tax cuts.

And here we are, three months into Ford as Premier, and he has done what no premier of Ontario has ever done; he has chosen to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ford’s choice to invoke the notwithstanding clause, to order Ontario MPPs back to the Legislature, to force another piece of legislation through, which he can do because one in four eligible voters delivered to him a majority of seats and 100% of power, is a gobsmacking rejection of the foundations of our democracy in Canada.

This is not the only questionable step Ford has taken since his election in June. He cancelled the Basic Income Pilot underway in Ontario, an approach that economists around the world are recognizing as a necessary step in our world of growing automation and inequality.

He stripped sex ed curriculum back to the 1990s. He scrapped the cap and trade program and the Green Ontario Fund, which resulted in a $100 million loss of funding for school repairs across Ontario. He froze public sector hiring.

It’s not that there may well be issues with some of the programs and funding; it’s the unilateral, non-evidence approach to cancelling programs that is worrying.

A democracy – all democracies – must have built into them checks on power.

Democracies are meant to disperse power across different bodies so that no single body or individual can act unilaterally. The judiciary is a check on the power of the government executive.

To reject that check on power is to erode our democracy. Ford is choosing instead to insist that he does have all the power and that nobody should be allowed to question that power.

This is not the Canada I grew up in, not the democracy my father taught me to be fiercely proud of and fiercely protective of.

What are we at risk of losing as our democratic institutions are treated with such contempt by those who should in fact be protecting them? Far too much. More than I think we want to imagine.

What I fear is that our politics, driven by our electoral system, driven by “vote shopping,” driven by an increasing tendency towards populism, driven by the efforts to win swing votes in swing ridings, is becoming increasingly devoid of the kind of leadership we desperately need right now.

Leadership that lifts us up, that encourages us to look at our world and ask, “How do we make this better?” We are losing the type of leadership that holds itself to a higher standard, that recognizes the true burden of elected office, which is that we must put service to our constituents, our province, to people, first. We are losing the type of leadership that inspires all of us to want to be in service to something greater than ourselves. We are, perhaps most importantly, losing the type of leadership that brings us together, that encourages us to celebrate our differences while recognizing our shared humanity, the kind of leadership that roots us in compassion, kindness, and empathy.

I have been reflecting on these questions for a very long time. This is a letter I wrote in the midst of the 2000 federal election campaign. It was published in the Globe and Mail:

“Coverage of the federal election has compelled me to stop writing my thesis on medieval theology and tear myself away from the 12th century long enough to state the reasons why I will not vote for Stockwell Day and the Alliance Party.

“As a historian, I think about how Mr. Day and his policies will appear when people look back at our time. I believe he will be seen as a divisive force, since he neatly divides society into ‘us’ and ‘them, and, like any good ideologue, he defines these two categories in opposition to each other. ‘We’ are the citizens, ‘they’ are the criminals; we are the hard-working, they are the lazy poor; we are the righteous, they are the deviant; we are the threatened, they are the feared.

“Historically, Mr. Day will be recognized as a politician who was willing to capitalize on the fears and insecurities that are inherent in a world view that sets people in opposition to each other. What Mr. Day and the Alliance fail to acknowledge is that there are no neat divisions, no simple ways to categorize human beings, and that in the future, societies will be judged as enlightened according to the degree to which they recognize what unifies us as humans, rather than what divides us.”

As Doug Ford rages against a judge’s decision, as Donald Trump rages against, well, pretty much everything, I think my fears about where Stockwell Day’s tendencies could take us were not misplaced.

When our so called leaders are so deeply self-focused, so petty, so willing to be their worst selves, where do we find the inspiration to be our best, to see ourselves as part of a greater whole, to work towards a shared vision that will benefit the many, rather than just the few?

I am increasingly anxious about the path we seem to be on, which makes me increasingly determined to do all that I can to help us choose a better one.

Back to the research on democracies. What else can we learn from Lijphart’s research, which you can read in his book Patterns of Democracy, and others who have studied democracies?

Countries using proportional systems enact policies that reflect the view of the majority. Citizens are more satisfied with their democracies even when their preferred party is not in power. More women and more indigenous peoples are elected to office. Elected officials are more responsive to the electorate. Youth voter turnout is higher. Citizens have higher levels of political knowledge.

Under proportional representation, there are far fewer policy lurches where successive governments spend time and money undoing the policies of the previous government.

Instead of the focus that we see too often under first-past-the-post on short-term and wedge issues, pro rep governments are better long-term managers. Proportional governments tend to have higher surpluses and lower levels of debt than first-past-the-post governments. They have lower levels of income inequality.

The list goes on. Pro rep countries score better on transparency, have lower levels of corruption. And it’s pro rep countries that are doing the best on environmental protection and action on climate change while in first-past-the-post America and Ontario, steps that had been taken on these fronts are being undone by the current administrations.

Yes, there are challenges, but the compiled data and evidence paint a very compelling picture and support the argument that societies, and democracies, generally fare much better under proportional representation. What the no side is not talking about are the countries that operate under FPTP: USA, UK, and Canada, but also, for example, Venezuela, Gambia and Myanmar.

We need true leadership now and we need an electoral system that creates a “kinder, gentler democracy.” We are not going to solve the extraordinary challenges we are facing in a winner-take-all system that does not encourage the best in all of us.

In BC, the fires that produced weeks of smoke that blotted out our skies, scratched our throats, made our lungs hurt and our hearts ache are not “natural” or inevitable, but without serious and significant efforts to change forest management practices, they are likely to get worse. Last week, as hurricane Florence pummelled the Carolinas, there were more giant storms on our planet than ever recorded.

James Hansen wrote Storms of my Grandchildren, a book informed by his years as a climate scientist at NASA. The storms are here and we need the political will to recognize it’s long past time to [acknowledge] that the disruptions created by climate change are not going to lessen without concerted efforts from all governments.

Gwynne Dyer wrote the book Climate Wars, in which he recognized the increasing [stress] nations would feel as pressures mounted from migration, due to swathes of the planet becoming uninhabitable [because of] climate change. Rather than stoking fear, we need leaders to be working collaboratively and globally to find solutions to these mounting challenges, not using them as political fodder to win swing ridings.

I have just started to read Gwynne Dyer’s latest book on the future of democracy, called Growing Pains. His premise: inequality and automation are the greatest threats to social and political stability and we’re going to need to embrace solutions to these growing challenges if we hope to see democracy survive.

On the way home from Union of BC Municipalities a few weeks ago, we were in line for the buffet. Ahead of us was a couple with their one-year-old baby, Benedict, held in the arms of his tall father. He was bright eyed, alert and playful. We played a bit of peek-a-boo, which, at one point, elicited a deep laugh that enveloped his entire body.

Then he reached out his hand, one finger extended. I slowly reached out mine, and after our fingertips touched he seized my entire finger. And he wouldn’t let go. As his dad moved forward with the line, so did I, connected to Benedict.

His gesture was one of trust, one that comes from our fundamental instinct and need as humans to connect. And as I stood there, my finger in Benedict’s tiny fist, I thought about this speech, and what I wanted to convey. Benedict, the baby, has no idea the challenges we face in the world today, but we do. And it’s up to us to make it the best world we can for him and for each child who depends on us to make the best choices for them and their futures.

And one big step we can take for Benedict is to move to a “kinder, gentler democracy” so that he and all children can have the hope of growing up in a kinder, gentler world.

Let’s seize this extraordinary opportunity we have in front of us to build a kinder, gentler democracy. Let’s do everything we can to bring proportional representation to BC.

Sonia Furstenau was elected to the Legislative Assembly of BC in the 2017 provincial election. She represents the district of Cowichan Valley as a member of the Green Party of British Columbia caucus.

6 thoughts on “The case for proportional representation”

  1. “All three systems deliver MLAs you choose and you can turn to – just like today.” No, they do not! I, as we all should do, vote-the-person; I do not vote-the-party. Let’s have a closer look at these options:

    •Current voting (I dislike the pejorative and wish PR proponents would stop using it): When I vote, I have a direct say in the selection of the person who will represent me from my riding. If my preferred candidate is not the successful candidate, that does not mean my vote is “wasted;” it tells the successful candidate that diverse thinking exists to be taken into consideration.

    •Dual Member PR: Hideous in that my say in the selection of the specific person who will represent me from my riding is only indirect at best unless I vote for an independent candidate. Except that an independent candidate can appear on the ballot on that person’s own, it is strictly vote-the-party, not vote-the-person. If I favour the independent, I end up with absolutely no say whatsoever in the selection of the secondary candidate. If I prefer the Primary Candidate of Party A, I’ll place my vote for Party A but I am stuck with the possibility that the Secondary Candidate, whom I utterly dislike, could also get in. I have no opportunity to vote for a different secondary candidate. If I am really impressed by the Secondary Candidate of Party B, there is no way that I can give that person my vote without first electing the Primary Candidate of Party B even if I feel I cannot trust that person.

    •Mixed Member PR: Voting for the one local MLA is the same as with current voting but I have no say in who any of the regional MLAs will be. I have to vote for a party and depend upon that party to assign regional MLAs from a regional list if that party gets sufficient votes. If the regional candidates are on an “open list,” I will see who those regional candidates are but I will not be allowed to indicate who among them I would wish to represent my region. If the regional candidates are on a “closed list,” I do not even get to see who those regional candidates are. There must be absolutely zero MLAs for whom nobody has personally had an opportunity to cast a vote (that is “list” member party hacks). With one of the examples frequently offered, a very bad example, New Zealand there are currently 49 such MPs.

    •Rural-Urban PR: This gives two entirely different ways for our MLAs to get into the Legislature. The urban part would be similar to current voting except that the ballot would be an STV preferential ballot rather than a single choice ballot, a superior way for us to express our choices (it is a myth that STV necessarily means larger ridings, each with more than one MLA; preferential voting will work just as well with single-member ridings). The rural part is Mixed Member PR, see above, putting members into the Legislature for whom nobody has had an opportunity to cast a personal vote.

  2. Aristotle said democracy would only work if everyone was honest and said he feared it would fail because human nature was geared to self interest.(paraphrased)

  3. i would like to see a true democratic system which we don’t have we are run by money and greedy corporations,all of you elected people should learn from Switzerland which has a democracy.if any elected official goes against what the people want he will be voted out and goes back to work till he hits retirement to
    collect his history so you all learn something.

  4. I picked up the magazien yesterday and found this to be the best explanation I have seen yet. Thank you!

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