This week Justin Trudeau announced that if he were to become Prime Minister he would end our first past the post electoral system, whereby Parliament is made up of people who won the most votes in their districts, and replace it with some form of proportional representation. This was touted as a way of making our political system more democratic, as it would help prevent a party getting less than 50% of the overall vote but more than 50% of the seats, which has happened repeatedly in the past several decades (with both the Liberals and the Conservatives). The only problem with that proposal is that most Canadians would absolutely hate it if they actually looked at all the details of what that would entail.
One of the biggest complaints you hear about Parliament is that MPs are too often just pawns of the party leaders and blindly do as they are told. Do you think having MPs allocated based on the share of the national vote will make that better? Proportional representation will not fix that problem, it will exacerbate it, as it puts far more power in the hands of party leaders. Though Mr. Trudeau could come up with his own unique style of proportional representation, in such a system the seat belongs to the party as opposed to the MP, which would typically eliminate the possibility of floor crossing. While MPs switching parties is often viewed negatively by voters, the ability for an MP to pack up his things and leave does help keep a party leader with autocratic tendencies in check.
Though you could make the argument that first past the post is less democratic on a national scale, it is without question the most democratic at the local level. If you don’t think your MP is adequately representing the needs of your district you can vote him or her out of office in the next election. On the other hand, if the national leader really dislikes a local candidate, he can still win the local party nomination, or failing that, can run as an independent. Though it is difficult to win as an independent, it does happen (Yvonne Jones was once an independent MHA in her early days) and in minority government situation, independents can actually wield disproportionate power.
One of the virtues of the first past the post system is that if forces politicians to enact policies that appeal to a large number of voters. Though it is possible for a government to form a majority government with less than half of the total votes, it is also impossible to win any seats by having policies that 90% of the country find morally reprehensible. Not only is that possible under a proportional representation system, it is common.
Under a proportional representation system, you could literally form a party whose primary platform involves blaming immigrants for all of our problems and actively advocates for getting rid of recent immigrants and drastically cutting the number of new ones, at least from non-white countries. Because proportional representation makes minority governments more likely, these fringe groups can find themselves wielding a disproportionate amount of influence. Even the most progressive countries in Western Europe often have outrageously extremist parties on the far right and left holding significant numbers of seats.
The first past the post system may be flawed, but it is likely still the best one for Canada. Much like Thomas Mulcair’s empty promise to abolish the Senate, the promise of proportional representation sounds great in a soundbite on the election trail but is completely unrealistic in practice. The simplest solution is usually the best one. Let districts be represented by the person with the most votes in each district.