Elizabeth May & The Spectre of Proportional Representation, Part I

The results of the general federal election of October 2019 – particularly in Quebec –  have revivified the unthinking cacophonous bleating about proportional representation to which the Special Committee on Electoral Reform gave a platform in the last parliament. And this new minority parliament just might give the proponents of PR their big chance, especially since the decennial retribution must occur in 2022-23 anyway.

On the night of the election, Elizabeth May gave a typically incoherent rant in that familiarly grating “Well, actually” tone of condescending moral certitude which she has inflicted on all who dare to disagree with her politics since 2006.  She apparently believed that she presented an argument against single-member plurality but, in fact, implied an argument for it — all without betraying any notion of irony. Perhaps she was just “tired” again, as she sometimes claims after making such utterances. I waited for the epiphany to dawn on her, but she managed to stumble through her oblivious stupor to the very end.

It is worth quoting in full.

It [the general federal election of 2019] must be the last election under first-past-the-post because the system we use now is dangerous. It’s not just bad, it’s not just flawed – it’s actually dangerous. We’re in an era where people I could never have imagined assume office. Groups that are generally a group of politicians referred to as populists – although I don’t think that they’re really populist because populism suggests that you care about the people – but bullies and quasi-fascists are coming to office based on a system in different countries that allow them to take power.

Now, in Canada, a prime minister with a majority of the seats has total power. Unlike the US, we don’t have separation of powers. A prime minister with a majority controls the executive and the legislative, so 39% of the popular support equals 100% of the power. We need to inoculate our democracy against a future dangerous demagogue who’s able to get 100% of the power thanks to a flawed voting system of winner-take-all, riding by riding.

At first, I figured that May would at least have the decency to claim that PR would alleviate regional differences in Canada by ensuring that the 31% of Albertans who did not vote Conservative saw a few Liberals elected from the party list, or something to that effect.

Instead, May unwittingly made the argument for majoritarian electoral systems like single-member plurality and single-member majority, and not against such systems, as she evidently believed when delivering this piffle. Namely, majoritarian electoral systems shut out extremist far-left and far-right parties from winning enough seats to do any damage (certainly not enough to form government) and thus allow the sensible center-left and center-right to hold and provide stable government and appeal to the balance of the electorate and not to the radical or reactionary fringes.

May raised the spectre of “a system in different countries.” Whatever could that mean?  Perhaps May meant the British Referendum in 2016, where Britons voted either that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union or remain within it. But referendums, by definition, offer a binary choice and not a proportional outcome, and elections to the British House of Commons still happen under single-member plurality.

Maybe May thought that she was making a cogent critique of the Electoral College used in presidential elections in the United States. Even in that case, her commentary still makes no sense. Elections to an office of president also cannot possibly employ proportional representation: you cannot proportionately elect one person to a single office. This sort of thing must be binary, yes or no, zero or one. This applies to any presidential system, whether the jurisdiction uses an Electoral College, and thus can elect the president by a plurality of the popular vote, or, alternatively, a ranked ballot or two rounds of voting to create a majority of the popular vote which elects one candidate to the office. Proportional representation can only apply to the election of a legislative body.

Or perhaps May was alluding to unsavoury nationalists and/or dictators whom she dislikes. But even then, her observation still confounds. In China’s basic dictatorship, the only electoral system that applies to Xi Jinping is the vote of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. May’s ramblings about PR and quasi-fascist dictatorship would also not apply to Vladimir Putin, the tyrant fixture of Russia’s presidential system, for the reason stated above: elections to an office of president cannot possibly happen under PR. Victor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, might fall under May’s definition. But even if he did, she would have to contend with the fact that Hungary uses a kind of mixed or parallel system with a proportional element and that in Hungary’s most recent parliamentary elections in 2018, Orban’s formation won 49.27% of the popular vote, and a far-right nationalist party not in cabinet won a further 19.06 % of the popular vote. And in 2015, the Law and Justice Party in Poland formed government after winning 37.58% under an open-list proportional representation in multi-member constituencies. So 37.58% of the vote can yield 100% of the power, even under PR.

May regurgitates the casuistry spouted by Fair Vote Canada and other fanatics for proportional representation: “39% of popular support equals 100% of the power!” And she fears that a “populist or quasi-fascist” party will take power in Canada through the means of single-member plurality. Here May’s prattle also bears a striking resemblance to that of Fair Vote Canada, the website of which says: “People with extreme views exist in all western democracies. Only with a winner-take-all electoral system can they gain 100% of the power with a minority of the vote.”

In reality, the authority of the political executive is not proportional. Collective ministerial responsibility makes power binary under Responsible Government: either a party is in government, or it is in opposition. A party cannot be half in power or sort of in power. And if a party forms part of a coalition government with representation in cabinet, then it is in power. Even if we take this fatuity at face value, would winning, say, 50%+1 of the popular vote and/or seats in the House of Commons and gaining “100% of the power” make May and Fair Vote Canada less nervous? Presumably, if a fascist party won 50%+1 of the popular vote, instead of 39%, under a proportional electoral system and subsequently a majority government, Elizabeth May and Fair Vote Canada would still object. By their illogic of treating power as a fraction instead of as a whole, only 100% of the votes should equal 100% of the power. In addition, the fact that Prime Minister Trudeau now leads a single-party minority government does not in any way reduce his executive authority. The minority parliament increases the probability that the Trudeau government could lose the confidence of the House of Commons, but a minority parliament in and of itself does not diminish or constrain the executive authority of this 29th Ministry since Confederation. In other words, Trudeau still has “100% of the power,” even now before the 43rd Parliament has met.

Elizabeth May uttered the exact opposite of the truth: proportional representation, by definition, makes electing fringe or extremist far-left and far-right parties much easier: they win, say, 5% of the vote, then they obtain 5% of the seats. Prime Minister Trudeau himself made this argument in 2017. Also, listening to May’s dire hyperventilating on this Electoral Reform Emergency, you would never know that the Liberals won a strong plurality of the seats and that Maxime Bernier’s Kanadische Volkspartei People’s Party of Canada (presumably the Canadian example to which May alluded) won exactly ZERO seats and a paltry 1.6% of the Canada-wide popular vote. In reality, the best “inoculation” against extremist parties remains our majoritarian electoral system and our mature political culture and tradition based on the rule of law and ordered liberty.

No fascist or communist has ever come to power after winning a parliamentary majority under a majoritarian electoral system. Parties seeking to impose a dictatorship or one-party state usually don’t bother with the rigmarole of elections anyway. Most authoritarian and totalitarian states trace their origins either to internal coups d’état (the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, Iran’s theocracy in 1979, etc.) or invasion by foreign powers (like Germany and Russia during the Second World War) where no one voted at all. Weimar Germany stands out as the notable exception — except that it used proportional representation and not single-member plurality. Hitler won 100% of the power when the National Socialist German Workers’ Party only won 33.09% of the popular vote in November 1932. The Weimar Republic’s experience with party-list PR persuaded the framers of West Germany’s Basic Law to adopt mixed-member proportional representation instead in 1949. This is not to say that PR in general causes democracies to descend into murderous totalitarian one-party states, but merely that May and Fair Vote Canada have gotten everything backwards.

May’s confused scare-mongering about single-member plurality only sows confusion and cynicism. She appears not like a mature politician or stateswoman but more like the kind of crank who makes the quotidian peregrination to Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill carrying a cardboard sign and thrusting deranged pamphlets upon unsuspecting passersby.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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