Fashionable Complaining about Single-Member Plurality

Sanjay Ruparelia’s column in the Globe and Mail today typifies the confused and contradictory discourse over electoral reform here in Canada. He joins Fair Vote Canada in perpetuating this absurd myth that majoritarian electoral systems encourage descent into authoritarian rule and in complaining that changes in government lead to what intellectuals and technocrats denounce as “policy lurch,” or what the rest of us call a change in policy between two political parties which hold different points of view.

“Winner-take-all elections, designed to produce majority governments, are likely to deepen executive overreach, political frustration and social polarization – key elements of democratic backsliding that are intensifying around the world today.”

On the one hand, he implies that we should switch to proportional representation (without, of course, specifying exactly which system) to stop “executive overreach, social discontent, and ideological polarisation.” Then on the other hand, he laments the rise of the far-right in European countries which use some kind of proportional representation.

“Many countries that use proportional representation electoral systems, from France and Italy to Sweden and Germany, have witnessed growing social polarization that reflects and fuels the rise of far-right parties that threaten minority rights.”

Adopting some form of proportional representation here would also amplify the extremes here in Canada by giving them shares of the House of Commons and lead to a string of minority parliaments and coalition governments. And in fact, France does not use proportional representation. French voters elect members to a National Assembly every five years from single-member districts using two-round voting, thus a kind of single-member majority. The French therefore use a more costly and cumbersome version of Australia’s instant run-off voting with preferential ballots.

Then he attributes the power federal prime minister and provincial premiers over their cabinets and backbenchers to single-member plurality.

“The shortcomings of first-past-the-post increasingly apply to Canada. Our democracy already concentrates political authority to a far greater extent than other Westminster systems, given the disproportionate power of the prime minister, provincial premiers and respective party leaders.”

Yet some “other Westminster systems” also use majoritarian electoral systems and yet do not suffer under all-powerful prime ministers. For instance, the British House of Commons relies on single-member plurality, but British political parties in government tolerate significant public dissent from backbenchers and have burned through prime ministers at an astonishing rate in recent years. Since 2015, Canada has had one Liberal Prime Minister, but the British have already had four Conservative Prime Ministers (David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss) and might soon see a 5th because of Truss’s catastrophic decisions and about-faces over the last month. The Australians elect their House of Representatives with instant run-off balloting, which really means single-member majority — a system even more majoritarian than ours — and both Labor and the Liberals have famously churned through Prime Ministers with reckless abandon since 2010.  New Zealand switched from single-member plurality to mixed-member proportional representation in 1996 and yet has conserved stability within its ministries more in line with Canada than with Australia and New Zealand. Centralised authority in the Prime Minister has nothing to do with majoritarian versus proportional electoral systems and has everything to do with how political parties elect and oust their leaders. (My upcoming piece in the Dorchester Review outlines the history of how Canadian political parties created the all-powerful Prime Minister after abandoning the traditional system where the parliamentary party alone elects leaders).

Reparelia concludes:

“In an era of growing executive overreach, social discontent and ideological polarization, where many citizens feel their votes do not count in the end, political majoritarianism poses a genuine hazard for our democracies. We should take it seriously.”

What a confused mess. This column contains no coherent thesis and seems to conclude that all electoral systems, whether majoritarian or proportional, are terrible, which would, in turn, suggest that what ails the liberal democratic world in the 2020s has nothing to do with the electoral system per se and stems more less tangible things like political culture. This unfocused lament feels more like grouptherapy for aggrieved elites than a case for anything in particular.

Ruparelia has inadvertently proven Francois Legault’s quip that only intellectuals care about electoral reform. Worse still, they also seem incapable of articulating a cogent argument in favour of proportional representation and instead rely on peddling false premises (like this absurd notion that majoritarian electoral systems encourage a descent into authoritarian rule) all without offering specifics or even stating which type of proportional representation that they want to impose on us all.

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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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