Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Proportional Representation, Representing Even Unpopular Opinions

If the Justin Trudeau's Liberal government holds to its promise our next election will use a new system to distribute seats. Given this opportunity reformers have been aggressively pushing for their preferred choice. As should be expected critics have popped up to offer their views on proposals. I, like many reformers, support some sort of proportional representation in our new electoral system, but many dismiss it as an alternative.

I've read a couple of editorials in newspapers and opinions on Twitter that touch on a flawed argument. Proportional representation would award seats in parliament roughly in accordance with their share of popular support. A party that gets 10% of the vote would get about 10% of the seats. Countries with proportional representation tend to have a greater number of parties. Denmark, for example, has nine parties in its parliament. In Germany five parties are represented in the legislature, but over a dozen others contested the 2013 election.

Some argue that introducing proportional representation to Canada would similarly fracture our political system into smaller, more niche parties. I have my doubts. Canada already has a large number of parties for the first-past-the-post system. That system works best with two parties, the fact that we have five parties in the House of Commons already somewhat puts the idea that there will be an explosion of parties a bit to the side.

This piece by Christian Leuprecht in the Globe and Mail particularly raised my hackles. Leuprecht argues that proportional representation would lead to the growth of extremist parties, like the Front National, Alternative fur Deutschland and Donald Trump. This argument, to me, reeks of high-handed elitism. In essence it says, 'We cannot use proportional representation or otherwise those people with odious opinions may be given a voice.' You might not like what the United Kingdom Independence Party stands for, you may disagree with them  passionately, but having over 12% of the population support them in exchange for 2 seats in the House of Commons is hardly a roaring endorsement of the current democratic system. Saying a great feature of your electoral system is that it marginalizes the minority political opinions of your polity strikes me as anti-democratic at its core.

When I was going door-to-door during the election I heard many people say that they opposed letting in any of the Syrian refugees, yet none of the political parties had that position. These people were shut out from candidates and parties that expressed their opinion. Many Canadians have questions about our immigration policy on the right side of the spectrum, and on the left there are grave concerns about justice policy, the relationship between police and minorities and gender equity that the major parties pay little attention to. Shutting these people out of the system does not mean we have successfully ended racism as a problem in this country. We have deluded ourselves through our system which rewards centrist parties that don't rock the boat overly much. I for one want the presently unpopular positions, policies and opinions to be represented so they can argued.

Canada has a long tradition of sweeping the unseemly, impolite aspects of our culture under the rug. I don't believe in that. There are Canadians out there who wish Donald Trump was running in Canada, who have views that I find abhorrent, but that does not justify me, or anyone else, to perpetuate a voting system that keeps their opinions excluded from the system.

If Canada was to adopt proportional representation I believe we would more than likely see a new party appear on the right in Canada, likely taking up the socially conservative mantle that the Conservative Party has suppressed internally, views held by many in Canada that currently have no home. The NDP would probably move to the left as they do not have to rely on centrist voters to maintain their support. If not, a hard left party of socialists would probably pop up. Observers have expressed frustrations about how close the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP have become in policy, proportional representation would allow a truly diverse set of views to be shared and properly represented. Opposing a system because you are comfortable in the current milieu is hardly a reasonable justification for opening broadening the discourse and better reflecting the true opinions of your fellow citizens.

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