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Comment: The politics of fear on proportional representation

As we approach the referendum on proportional representation in B.C., the “Yes” and “No” camps have begun to take shape.
Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election with 46.1 per cent of the vote. Since then, he has undone climate-policy initiatives and threatened the well-being of immigrant populations, according to Jeremy Caradonna and Andrew Gow.

As we approach the referendum on proportional representation in B.C., the “Yes” and “No” camps have begun to take shape.

The opinion pieces on the Yes side have been passionate and thought-provoking, and argue that proportional representation advances our democracy, improves our electoral system, fosters political collaboration and mitigates policy whiplash.

By contrast, the No argument is essentially that proportional representation will pave the way for right-wing fascist parties to capture government. This case rests upon the experience of Weimar Germany, where the Nazis exploited an early version of proportional representation to mainstream their hateful political ideology.

In other words, the No side is playing the Hitler card and trafficking in the politics of fear.

A perfect example of this argument is found in a recent opinion piece by Greg Koabel and Peter Love in the Toronto Star.

Koabel and Love draw from European history to warn Canadians about the perils of proportional representation. Unfortunately, their argument, as with so many on the No side, is cherry-picked, based on little more than fear, and includes numerous inaccuracies and false equivalencies.

They note that many European democracies that used proportional representation “fell to dictatorship” before the Second World War, as though proportional representation could possibly be blamed for the fascism and anti-democratic politics that swept Europe in the interwar period.

They fail to mention three important points.

The first is that what separates proportional representation systems of today from those of the past is the stipulation that a party must receive at least five per cent of the vote to pass the “election threshold.” Germany and many other countries use five per cent as the cutoff for representation, and Canadian provinces — P.E.I., B.C. and Quebec are all weighing proportional representation — would certainly do the same.

This was not the case in the past. For instance, in the 1928 German federal election, the upstart National Socialists (Nazis) received a paltry 2.8 per cent of the vote, but without an election threshold, this result gave them 12 seats in the Reichstag. In the following election, in 1930, the Nazis used their official platform to twist economic resentment, after the stock market crash, into racial hatred and scapegoating, and ended up with more than 18 per cent of the vote.

If Germany in 1928 had the threshold that it does today, the Nazis would not have been in government in the first place, and likely would not have seen the gains they did in 1930. (If only.) The threshold, in other words, is a bulwark against fringe parties, and should cool fears in Canada that fascist parties would ever take root here.

The second point is that “first past the post,” which is still used in Canadian federal and provincial elections, as well as in the United Kingdom and United States, has proven rather inept at blocking right-wing parties from capturing majorities and harming citizens through policy whiplash. Doug Ford captured Ontario with 40.5 per cent of the vote, and in the U.S., Donald Trump received 46.1 per cent of the popular vote in the presidential election. Both polities have undone essential climate-related policy initiatives and threatened the well-being of immigrant populations.

The fact is that no electoral system is entirely immune from the far right or any other “fringe” political movement. But proportional representation does tend to moderate extreme policy shifts, such as the ones we’re witnessing in Ontario.

The third point is an historical one. We chide Koabel and Love for an overly simplistic reading of European history. We, too, are European historians and we know that the rise of anti-democratic and fascist politics in Europe was complex and long-simmering. Rather few states in Europe were democratic even prior to the First World War, and the ones that were, such as France, did not allow women to vote. (Women gained the vote in France only in 1944.)

To suggest that proportional representation killed a good thing in Europe is patently absurd.

But the larger point is that Canada in 2018 is not fascist interwar Europe. A sensible election threshold will block the fringe and should allay fears of the extremes capturing our political system. On the contrary, proportional representation in places such as New Zealand — which is a much better analogue for Canada — has successfully moderated politics and spurred collaboration, as Helen Clark, the former prime minister of that country, has explained.

Let’s not give in to the politics of fear. Proportional representation is an extremely rare opportunity to make our electoral system fairer, more representative and more democratic.

Jeremy L. Caradonna (PhD, history) teaches in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Andrew Gow (PhD, history) teaches in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.