Island Voices: Proportional representation is no panacea

Re: “The politics of fear on proportional representation,” comment, Sept. 23.

In their commentary last Sunday, Jeremy Caradonna and Andrew Gow seem to have missed the point Greg Koabel and I were making in our Toronto Star article about proportional representation’s record of performance during the inter-war period in Europe (“What history can teach us about proportional representation,” Sept. 9).

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Few people knew anything about that record, and we thought that they should, in light of the important decisions soon to be made in B.C. and Quebec. Proportional representation might do well during times of peace and prosperity, but the evidence suggests it does less well in protecting democracy and human rights during times of discord and crisis, such as we are witnessing worldwide.

Caradonna and Gow list three criticisms of our article.

First, they argue that PR incorporating an “election threshold” would protect B.C. from any fascist party gaining seats in the B.C. legislature. They cite Germany’s current PR system as a model that sets a five per cent threshold (as is proposed for B.C.).

Their argument ignores the fact that an anti-immigrant, neo-fascist party (AfD) won 94 seats in the German Bundestag (up from no seats in the previous election) in the 2017 election, receiving 12.6 per cent of the popular vote. (By comparison, the German Green Party got 8.9 per cent.) The Sweden Democrats, a party established by neo-Nazis, received 17.5 per cent in the Swedish election, using PR, this month. (The Swedish Green Party got 4.4 per cent).

In both cases, thresholds failed to prevent members of far-right parties from being elected. If it can happen in countries such as Sweden and Germany, it can happen in B.C. No fascist has ever been elected to a Canadian legislature, and we should keep it that way.

Caradonna and Gow next point to the elections of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and U.S. President Donald Trump as evidence that “first past the post” produces anti-democratic results. Those two elections, notwithstanding the disruptions they have produced, do not indicate that democracy itself is at risk in Ontario or the U.S.

Recent polls suggest that Trump’s Republicans will not do well in the November mid-term elections, and Ontarians will have a clear opportunity to oust Ford from office in the next election. Compare that with what happens to a country when a true fascist takes power, as one sees in modern Turkey and Hungary.

There, the underpinnings of democracy (a free press, independent judiciary, etc.) are being systematically demolished, making the prospect of true democracy returning any time soon unlikely. (Both Turkey and Hungary used forms of PR in their most recent democratic elections.)

Finally, we never claimed in our article that proportional representation killed democracy in the inter-war period in Europe. Rather, we argued that the unsatisfactory characteristics of PR, such as weak coalitions and unstable governments, made countries that used PR more vulnerable to authoritarians during a time of crisis.

Small countries such as New Zealand and Switzerland, shielded from international conflict and with healthy economies, might get along well for a long time using PR. But countries not blessed with those conditions, could require something more resilient when times get tough.

The true test for an electoral system, like the true test for a vessel at sea, comes when the storms are swirling. Providing voters with hard information about how PR functioned in the inter-war period, as well as in recent years, is not fear-mongering; voters need that information to make good decisions.

We have our own opinions about what that information should teach us, and others are free to disagree, but the facts themselves should be public knowledge.

Peter Love is a lawyer practising in Toronto.

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