Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wishful Thinking and Political Naivete

Proportional representation is not a miracle cure

Writing in an op/ed column on The Mark, Michael Urban offers an optimistic, but ultimately incredibly naive insistence that proportional representation will ultimately fix all that ails the Canadian political system -- in this case, the disturbing lack of cooperation between political parties.

He begins by invoking a recent (and surprising) call from Tom Flanagan for increased political cooperation in Parliament:
"In a recent piece in The Globe and Mail, former Conservative Party advisor Tom Flanagan claims that, as of 2004, we have entered a period of chronic minority parliaments. Canada’s electoral map, Flanagan argues, is simply too divided for any single party to gain the support needed for a majority government – a situation he sees continuing into the future.

As Flanagan correctly notes, the obvious consequence of this state of affairs is that in order for Parliament to accomplish anything of substance, our political parties will need to cooperate more regularly and effectively than they are accustomed to.

In this vein, he points to the recent Harper/Ignatieff 'power-sharing' agreement to study employment insurance as an important step towards the type of sustainable cooperation he believes is needed. Flanagan ends his piece by expressing a hope that this sort of cooperation will continue in the months, and indeed years, to come.

While Flanagan’s analysis of Canada’s contemporary political geography is correct, his conclusion – in which he adopts a strangely Pollyanna-esque prescription for the future – does not follow. Whatever he may hope for, Flanagan ought to know that Canada’s political system – at least in its current configuration – is systematically biased against inter-party teamwork. This makes sustained cooperation highly unlikely.

One of the main sources of this bias is our electoral system. By making majority governments a real possibility, our current system creates perverse incentives against cooperation. Essentially, parties are presented with the following questionable choice: why cooperate now – something that necessarily entails compromise and getting less than what one wants – when one can stall progress, allow the situation to deteriorate, blame the other side for the negative outcome, use the unhappiness and anger with the situation to propel one to a majority in the next election, and then do what one really wants without having to compromise?
This could certainly be argued to account for the uncooperative nature of the Liberal and Conservative parties -- the two parties with any chance of all at governing in any election.

It doesn't account for the uncooperative nature of the NDP and especially the Bloc Quebecois -- the two parties with no chance at all of attaining a minority government in virtually any election, let alone a majority government.

Effectively erasing the possibility of majority governments won't ensure greater levels of cooperation in Parliament. If anything, it will increase the incentive for minor and comparatively minor political parties, such as the NDP, BQ and Green party, to conflate comparatively minor political issues in hopes of minimal gains in the proportionately-elected Parliament in order to more effectively be able to play kingmaker.
"This structural bias is exacerbated by the fact that despite claiming to desire more cooperative politics, voters routinely punish politicians when they seek to cooperate.

The 2008 coalition debacle demonstrated that many Canadians, apparently unaware of – or at least uncomfortable with – how our parliamentary system works, opposed an unprecedented level of cooperation that would have installed a government supported by representatives who garnered a greater percentage of the popular vote (53.72 per cent) than any other peacetime government in Canadian history. Granted, some of this opposition was based on certain reasonable objections, but no small amount of it emerged from other mistaken notions that what the coalition proposed to do was somehow unfair or unconstitutional.
Of course, this argument makes the common error of assuming that Canadians voted for the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois with a coalition government in mind as a possibility emerging from the election.

Considering that then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion had ruled that option out during the election itself, there was no reason why Canadians would consider that to be a realistic option.

When historians look back on the Liberal/NDP/BQ coalition proposal, they will recognize in it a clear case of bait and switch politics. Stephane Dion had disavowed coalition government as a post-election option in order to dissuade Liberal voters from casting their votes for the NDP in key difference-making ridings.

Yet, when it became apparent after the election -- after his promise of a resignation as Liberal leader, no less -- that such a scheme could make him Prime Minister, Dion seemed to change his mind at the earliest opportunity.

There were countless reasons why Canadians rejected the Liberal/NDP/BQ coalition. Expectations that parliament would respect the democratically-expressed will of the people is certainly the strongest.
"All of this gives one more reason, though a too-often-neglected one, for electoral reform in the direction of increased proportionality in our electoral system. By creating 'false majorities' (majority governments that don’t actually command majority electoral support) our current system has inured Canadians into believing that minority governments are an aberration, and a distasteful one at that, despite the fact that they actually represent a much more realistic representation of Canadians’ preferences.

Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments against increasing the proportionality of the system is that the current first-past-the-post system is more likely to deliver majority governments and 'strong government.' If we accept Flanagan’s analysis, this trade-off no longer holds and the current system loses one its most important supports.

By removing the lure of false majorities, a more proportional system would force the parties to cooperate and actually work with the preferences expressed by Canadian voters. While it does not completely eliminate the incentives structures I detailed above, it does reduce their salience and introduce more positive countervailing incentives.

Instead of hoping that the parties will change their ways without changing any of the incentives to do so, as Flanagan suggests, proportional representation offers a realistic prescription for more cooperation and more representative public policy.
Urban is right about one thing: minority governments are not such a great and terrible thing.

Because minority governments must seek and gain the confidence of opposition parties in order to survive, it ensures that the views of a broader variety of Canadians will be reflected within the government's policies.

But there are good reasons for Canadians to prefer the stability of majority governments to the inherent instability of minority governments. Majority governments have proven to be more effective, even if they tend to marginalize the opposition.

These problems with Urban's proportional representation proposal are only the beginning. Key questions about representation and accountability to voters also loom over any proportional representation proposal.

Whatever wishful thinkers such as Michael Urban may wish to believe, proportional representation unequivocally is not a miracle panacea to everything that ails Canadian politics. If anything, it will create more problems than it will solve.

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