Whoa!Canada

laurel l. russwurm's political musings

Stability

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Why Don’t We Have PR Already?Why No Referendum?Canadians Deserve Better -Proportional Representation - on Canadian Flag backgroundThis is the seventh in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series

First Past The Post (FPTP)

Although democracy seems like the best form of political system for citizens, there are different ways to go about it, and as with most things, some are more effective than others. England bestowed our single member plurality winner-take-all electoral system on our young nation in our very first Canadian federal election in 1867, and we’ve been using this First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system ever since.  Canada has seen a lot of innovation since then — from automobiles through air travel to space exploration.  Our lives have changed and improved in a wide variety of ways: indoor plumbing, universal health care, the internet — most things have improved and modernized… but not our electoral system.

Like many Canadians I have come to understand the serious democratic deficit inherent in our 18th century voting system, but I’ve had an opportunity to learn about the alternatives over the past few years. As I’ve mentioned before, I hear many of the same arguments against Proportional Representation used over and over again. One of the most pervasive arguments is the one that insists if we switch to a Proportional system it will necessarily be unstable and have to suffer many more elections than we do now.

So let’s compare the Canadian record of elections with countries that use some form of Proportional Representation.

List PR (Proportional Representation)

Spain adopted List PR in 1977. Between then and now, Spain has had 12 elections, in 1977, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2011, 2015. During the same time period, Canada also had 12 elections: in 1979, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006,2008, 2011, 2015.

Canada v Spain - electoral stability

That doesn’t sound any more unstable than FPTP.  How can that be?  Maybe we need a larger sample… so let’s look at countries that have been using Proportional Representation longer.

Italy started using List PR in 1945, and since that time they have had 18 general elections, in 1946, 1948, 1953, 1958, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2008, and 2013

Israel also adopted Proportional Representation in 1945, and since then they’ve had 20 elections in 1949, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1961, 1965, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2015

That’s a lot of elections! We wouldn’t want to be running to the polls that often here in Canada, right?

Except… in that same period of time, with our “stable” First Past The Post system, Canada has had even more elections — a whopping 23 since 1945, in 1945, 1949, 1953, 1957, 1958, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2015

The reason I decided to look at Israel, Italy and Spain are because these countries are the ones most often trotted out to “prove” just how bad Proportional Representation is.

But I was still interested in finding a Proportional Representation system that had actually had more elections than Canada.  So next I looked Denmark, a country many Canadians admire because of its’ excellent social safety net. Denmark has used List PR since 1953 (but I’m not sure what they used before that). Since 1945, they have had 25 elections in 1945, 1947, 1950, 1953, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2011, 2015

Canada-Israel-Italy-Denmark - stability graph

Something else to keep in mind is that all three of these countries use List PR, which I’m pretty sure is the oldest form of Proportional Representation– and certainly the most commonly used. The thing that is important to understand is that List PR is one form of Proportional system that nobody is recommending for Canada.

So maybe we ought to  take a peek at the proportional systems that are recommended for Canada, in countries that have a little more in common with us.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)

After List PR, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is the most common form of Proportional Representation used at the national level around the world, so it’s not surprising to learn that MMP is the system most often recommended for Canada.

New Zealand replaced their First Past The Post electoral system with Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in 1996, and since then they have had just 7 elections, in 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014 — the same as Canada.

Canada v New Zealand - electoral stability

Using the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system since 1945, Germany has had only 18 elections, in 1949, 1951, 1953, 1957, 1965, 1969, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1990 (reunited), 1994, 1998, 2002, 2005, 2009, and 2013.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

The other form of Proportional Representation that has been considered for Canada is the Single Transferable Vote (STV). This system is not as widely used as the others, but it found a lot of favour here in the BC referendum, where more than 58% of BC voters voted to adopt it. As often happens, the government holding the provincial referendum didn’t actually want to change the electoral system that had given it a disproportional amount of power. Their referendum was designed to fail by requiring a super majority of 60% before BC-STV would be adopted. Last night Dennis Pilon remarked on the irony of BC referendum requiring a higher threshold of support to change its provincial electoral system than had been required by the Quebec secession referendum.

Another country considered more politically fractious than Canada is the Republic of Ireland, where they have been using Single Transferable Vote (STV) since 1945. And yet they have had only 20 elections (to Canada’s 22) in 1948, 1951, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1965, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1982, 1982, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2011 and 2016

Canada-Germany-Ireland stability graph

Admittedly, I have not made a comprehensive study, but it seems clear Canada’s First Past The Post system is less stable than many Proportional Representation systems.

National Stability with Alternative Vote (AV)

While Canada’s Liberal government has promised to replace our existing electoral system, it has not ruled out adoption of the winner-take-all  Alternative Vote (AV), a voting system also known as “Preferential Voting” (PV), “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV) and lately “ranked ballot.”

Since 1945 Australia has had 27 elections, in 1945, 1946, 1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1969, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013.

FPTP-AV-stability graph

Overall Election Stability

As we can see, Canada’s winner-take-all First Past The Post system has resulted in more elections than many of the least appealing Proportional Representation systems.

The evidence from Australia — the only country in the world to have used Alternative Vote for any length of time — shows the Alternative Vote system is much more unstable than Canada’s FPTP and indeed every  Proportional Representation voting system I’ve looked at here.

This evidence demonstrates the “instability” argument against Proportional Representation is simply not true, and suggests

stability graph-FPTP-LPR-MMP-STV-AV

any electoral system that provides Proportional Representation is likely to result in *fewer* elections than we are used to with First Past The Post.

 

And if stability is an issue, adopting Australia’s Alternative Vote is far more likely to dramatically increase the number of elections we have.

a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves

Why No Referendum?

Why Don’t We Have PR Already?
Proportional Representation For Canada series so far:

• Proportional Representation for Canada
• What’s so bad about First Past The Post
• Democracy Primer
• Working for Democracy
• The Popular Vote
• Why Don’t We Have PR Already?
• Stability
• Why No Referendum?
• Electoral System Roundup
• When Canadians Learn about PR with CGP Grey
• Entitlement
• Proportional Representation vs. Alternative Vote
• #ERRE #Q Committee
• #ERRE #Q Meetings & Transcripts
• Take The Poll ~ #ERRE #Q
Proportionality #ERRE #Q 
• The Poll’s The Thing 
• DIY Electoral Reform Info Sessions
• What WE Can Do for ERRE
• #ERRE today and Gone Tomorrow (…er, Friday) 
• Redistricting Roulette 
• #ERRE submission Deadline TONIGHT!

 and don’t forget to check out the PR4Canada Resources page!

2 Responses

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  1. Note that New Zealand has a legislated 3 year term for Parliamentary elections (like Australia). There have been attempts to increase it to 4 years it was was rejected. With just the one chamber in the legislature, the ballot box is the final check on the power of parliament. People are reluctant to give a bad government more time…and a good government has no trouble getting re-elected.

    Steve Withers

    April 11, 2016 at 5:49 am

  2. Italy has used a ‘majority bonus’ distortion since 2006 and is about to introduce a two-round system. For the two preceding elections, it experimented with MMP. That was a bad fit for the country as it had no experience of single-member ridings. It looks like list PR actually made it quite stable from 1948 to 1972. The following decades must have been where it required its reputation for instability.

    In Germany (West Germany only before 1990) the Constitution makes it very difficult to trigger an early election, because of that nation’s inter-war experience of list PR instability. It is hard to imagine a federal legislature there lasting for less than the maximum 4 years in the near future.

    Australia and New Zealand have three-year terms, so that is not exactly a fair comparison. The former has a hybrid US-UK ‘Washminster’ system, while the latter is unicameral, as are Denmark and Israel.

    Ireland is probably the closest comparison, as it uses a bicameral Westminster system with a maximum legislative period of 5 years (the Canada Elections Act 2006 stipulates a four-year term, but the 1982 Constitution still permits up to a 5-year period between elections in peacetime). However, multi-member ridings in Ireland cover a much smaller area than they would in Canada. I therefore conclude that STV would not be right for Canada.

    Oliver Raven

    April 12, 2016 at 10:10 am


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