POLITICS – B.C.’s election: the perils of proportional representation

The Fraser Institute

(Image: Fraser Institute)

FORMER U.S. president Barack Obama popularized the phrase “teachable moment” by pointing out that events, even tragedies, are often opportunities for the public to learn more about policy. The election results in British Columbia are a teachable moment for anyone interested in electoral reform.

The preliminary results indicate a minority government for the incumbent Liberals, who with 40.8 per cent of the vote secured 43 of the legislature’s 87 seats. Six ridings requested recounts and two were approved by Elections B.C., including one riding where the NDP, which placed second overall (41 seats), leads by only nine votes. If this riding flips to the Liberals, they will secure a majority government with just one seat to spare.

The teachable moment? A minority government is the norm rather than the exception in countries that elect their politicians using proportional representation (PR). A recent study showed that 83 per cent of elections in advanced democracies that use PR resulted in coalitions compared to only 15 per cent in countries that elect their politicians the way we do in Canada.

Green Party policies, rejected by more than 80% of B.C. voters, could be enacted because its support is required to form a government

Simply put, it’s standard fare in PR countries for large parties to have to negotiate with smaller, even fringe parties. They must secure support and potentially a coalition to form a majority government. It’s extremely difficult for large parties to secure enough seats to form a majority without coalitions with other parties.

These negotiations often lead to larger parties having to adopt the policy preferences of smaller parties to garner their support. That results in important policy consequences, including higher levels of government spending and larger deficits.

In the May 9 B.C. election, the third-place Green Party won three seats based on 16.7 per cent of the vote and now holds the balance of power (unless the Liberals win another seat due to recount). This means the province could be governed by a coalition government for the first time since the early 1950s.

As a number of commentators have observed, the Green Party can demand that the Liberals or NDP adopt some of their policy preferences in exchange for their support in governing. This means that some Green Party policies, which more than 80 per cent of the province voted against, could be enacted because the Liberals or NDP require Green support to form a government.

One area of policy the Green Party might push to expand is the province’s carbon tax. The Green Party recommended increasing the tax to $70 per tonne by 2021 from the current $30 per tonne. This is in contrast to the Liberal plan to freeze the carbon tax and the NDP plan to increase it to $50 per tonne by 2022. The Green Party could make their carbon price a prerequisite for support.

This kind of disproportional policy influence from smaller parties – a normal feature of PR systems – is unfamiliar to most Canadians since our electoral system is designed to more often than not deliver majority mandates.

It remains to be seen how events will unfold, but B.C. may soon be an example of how empowered small parties disproportionately influence policy.

Lydia Miljan, Jason Clemens and Taylor Jackson are contributors to a recently released collection of essays published by the Fraser Institute on electoral reform.

© 2017 Distributed by Troy Media

About Mel Rothenburger (5873 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on POLITICS – B.C.’s election: the perils of proportional representation

  1. -What value is placed to countries with either large or small populations when using the proportional representation system?

    (Say) If a country is not inherently populated, wouldn’t the use of such margins in voting on a proportional basis, in order to form majority rule (which is based on percentages needed above 50% -if I get this correct?), obscure the local needs of an area, simply because the minimal voting requirements ( noted under a plurality system) are not being met?

    Hence, would it be good to use a system, seemingly to me, designed for countries with very large populations in a country (especially at province level) like here in Canada? For one could see, according to this above article, that minority interests could easily (and readily) upset the local make-up of smaller regions with smaller population levels, with agendas not suited for expedient localized politics therein.

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