LETTER – Stop worrying about the math of proportional representation and think about outcomes

(Image: Broadbent Institute)

Voodoo math, huh? Nice one, Mel. But which one sounds wonkier to you: 40% of the vote = 40% of the seats (as under PR), or 39% of the vote = 54% of the seats = 100% of legislative control (as under FPTP and demonstrated by both Harper & Trudeau)? Suddenly, FPTP math isn’t so easy anymore, is it?

PR is easy to understand, but I do have one question for you, Mel, about our current system. Could you please explain to me how an MP that was elected by 35% of the population somehow represents all the people in the whole Kamloops-Thompson region? And maybe copy MP Cathy McLeod on the response? Because I don’t think she got the memo. Every time I take the time to write a letter to my MP (which I confess is becoming less frequent because my head is getting sore from all that banging on the wall), I get back a pleasant letter explaining why she won’t vote the way I asked, and parroting her party’s talking points on the subject. I’m sure Ms. McLeod is a fine person, but she most certainly doesn’t represent my views in Ottawa. Rather, she reflects her party’s views back to me and to the rest of the 65% of voters who opted for a different set of priorities on election day. That’s the whole problem with First Past the Post: a single MP cannot possibly reflect the diverse views of voters in their riding. But, lucky for those MPs, they have no need to please most of the people in the riding — they only have to keep their little band of party supporters happy (that magic 30-something percent). The rest of us have to suck it up, and hope that our particular minority wins the next horse race in four years, so we’ll get a chance to undo all the work of the previous government, and so on, and so on, over and over.

The truth is, Canadians are a diverse bunch, and we are richer for that diversity. By having more perspectives in the room, we make better decisions. Universal medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, student loans, and the Maple Leaf flag were all brought to us courtesy of minority governments. On the other hand, so-called “majority” governments gave us short-lived gems like the “Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline”. Kind of sums up the whole topic, doesn’t it?

Political science wonks refer to the fruits of PR governments as “more durable legislation that more accurately reflects the views of the median voter”. Check out Arend Lijphart, who has devoted his entire academic career to studying the impacts of different electoral systems. Or check out anyone with academic credentials, actually – you won’t find a credible source that backs the current system, as the federal Liberals found to their dismay during their short-lived foray into electoral reform (before they picked up their marbles and went home in a huff, realizing that some of their buddies on the Liberal bench wouldn’t be re-elected if PR were implemented). Legislation that is supported by a majority of voters doesn’t get undone every time we elect a different government, which creates a more stable policy path over the long term, and a more predictable investment climate for business. Witness the current pickle we’re in regarding Site C and the Kinder Morgan pipeline — PR would have ensured that those projects had the support of the majority of the population at the time they were approved, so subsequent governments would have no incentive to reverse those decisions down the road at potentially catastrophic financial loss.

Mel, you can argue against change and come up with all kinds of negative words to describe PR (and I have no doubt you will continue to do so), but the fact is that proportional systems are used by most of the developed world to get better economic, environmental and social outcomes than we do, with only a couple of notable exceptions. There is a reason why the U.S. and the U.K. are falling behind and can’t get anything done. Academic research demonstrates the mechanisms quite clearly, but the proof is in the pudding: no country that has ever tried PR has voted to switch back. Quite simply, voters like having more power, and they like seeing their priorities reflected by their government. Who wouldn’t?

Yes, PR will be different. It will require a bit of adjustment. There will be different colours in areas of the map that are used to being all one colour, which will be a hardship for parties that benefit from the current system. But change is never easy, and Canadians are plenty smart enough to adapt. We have an opportunity to finally ensure that ALL voters in the Kamloops area have representation, both in government and the opposition. Because the BC Liberals on Vancouver Island deserve a voice in Victoria just as much as the BC NDP and Green voters in this area do. Because REAL democracy includes everyone, not just the lucky 30-something percent who won the most recent horse race.

As someone smarter than me once said, “There are arguments against proportional representation. But they are arguments against democracy itself”. My advice, Mel, is to stop worrying about the math – you and I don’t have to deal with that. Start focusing on the outcomes of the system, and how they affect voters. You’re a smart guy. Do some reading. Some independent research. Because if our end goal is to have good governance that effectively represents all voters in a fair way, there is only one option. And that’s proportional representation.


Editor’s note: I’m not trying to get in the last word, and I won’t rebut you point by point, but since you asked me a direct question, I will answer. When you talk of percentages, you talk of percentages of the total electorate, not the local electorate. That’s the voodoo math. FPTP is, comparatively, localized. Proportional representation typically requires the amalgamation of ridings in order to accommodate the election of representatives that don’t obtain a majority of the votes cast. The result is a distancing of those representatives from those they’re supposed to represent. How’s that democratic?

About Mel Rothenburger (7209 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.

14 Comments on LETTER – Stop worrying about the math of proportional representation and think about outcomes

  1. ” you’re a smart guy ” says Gisela of old Mel,well awful close to old .I’ve always thought of Mel as smart as well. Isn’t anyone who drives an old beater pickup and lives on a farm well removed from the dreaded TNRD smart? Nevertheless, I do wonder about you at times.

  2. Jennie Stadnichuk // November 30, 2017 at 10:58 PM // Reply

    Pierre, How can you say “distancing the representatives …” in our modern media & very savvy society? They are as far away as computer email, text or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or, or? and of course we can still use OLD technology to contact them, i.e. telephone or letter, right? We are in 2017– surely no one is distant unless they really want to be!

  3. Less debt in countries with PR appeared in some of my research.
    I don’t remember where but has anyone noticed that?

  4. The obvious thoughts that come to my mind…

    – Democracies that have gone this way don’t seem to be complaining and don’t typically switch back.
    – The democratic process is maintained, meaning that the voters would have the ability to demand another referendum on the question of going back to First Past the Post, should Proportional Representation be found unworkable.
    – The system we’ve been using hasn’t worked very well, except for the party able to gerrymander the ridings.
    – Change is good, evolution is natural, and improvement is always necessary… PR is all of those things.
    – Those politicians complaining the loudest are the ones who’ve managed to benefit the most from the FPTP system and therefore have the most to lose.

    And finally… First Past the Post got Trump elected. Could there possibly be a better lesson about the weakness of First Past the Post??

    It’s not often I find myself disagreeing with Mel, but on this issue I certainly do, and find Gisela’s argument much more convincing.

  5. If we used any of the ranked ballot systems, particularly Local PR, then the voters themselves would tell us directly whether they preferred to have their vote go to the most local candidate from a party they dislike, or a candidate in the next riding over whose perspectives they do support. Let’s give the voters the power to choose, Mel – why keep advocating the existing system that denies them that choice?

  6. My goodness Gisela, because someone disagrees with you that must mean they have not done their “reading”, or research, are adverse to change etc etc . I have read and researched enough to know where I stand on PR and I disagree with you.

  7. David Johnson // November 28, 2017 at 7:16 PM // Reply

    Thank you Gisela, very well expressed.

  8. Continuing the conversation: 35% support for MP Cathy McLeod is 100% local. That’s 65% of voters in Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo whose views are unrepresented. It doesn’t get any more local than that. Local voters don’t get the representation they vote for, and the problem is magnified by FPTP in all ridings across the country. And I simply can’t believe that you are unaware of MMP, the PR system used in New Zealand, Scotland, Germany and many others, which features small local ridings. Better yet, the newer made-for-BC versions like Rural Urban PR, which allow for merged ridings in densely populated urban areas, and preserve small riding size in rural areas — only about 10-15% bigger than we have now. If small ridings are your hill to die on, there are systems that can accommodate that (with no overall increase in MLAs). If you want to merge ridings and collectively elect multiple members, there are systems that can accommodate that. Have you even read about these new systems, Mel? Because your are bringing up the exact same concerns they were designed to answer. Again, I encourage you to do a bit more homework. Fair Voting BC’s website is a good place to start.

    • Mel Rothenburger // November 28, 2017 at 9:12 PM // Reply

      That’s not my hill, it was part of an answer to your specific question. I’m well aware of the variations to proportional representation. And yet, having done my homework, I disagree with you.

  9. Sandra Burkholder // November 28, 2017 at 6:29 PM // Reply

    But there’s more of them in the expanded areas…so is it really that distanced? My Green MLA in proportional representation may be elected in the North Cariboo, but at least I’d HAVE some representation. Mr. Milobar does not represent me, nor the 20% of us who voted for Dan Hines.

  10. Distancing the representatives…how far do they need to be at to be totally oblivious? Can we please have some more woodoo math?

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