Proportional rep – Is this what we really want?

(March 20, 2013) Canada could end up with a Pamela Anderson Party.

This article was first published by the National Post.

Proportional representation — the voting system in use in many of the world’s advanced countries — flat out beats our “winner take all” system in creating a dynamic political class. Israel, which has the world’s purest system of PR — winning just 2% of the vote entitles any party to sit in parliament — demonstrates this system’s virtues. Unlike our hidebound politics, where the major parties run a fixed game that keeps just about any competitors out, in Israel’s open political system parties form and reform at the drop of a hat, and ruling parties can disappear overnight.

Parties not only form around ideologies and ethnic and religious groups but around single issues of all kinds and even around charismatic leaders with a 2%-plus following. One of the parties that came to power in Israel’s recent election is known as the Tzipi Livni Party, named for a former foreign minister who decided to strike out on her own. Another, started from scratch less than a year ago by popular TV host Yair Lapid, won big in Israel’s recent election and is now running the Israeli economy — Lapid is Israel’s finance minister. Ironically, he didn’t want that position — in the past he said he doesn’t “understand a thing about economics.” But the decision to appoint him became an almost unavoidable consequence of divvying up the country’s large and small ministries and other patronage plums in rough proportion to the prestige attached to the number of seats won.

PR is widely credited within Israel for keeping the country together by allowing virtually all groups in this factionalized country a share in power, thus avoiding their alienation. Because the system promotes the election of many small parties — the country’s largest party, Likud, won but one-sixth of the seats in the recent election — coalition governments are formed through back-scratching agreements with smaller parties who join the coalition in exchange for getting their way on issues they care most about. Under PR, not only does the tail wag the dog, this dog has many tails — at least one for each coalition member.

For all its faults — and no electoral system is perfect — the PR system works brilliantly in meeting the demands of minorities, no matter how small or resented they may be. In Israel’s case, the most resented minority is undoubtedly the ultra-Orthodox, who have been very much of this world in parlaying their 15% of the vote to protect their divine mission. The ultra-Orthodox for decades happily sided with leftist Labour Party-led coalitions to get their way; then with rightist Likud-led coalitions to get their way. The upshot of their bi-partisanship: The rights of this religious minority have been protected since Israel’s founding.

That means no shopping on the Sabbath — a small price to pay for the virtues of proportional representation. Also, no public transit on the Sabbath. Also, no marriages between gays. And no marriage between Jews, unless they conform to strict Orthodox rules. To wed, many Israeli Jews must go to Cyprus or another country that will recognize their nuptial vows. Again, a small price to pay for the greater good of giving the citizenry the full benefit of PR-style democracy.

Canada wouldn’t be run like this if we had PR — our PR system would be Made-in-Canada, based on Canadian values. We could then protect any Canadian minority view able to muster 2% of the vote, and then with luck leverage that 2% into a conscription of 100% of the population. We would surely have a separatist party and a green party — we have them already — but unlike today, when they are generally ignored, they would often be powerful, whenever their seats were needed to form a governing coalition. The Green Party might make as a condition for joining a coalition the cancellation of Keystone. The Bloc Québécois would be unable to get agreement on its goal of an independent Quebec but it might sign on for half a loaf toward its goal — say by securing better terms under which a separation referendum might occur, or by securing a better deal for Quebeckers in federation, through richer subsidies.

The real change for Canada as a PR country would come in the splintering of today’s major parties — the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP — into their constituent parts. No longer would Libertarians, Social Conservatives and others be forced to toe the line under what now is, in effect, a coalition of different conservative factions. Social conservatives would have no trouble reaching 2% — even this camp might well split up into its components. Canada could easily support a vibrant anti-immigrant party, a committed pro-life party, and a party to bring back the death penalty, which retains high public support, although no existing political party supports it. The next time the federal government makes a grab for Western resources we could see a Western Separation Party. And who could resist voting for a Pamela Anderson Party, running with the endorsement of the PETA ticket, to champion the human rights of animals?

These, or variants of these, are not only possible, they are likely in a pure system of proportional representation. In Israel’s election, 34 parties ran for office and 13 are in parliament. The deadly dull unfactionalized politics of Canada could be transformed, with Canadians never knowing quite what would come of their votes, even after they had voted, and what their country would look like tomorrow, even if they didn’t change their votes from one election to another. In Israel, the public learned only 40 days after all the votes were cast whether the party bosses had negotiated a coalition that would include the ultra-Orthodox and the Labour Party, or the anti-ultra-Orthodox and the settler parties. As it turns out, the ultra-Orthodox parties lost out, and have been kicked out of power, even though their parties increased their vote totals, because the party bosses, rather than the voters, nixed them.

After more than 60 years of nationhood, all Jews may soon be able to get married in ­Israel, more proof, for those who need it, of the wisdom of proportional representation.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.

This article was first published by the National Post.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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