Greece shows why “Proportional Representation” won’t work in Canada

Credit Elections Canada.

As Kelly McParland wrote in yesterday’s National Post, the current unstable political situation in Greece confirms that Proportional Representation (PR) is a very risky type of electoral system.

I mean, the Greek people just had an election on May 6th, 2012. Yet, now they have to go back to the polls.

Why? Because none of the party leaders can agree on austerity measures, what type of coalition government they want, or who will lead it. For example, Greece’s New Democracy Party received only 19% of the vote, compared to Syriza at 17% and Pasok at 13%.

What a new election is going to accomplish, I can’t imagine. In the meantime, a caretaker government was appointed yesterday to carry Greece through this latest crisis.

Now, compare that particular electoral stalemate to Canada’s first past the post system (FPTP).

Of course, progressive and liberal voters and politicians in Canada don’t like FPTP because they would have to get the most seats –compared to PR where two or more parties can combine their popular vote to form a coalition government.

For example, on May 2nd, 2011, the Conservative Party of Canada got 39.62% of the vote and 167 seats compared to the NDP, which received 30.62% and 102 seats. The Liberals on the other hand, received only got 18.91% of the votes or 34 seats.

Which means, if PR had been in effect in Canada in 2011, the NDP and Liberals would have formed a coalition government with only 49.53% of the votes, still not a majority. If the Greens (with one seat being held by Elizabeth May) joined that coalition, the numbers would have jumped to 53.44% of the vote.

However, the problem with that particular “majority” scenario, is that it would have been all the losing parties that formed the Canadian government, hardly fair or equitable in my opinion?

Now, if the 39.62% of the popular vote is the problem — as in the 60% of Canadians didn’t vote for the Conservatives in 2011 meme — let’s look at the popular vote of previous Liberal majority governments. Because, remember, Canada’s House of Commons has five separate political parties. Meaning, it doesn’t matter if four of those parties are considered liberal/progressive because — unless and until they join together — they are separate parties with separate results.

  • 1974 – Libs 43.2%
  • 1980 – Libs 44.3%
  • 1993 – Libs 41.3%
  • 1997 – Libs 38.5%
  • 2000 – Libs 40.8%

In reality, then, the results were not that much different than what the CPC received a year ago with 39.62%.

So, given the difficulties countries like Greece are having with PR to form a government, if the FPTP system isn’t broken…..

24 thoughts on “Greece shows why “Proportional Representation” won’t work in Canada

  1. I have always believed we calculate popular vote wrong.

    First past the post is a system designed to elect the most popular representative from a defined geographical area. Calculating votes by party doesn’t really work very well.

    For example in the 2011 federal election.

    The 308 winning candidates were elected by 50.44% of voters. That’s a legitimate majority composition of parliament.

    The losing 1,279 candidates divided up the remaining 49.56%.

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  2. T. Paul — I’m sorry but I still don’t know how you got the 50.44%. Voter turnout was 61.4%. The total vote was 14,720,580 with the CONS getting 5,832,401. There is no way to assume what the percentage would have been had more people voted.

    I have had other people give me similar percentages but they don’t stand up under scrutiny. So, I’d need a precise formula. Plus you refer to all 308 winning candidates so I don’t get what the 50.44% actually reflects.

    Just saying “popular support based on winning and losing candidates” doesn’t explain. The percentage of 39.62 is based on 100% of those who voted. It’s irrelevant who didn’t vote.

    It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that in order to put that percentage in a post, I need a solid source.

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    • I think he’s referring to the bottom row on the second chart in the link.

      If you add up all of the votes received by the winning candidates, you get 7,426,922 votes, which represents 50.44% of all of the votes cast. If you add up all of the votes received by all of the losing candidates, you get 7,297,446, or 49.56% of the total number of votes cast. Nonvoters do not factor into the calculation.

      I don’t see why this sort of calculation legitimizes any government though. It’s not surprising that all of the winners from each riding, put together, would represent more than 50% of the vote. The fact remains that we can get majority governments representing less than 40% of all of the votes cast. And that seems less-than-democratic to me.

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      • It legitimizes the sum composition of the House of Commons. More than half of Canadians regardless of stripe chose the representatives of the 39th Parliament of Canada

        West minister tradition dictates that a leader who maintains the largest group of supporters forms a government. The party system that overlays our electoral system and governing system is more of a recent add-on.

        Bottom line we have a current Conservative majority due to the efficiency of the Conservative vote. The fact that 58% of the 50% of voters who elected representatives chose a Conservative candidate. 74% of all Conservative voters are representative because they chose a candidate who got returned to office. Even more Canadians who chose losing Conservative candidates in 2011 saw their chose for representation get appointed to the Senate driving those numbers even higher.

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      • Thanks T.Paul — You answered much better than I ever could. I am glad we have the system we have. In Canada’s case, it would be regional differences that mess everything up. I mean Mulcair recent rant against the Western Premiers is a perfect example.

        I am not an economist but for the life of me I cannot figure out how shutting down the oil sands would help manufacturing in Ontario and Quebec when it is marketing and purchasing power that is at stake. You either sell your products or you don’t. The dollar has very little to do with who buys cars or not. Maybe commercial interests worry about that but not average purchasers.

        If Canada had PR, we would likely have a federal government that primarily represented a certain region. The very idea, for example, that Canada would be governed by the NDP, which now primarily only represents Quebec interests, would tear this country apart. It wouldn’t be Quebec which separated, it would be the West.

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      • “It legitimizes the sum composition of the House of Commons. ”

        OK. I perhaps should have chosen my words more carefully. Our current system is legitimate. It’s legal. Everyone is playing by the same rules. But those rules aggregate votes based on geographic territories. Constituencies are arbitrarily drawn. In a PR system, the voters themselves can choose what constituency they belong to. Also, the way our system works greatly skews the principle of one-person-one-vote. I live in a riding with over 130000 people in it. That’s almost the entire population of PEI, but PEI gets four seats while my riding has only one.

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  3. I’m not sure the example of Greece disproves the benefits of Proportional Representation. Germany has stable governments, a stable economy (that can bail out Greece) and… proportional representation.

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    • Anon1152 — All good points. But, Germany is the exception to the rule, IMO. But perhaps someone else can discuss the issue with you in more detail.

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      • Perhaps Greece and Germany are both exceptional, for different reasons. Germany is one of the few countries with Mixed Member Proportional representation (which combines FPTP constituencies with party lists). Perhaps that has something to do with it. But I admit, I’m speculating.

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  4. You wrote: “For example, on May 2nd, 2011, the Conservative Party of Canada got 39.62% of the vote and 167 seats compared to the NDP, which received 30.62% and 102 seats. The Liberals on the other hand, received only got 18.91% of the votes or 34 seats.

    “Which means, if PR had been in effect in Canada in 2011, the NDP and Liberals would have formed a coalition government with only 49.53% of the votes, still not a majority. If the Greens (with one seat being held by Elizabeth May) joined that coalition, the numbers would have jumped to 53.44% of the vote.”

    First: I think you may be conflating the PR and FPTP systems here. You are talking about coalition governments forming in Canada, based on the last election results, but using the seat counts that resulted from a FPTP (i.e., NOT Proportional) system. If there was a truly proportional system, the greens would have had more than one seat.

    Second: Isn’t a government (with 100% of the power) formed by representatives elected by more than 50% of the voters more fair than a government (with 100% of the power) elected by less than 40% of the voters? Forget about parties for minute and just try to focus on what sort of system would be most fair, most democratic. Or… think about parties for a minute. Surely you would have thought that there was something unfair about the system when the Liberals in 1997 could get 100% of the power after receiving 38% of the vote, or when Bob Rae’s NDP government could get 100% of the power after receiving only ~37% the vote.

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    • The net effect of first past the post is its very nature to bring factions together to form a coalition that resides in a political party prior to an election to have the viability to get representatives elected.

      A proportional system like Greece has, it doesn’t matter because each faction can appeal to their constituents and be rewarded with a seat at the government table. This leads to inherently unstable governments as a coalition is formed from a smattering of single issues that keep political parties from joining each other. They have a legitimate mandate to push for their issue regardless if its the best governing policy.

      For example Greece has a lot of leftist parties. In the may election if it amalgamated all the slices of the pizza pie into a single left wing party it probably would have got 80 to 90% of the vote. But the leftists who disagree very slightly could not agree on cooperating so the country will be thrown into another election.

      First past the post on the other hand joins single issue people together prior to an election because 6% under this system will likely not get you a seat where as in Greece it gets you 20 seats. The nature of a tougher bar to get representatives elected that have a chance to advocate for a view point ultimately creates fewer, stronger more stable parties and electoral coalitions and lends itself to stability.

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      • But our system promotes regionalized factions. The Bloc would never have had the apparent level of support it had if the system we had was more proportional. The problem you’re talking about (with small parties) can be solved with a high threshold before which seats are awarded at all. So if 6% is too “fringe” to get seats, we could make the threshold 10% or 15%.

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  5. Changing to proportional representation is a good start, but not the entire reform that is needed. As practiced in Canada and in Greece, because it relies on a winner-take-all process, the traditional process of government formation creates its own dysfunction. Don’t blame proportional representation for the additional problems caused by a process of government formation that unnecessarily creates instabilities.

    A political system that only changes with large, sudden changes is marked by periods of stability (unresponsiveness) and periods of instability (sudden change or indecision). What democracy needs is a process of gradual change and adjustment, of responsive government.

    You wouldn’t drive your car very well if you steered by only turning hard left or hard right and controlled your speed by only pushing hard on either the gas pedal or the break pedal. But that’s how winner-take-all elections and government formation guide a country.

    That’s the crux of the matter.

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    • I’d like to see a democracy like Ancient Athens’, where large numbers of citizens, chosen by lot, make decisions. It sounds so crazy… that it might work.

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      • Anon1152 — Ancient Athens did not work too well either. People are people. My first degree was in classical history and archeology. They had a system of stones that represented yes or no votes, black for no and white or light coloured for yes. They have now found no stones carved by the same hand. Meaning, someone was cheating. Besides it only worked because the electorate could all fit within an amphitheatre – and only men could stand for election or vote. And, like now, the electorate was fickle unless you “gave them” what they wanted.

        So, even then, there was a feeling of entitlement, political spin and corruption. Sad really but as Churchill is refuted to have said — it is the worst system except for all the others.

        Doug is as far left as a progressive can be so not surprised by his comment. The very idea that someone like Mulcair and his crazy caucus running this country, some barely out of high school and with little political experience, is too scary to contemplate.

        I may not be a Liberal supporter at the moment but this latest Mulcair Dutch disease issue sure highlights the need for a stronger federal Liberal party.

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      • “Ancient Athens did not work too well either”

        I beg to differ. Yes, you can find all sorts of problems. But I think we may find that Churchill’s comment applies to real democracies even more than representative democracies. The fact that people today can get degrees studying what Ancient Athens produced says something important, I think. Just think of all of the names that come to mind in so many fields, from Science to Philosophy to Drama to Mathematics…. That ancient Greek democratic context produced Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Anaxagoras, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Pericles, Thucydides and Herodotus, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hippocrates… Not necessarily in that order… The list is longer than I can imagine. You could probably put together a better/longer list than me.

        I think we have the technology and maturity to make a real democracy work. We’ve repudiated slavery, for example. And women are citizens. I think that means that a democracy would be more likely to work well. You wouldn’t need to fit all of the electorate into an amphitheater. You’d just need to choose representative samples of the citizenry to discuss and vote on matters of importance.

        I know it sounds crazy. But I’d like to see it tried in an advanced industrial context.

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      • Well Anon1152, you can’t compare apples and oranges. The Delian League was very different from our current Western systems. It lasted from 479-404 BC. Commendable of course, but different because it was primarily a military alliance/organization. But, that said, there is no taking away from Athens’accomplishment as the first city-state democracy.

        But, I will leave that issue for another day since that is not what this thread is about. But, I see your point.

        New posts up. I had planned to take the weekend off, but news just keeps happening! LOL

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  6. Most democracies use PR, the exceptions are the ones we are most familiar with USA, UK, Canada. Most PR states have very stable multi party coalitions. UK had to form a coalition against Labour after the last election. It is now very unpopular. The BC Liberal Party is, in fact an anti-NDP Liberal/Conservative coalition. To run Germany you need either a CDU coalition with Bavarian conservatives or an SDP/Green coalition. The bigger parties cannot win on their own.

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