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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2017

What the heck is proportional representation?

And why is Justin Trudeau so scared of it?

Dave Meslin@meslin


“We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post.” With these words, Justin Trudeau breathed hope and possibility into the hearts of Canadians who feel tired, disappointed, and frustrated by our broken democracy.

Eighteen months later, his party walked away from that commitment to upend a system that distorts voter intent, reduces choice, encourages strategic voting, rewards negative campaigns, and produces parliaments dominated by white men.

Trudeau deserves some empathy, as Parliament was divided on the issue, and the final report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform contradicted itself as to whether or not there should be a referendum. But there was consensus on one thing: If Canada is to move to any new system, it’s a proportional one—where the number of votes cast for a party determines the number of seats that party gets. But rather than support that unanimity, Trudeau suggested that proportional representation (PR) would amplify extreme voices and threaten Canada’s history of tolerance and progressive attitudes toward immigration and social justice. In reality, it’s a groundless stance that exploits the public’s fears in order to maintain the status quo.

While theories on PR and extremism abound, the facts suggest that Trudeau has it backwards. Researcher E.L. Carter put it succinctly in the journal West European Politics, concluding: “[W]hilst proportional electoral systems do undeniably make it easier for extremist parties to gain legislative representation, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they promote extremism.”

On the other hand, first-past-the-post is an obscure system that allows small parties to take power against the will of the majority. Stephen Harper’s “majority” government, for example, was actually opposed by 62 percent of voters—all who supported centre-left parties. The United States, which uses a version of first-past-the-post, has seen a massive rise in racist policies and conservative extremism, a polarized surge that has now overtaken the Oval Office itself. Meanwhile, the Netherlands’ recent election showed the world what a proportional election can deliver: more choice and representative results. There, the anti-immigrant parties were marginalized, and pro-EU parties will now form a collaborative coalition.

Proportional elections are nothing to be afraid of. In fact, they are an antidote to extremism, a cure for cynicism, and a remedy for our chronic underrepresentation of women and communities of colour.

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