Living with Proportional Voting

Commentary, Owen McShane

In the hope of achieving a more representative Parliament, many Canadians are promoting an alternative to the “First Past the Post” system of voting. “Mixed Member Proportional” voting, or MMP, is presently attracting some attention because elections in Germany and New Zealand, which operate under MMP, have simultaneously delivered hung Parliaments. In New Zealand, when all votes were counted on election night, the centre-left Labour Party had only one more seat than the centre-right National Party. A similar situation prevails in Germany between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.

A supporter of MMP is likely to rebut that FFP can deliver hung Parliaments on election night, too. If the numbers are close, the voters have to wait for the specials and recounts to come in, but finally a winner will emerge, even if the majority is only one seat. No matter how close the battle, the voters will have determined who governs. With MMP, the voters do no more than set the stage for negotiations between a number of parties, parlays which can take weeks or even months to be resolved and a government formed. The voters of New Zealand and Germany are mere bystanders during this second phase.

Democracy allows the people to remove unpopular governments by peaceful means. In parliamentary democracies, the people also have their views expressed within a Parliament which also passes legislation. Parliament also appoints a Cabinet to carry out the executive functions of government. The FPP voting system enables voters to remove unpopular governments; the record shows that under it governments are thrown out more frequently than in those with proportional representation. Compare the post-war record of the UK with Germany.

Reformers make the point that, under FPP, parliaments do not fairly represent the electorate; minority parties may win 20% of the vote without gaining a single MP to represent their views in the House. That may be true, but the outcome of New Zealand’s recent election is that the two major parties now have to negotiate with up to five minor parties to see who will form the new government. The Maori Party, which has been in existence for only about six months, won only 1.2% of the party vote, but may well determine who governs New Zealand for the next three years. Is that powerful position fair to the vast bulk of voters who did not support the Maori Party?

While MMP enables a “fairer” spread of representation in Parliament, it can lead to grossly unfair representation within the Cabinet. MMP allows a party that gains 5% of the vote to have 5% of the seats in Parliament. But the post-election negotiations can mean that a party may gain 10% or more of the seats around the Cabinet table, while its leader becomes Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. This has happened in New Zealand before, and may be about to happen again. The minority “parliamentary tail” is able to wag the majority “Cabinet dog.”

Based on the German model, New Zealand’s MMP system provides for a mix of “list” seats and electoral seats. The electoral candidates are elected by the voters as in FPP. However, half the candidates are from the “list” put together by the party and do not have to face the electorate. Voters then have two votes – one for the party of their choice (the party vote) and one for the candidate of their choice (the electoral vote).

The number of seats won is determined by the party vote. If a party wins 40% of the party votes cast, that party will have 40% of the MPs in the House, even if it fails to win a single election. The party vote determines the allocation of seats in the Parliament. If a party fails to win 5% of the party vote, they gain no seats at all. However, they can still gain a presence in Parliament if one or more candidates win their electoral seat.

Voters can, and do, split their votes between parties – giving their party vote to the party they want to govern, and their second vote to their preferred minor coalition partner. Voters may give their party vote to a broad-spectrum party, and their electoral vote to a candidate who holds their own views on single issues such as abortion or homosexual law reform.

This all sounds very well – lots of choice and lots of diversity.

But it totally undermines the ability of voters to remove a government they do not like. The people may give their vote to a major and minor party of the left, for example, and assume the two of them will combine to throw out an unpopular party of the right. But if the major party of the right is prepared to offer sufficient incentives (or prizes) to the minority party of the left, then the right-wing party may end up governing for another term. This has also happened in New Zealand.

In most MMP elections, the voters have no idea who will govern their country after the votes are counted on election night. The government will be determined by the party which can negotiate the best deal with a number of the minority parties and their elected representatives. This process can take weeks or months. The voters just have to sit and watch, as politicians trade their principles and platforms for the perks and privileges of office. These negotiations take place behind closed doors. The voters may have given a mandate to a party because of a particular policy such as tax cuts, only to see that policy abandoned because of the demands of a minor coalition partner.

What generates the most anger with this system is that a candidate can be totally rejected by the electorate but immediately return to Parliament by having a high ranking on the party list. In this last election in New Zealand, 12 sitting MPs lost their seats on election night. They are still MPs because of their ranking on the list. Candidates who receive, say, only 1,000 votes out of 30,000 can end up as Ministers simply by being highly ranked on the party list.

The only way we can remove this system is if the MPs decide to hold a referendum. But why would they do that? It suits career politicians very well, and turkeys don’t vote for an early Christmas. The drive towards some form of proportional representation in Canada and elsewhere is unlikely to go away. But the New Zealand and German experience suggests that MMP should not be Canada’s system of choice.

Many observers recommend STV—the “single transferable vote.” In its simplest form, STV means that voters are able to rank candidates in order of preference and can rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. To get elected, candidates need to reach a quota of the votes. The complicated process of distributing votes is described on the NZ government website, available at the link below. New Zealand has allowed local elected bodies to use STV if they choose, a good way of putting any reform of the voting system to a trial. STV means that no vote is “wasted,” but avoids the problem of the party list and does not tend to generate as many minor parties able to wield excessive influence.

Canada has a federal system and our experience in New Zealand suggests Canadians should avoid MMP and use local or state elections as trial runs for any other proposed reforms. Then make sure any new system has to be endorsed by referendum after a suitable trial period.

Do not depend on the goodwill of Parliament to allow the voters to pass judgment.