The election Israel held Tuesday will eventually produce a minority government, because the country’s electoral system always does. Britain’s May 7 election will likely produce a minority government, in spite of a system that is supposed to produce majorities but recently has not.
Canada’s first-past-the-post system is looking increasingly isolated. It’s a system inherited from Britain, but even in that country, the system no longer easily fits with a fractured electorate. It also no longer fits easily in Canada, where three of the last four elections produced minority governments, as might the election scheduled for October.
Throughout Western Europe, proportional representation systems predominate. In New Zealand, first-past-the-post was replaced by a form of PR called multiple member proportional.
In Australia, the Liberals govern in a coalition with their allies in the National Party. Even if an Australian party wins a majority in the House of Representatives, it often faces a Senate controlled by other parties whose members are elected.
PR systems of any kind mean checks and balances, because parties have to negotiate with each other to form a government. This kind of negotiation can lead to stability and consensus, as in Germany with its “Grand Coalition” of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and the Christian Social Union. Or it can lead to haggling and bargaining of an unseemly nature, which is what will likely occur in Israel in the days and weeks ahead.
In Israel, any party that receives more than 3.5 per cent of the popular vote (the threshold used to be 1 per cent, then 1 1/2 per cent, then 2 1/2 per cent) gets seats in the Knesset. The result is a kind of Mad Hatter politics with political bribes being offered by the larger parties to smaller parties for their support.
The Israeli system invites people to vote narrowly, because that way their party might bargain its way into some power. That’s one downside of PR: People think only of their ethnic or religious group or region or ideology, and not of a bigger national canvas.
It could be, therefore, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ends up stitching together another coalition with parties representing militant settlers, ultra-Orthodox and far right-wing voters. Or he could be unable to form a government, which would be just deserts for the U.S. Republicans who tried to give his campaign a boost by inviting him to address Congress.
In contrast to many other systems, the Canadian provides very few checks and balances on a prime minister with a majority. The unelected Senate is a wet noodle; the government backbenchers are yes-men; the cabinet members are appointed by the top dog. With a couple of exceptions, none would dare stand up to such a domineering leader and his controlling staff.
It might be argued that previous prime ministers with a majority always got their way. True, but none did so in such a bruising, crushingly partisan, controlling way as the current Prime Minister. All the very worst characteristics of majority government in the first-past-the-post system have been on display daily under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Across the aisle, the New Democrats and Liberals are terrified even to talk to each other about postelection scenarios that might force them to work together to form a government. This kind of discussion would be common in PR systems, but not in Canada.
Worse, because of the amateurish attempt by previous leaders of the Liberals (Stéphane Dion), New Democrats (Jack Layton) and Bloc Québécois (Gilles Duceppe) to unseat Mr. Harper after the 2008 election, any hint of pre-election discussion will be condemned by the Conservatives as anti-democratic plotting. What might be normal in other systems is considered verboten in Canada’s.
Attempts to introduce PR systems to Canada have failed in voter plebiscites in British Columbia and Ontario. Recommendations to adopt PR by commissions in New Brunswick and Quebec went nowhere.
Perhaps the supreme irony of Canada’s ineffectual dalliance with PR is that Mr. Harper himself once favoured proportional representation.
In 1996, the future prime minister and friend Tom Flanagan (they have since fallen out) penned a paper arguing that PR might allow “conservative” forces to get a share of power and therefore nudge forward their agenda.
Those were dark days for Conservatives. After enjoying a majority government since 2011, the status quo seems fine.
The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 18 2015, 3:00 AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 18 2015, 3:00 AM EDT