Electoral reform and the inadequacy of proportional representation

(This is the third in an ongoing series on the question of voting. See part one and part two if you’re interested.)

Now let me just start off by saying loudly and clearly that I’m in favour of proportional representation.

If we’re going to have a representative democracy – or even pretend that we do – then it’s long past time that we switched to an electoral system which yields results which reflect the actual vote totals. The obviousness of this proposition makes it hard to believe that this policy has never been enacted, especially since all of the major parties in this country have been on the losing side of an unfair election result at some point or another.

The introduction of a more democratic method of allocating the seats in Parliament would go some way towards alleviating the tendency of parties with a shot at winning government to abandon all principle and run toward the perceived “centre” that I discussed last week, and would no doubt encourage people who support marginal parties and parties unlikely to win their riding from voting anyway.

All of this is good.


(You knew there was gonna be a “but”, right?)

There’s a tendency in this country, and especially in left-progressive circles, to think of proportional representation (PR) as a kind of panacea for the problems that ail our democracy. Perhaps that’s because we have limited exposure to the actual results in nations which actually practice PR. So I’d like to look at a few.

Let’s start with Italy. Italy has been trying out various versions of PR for the past few decades; see Wikipedia for a summary. During this same period, Italy has also been incredibly politically unstable, with elections on an almost annual basis. This is somewhat beside the point for me, as I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing – there’s nothing magical about four-year intervals that make them ideal for elections, and there’s a case to be made for more frequent public input into the governing process.

If one person could be said to have dominated Italian politics during these past two decades, though, it would indisputably be Silvio Berlusconi. Prime Minister on three separate occasions for a cumulative total of nine years, Berlusconi is the longest-ruling leader in Italy since Mussolini got lynched. During that time he has repeatedly been accused of, charged with, and tried for various crimes, including fraud, bribery, abuse of office, tax evasion, and soliciting sex with a minor. Despite all of this, he has never spent one day in prison.

Why, you might ask? Well, according to Forbes, Berlusconi is the world’s 194th-richest person, with a net worth of over $6 billion – which  makes him too big to jail. His money is largely in media – he either controls or has an influence over six out of Italy’s seven largest television broadcasters, including a controlling interest in the top three. This is huge in a nation which largely eschews newspapers.

Now, it should go without saying that this type of media concentration is unhealthy for democracy – and apparently, the Italian Supreme Court has been expressing its concerns since the 1980s, to no avail. So the obvious question, then, is: what good does a more democratic electoral system do the Italians if their opinions are heavily shaped and influenced by one party? Or, more precisely, one extremely wealthy man?

Before I go drawing parallels to Canada, I’d like to look at Italy’s neighbour to the north, Germany.

Germany uses a two-vote system of mixed-member proportional representation, which allows for local representation as well as a legislature which reflects the overall vote totals. German electoral politics tends to be much more stable than Italian electoral politics, due to the dominance of a few major parties who need only secure the support of a few minor parties in order to form a stable governing coalition. And Germany’s media is also less concentrated than Italy’s, although a few major companies still have a very wide reach.

Still, it is a media which speaks with largely one voice on some subjects, one of which is the Greek debt crisis. Germans have generally been supportive of their government’s attitude towards Greece throughout the past five years, which has consisted largely of insisting upon deeper and more painful cuts, despite the lack of any evidence that the harsh austerity being pursued was yielding any benefit for anybody.

This is in large part due to a media narrative of Greece as being a profligate over-spender, an irresponsible and reckless debtor, held up in contrast to Germany’s supposedly immaculate behaviour. In the hyper-cautious world of German politics, it’s considered safer to reinforce narratives than to challenge them, and it’s now an article of faith across a broad spectrum of German political parties that Greece is entirely to blame for the fix it’s in.

Of course, and as I talked about yesterday, that couldn’t be further from the case. But this is yet another example of how easily people can be led by a dominant media narrative.

Having an equitable electoral system didn’t prevent Germans from holding wrong-headed and vindictive opinions about their class comrades in Greece. And it’s certainly no coincidence that the message being perpetrated by the German media is a message friendly to capital, and to the German banks most of all.

Now let’s turn to Canada, where the picture is pretty grim.

Media concentration is a massive problem in this country. 70% of media revenues across all platforms – newspapers, television, radio, etc., – go to just four companies, and I’m sure you’ve had bad dealings with at least one of them, because two of them, Bell and Rogers, also dominate cable and telecommunications in this country. The newspaper industry is the most concentrated of the bunch – last year, Postmedia bought out Quebecor’s English-language newspapers to make the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, leaving Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Vancouver without newspapers owned by competitors.

Ladurantaye leaves the publicly-owned but chronically-underfunded CBC out of his chart, but essentially this is a pretty accurate portrayal – expect it neglects to mention that the Globe and Mail is owned by Bell Media, which also controls CTV.

In such a concentrated environment, which is certainly comparable to Italy’s situation, is it unreasonable to expect that Canadian perceptions of politics and political parties will be shaped by media portrayals?

And if that’s true, then how much will we really benefit from a more fair electoral system?

Because let’s be real here – a media this concentrated ultimately serves the interests of capital first and foremost. It acts as a gatekeeper, only providing a platform to those parties and ideas which its incredibly wealthy owners approve of. In the last election, every major daily except for the Toronto Star endorsed the Conservative Party, which had already shown itself to have a reckless disregard for the will of the people, the law of the land, and the state of our environment. The Star (which  previously owned a 20% stake in its rival paper The Globe and Mail) opted for the NDP, and their endorsement leaned heavily on the NDP’s promises of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets (read: conservativism).

In such a media environment, how meaningful is our democracy? If powerful capitalist interests are able to control the vast majority of news content that reaches us via all the major media, how free are we in our choices?

Electoral reform is obviously needed in this country – this much is obvious. And it’s heartening to see that both the NDP and Liberal parties have committed to electoral reform.

But while we’re on the subject, it’s long past time that we brought the issue of media monopoly out into the open. A well-informed public is a prerequisite to a legitimate democracy; if the people are continually misinformed by the agents of capital, it’s unsurprising if they continually vote against their class interests.

Our electoral system is surely to blame for Stephen Harper’s majority government, secured with the support of less than two-fifths of voters and less than a quarter of eligible voters. But our extremely concentrated media is also surely to blame for securing even those levels of support for a party which holds the well-being of much of its base in contempt.

In short, I’m skeptical that a more equitable electoral system will by itself deliver results which are more favourable to the Canadian people. In order to see true electoral reform, we must also break up our media monopolies and allow a diversity of viewpoints to proliferate.

Of course, it would also be helpful if Canadians had more opportunities to engage in the political process, which will be the subject of next Sunday’s post.


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As someone who understands politics pretty well (I think), I struggle with understanding proportional representation. I get it, in theory, but not at all in practice.

Let’s say, to make it easier, that there are 100 seats up for grabs. We’ll say “party A” wins 20% of the seats. Where do those seats sit? Does each province & territory get a seat? Who gets the extra ones? Do they put the seats where party A got most votes? Which would mean that it’s possible for a province to have most of their seats represented by party A, even though less than half of the population voted for them.

And now that I’ve said I don’t really understand it, and I’m pretty politically aware… How is it going to be sold to “Joe Canada” who is not at all politically aware?

    I guess I didn’t really get into the nuts and bolts of it in this post – but my understanding is that there’s a variety of forms that PR can take, some of which maintain local representation and some of which don’t. As far as I know, the NDP hasn’t committed to a particular form of PR, and the Liberals are just promising some kind of electoral reform.
    What is clear, though, is that these kinds of systems have been successfully implemented in a variety of countries around the world, and they do unquestionably lead to outcomes which better reflect vote totals. (The scenario you outlined is not possible under any form of PR I’ve ever read about.)
    Also, I think a lot of people are politically aware enough to know that under the current system, their vote doesn’t really matter unless they happen to live in a handful of competitive ridings. That’s the kind of thing that really encourages disengagement.
    As I said in the article, I don’t think PR is the solution to all of our problems, but it’s unquestionably an improvement over our consistently unfair first-past-the-post system. I’m not gonna expend much energy trying to get it implemented, just because I think there are more pressing issues with the state of Canadian democracy, but I’d be glad to see it implemented.
    Thanks for reading!

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