Steve Paikin repeats popular myth on TV

A few days ago I was watching Steve Paikin’s television program “The Agenda”.

On this program, he was discussing the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly and the new electoral system they’ve proposed for Ontario when the discussion came to the pros and cons on each system.

Now, in his defence, the myth he repeated is a popular myth found even in the Parliament of Canada’s own briefing papers.  The myth is that the way we run our elections — what is known as Single Member Plurality (SMP) or First Past the Post (FPTP) — is somehow more stable than Proportional Representation (PR) systems which are, by extension, somehow less stable.

This myth has two parts to it.

#1) our system (SMP or FPTP) is stable

A simple review of our history in Canada shows that our FPTP system is far from stable.

minority-parliament-data-canada.pngThis chart shows the breakdown of elections resulting in minority governments versus ones which result in majority governments.  Between the time following the introduction of responsible government in Canada and prior to Confederation exactly 50% of elections resulted in minority parliaments.

Not such a great record of stability especially considering that this is supposed to be the main strength of our system.

After confederation the record improved, but still, to this day, approximately every third election we hold results in a minority Parliament.

Minority Parliaments were elected in:

1854, 1858, 1861, 1921, 1925, 1926, 1957, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1972, 1979, 2004 and 2006.

#2) Proportional Representation systems are less stable

Much of this myth that PR systems are less stable comes from the specious reasoning that since minority governments in this country last an average of a little over 1 year and 5 months, therefore, since PR systems result in minority parliaments more often than not, they too must be unstable.

Again a brief look at the empirical data is more than enough to blow this part of the myth out of the water.

minority-parliament-data-international.png

As you can see, Germany — which employs the same brand of proportional representation which the Citizens’ Assembly has endorsed for Ontario — is actually more stable on average than our First Past the Post system and only slightly less stable than the UK system.

But even then, the difference between the time gap between German elections and British elections is not that much. 

Since the establishment of the West German Parliament in 1949, there have been 16 elections resulting in an average gap between these elections of 3 years, 8 months.

In Canada, on the other hand, we’ve had 39 elections since the introduction of Responsible government for an average of 3 years, 7 months between elections.

Lastly, since 1801, the U.K. has had 54 elections resulting in an average of 3 years, 9 months between elections.

So, should we be afraid of Proportional Representation, as the myth repeated by Steve Paikin suggests, because it’s somehow less stable while our system is somehow magically more stable?

Obviously this is the most shallow argument for keeping the our current system and we in the PR crowd should stop conceding PR skeptics’ main point because, as I’ve shown here, it simply doesn’t hold water.

8 Responses to “Steve Paikin repeats popular myth on TV”


  1. 1 Alec Adams 17 July, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    There is an error in the data with respect to Germany. It is 58 years since 1949 and they must have had only 16 elections to have an average time between of 3 years and 8 months.

  2. 2 Jan Johnstone 17 July, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    good analysis.

  3. 3 Erik Abbink 17 July, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    Thanks for pointing that out that, even if stability is of importance, it’s hard to you use it as an argument in defending the FPTP system. And you’re right, we can from now on call the “stability advantage” a myth.

    But I think stability is a poor argument to begin with. Shouldn’t we argue for a system that is (a) the most democratic and (b) still workable? Shouldn’t a system being evaluated for the ability to produce policies that reflect the will of the people?

    Look down south, and you’ll see what I mean.
    – Most Americans want universal health care, yet it’s not there.
    – Most Americans want to get out of Iraq, yet the government is in no hurry.
    – Most Americans disapprove of Bush, yet he’s still in office.

    Of whatever importance “stability” is, it sure isn’t resulting in policies that are supported by the American people.

    There’s reason to argue the opposite: that a more instable country will produce more democratic policies. Only if politicians feel somewhat threatened by a possible public outcry regarding sensitive issues, then they will correct their actions to the demands of the public. Such a situation is a lot easier to create in a PR country (like Germany, Netherlands, etc.) than in a country where any party in power has a disproportionate large amount of power.

    So in short, whatever the advantage of stability might have for a country, it’s definitely not producing a more democratic country. Shouldn’t that be enough reason for an overhaul?

    BTW; who has ever heard of any serious effort by a PR country to move toward an FPTP system, like, say the USA?

  4. 4 paulitics 17 July, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    Erik – I agree that stability shouldn’t be the be all and end all for deciding an electoral system and I definitely agree with you that democratic outcomes are far more valuable. But the purpose of this post was simply to undercut the position of the PR skeptics on one of their most important arguments.

    P.S. Good eye on the German elections. You’re right, Germany has had only 16 elections since 1949, the 58 number was from a completely different item on my spreadsheet. Thanks for the heads up.

    As for your comment about a PR system trying to move back to FPTP, it has happened from time to time but not regularly.

    BC moved away from an AV system back to FPTP after it resulted in some weird election results. Also I believe Italy looked into moving from their PR system to a FPTP system a few years back but since they change their electoral systems about as often as I change underwear, that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

  5. 5 Mark Dowling 18 July, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Single Transferable Vote is also deemed “unstable” – the Star’s Ian Urquhart is insufferable on the subject – yet Ireland has had the same number of elections as Canada since 1987.

  6. 6 Danny R. 23 July, 2007 at 8:41 am

    Finland has been rated highest for public approval and trust of their gov’t and media. They have rated lowest on the gov’t corruption scale.

    Look at their small, unpopulous country, and how their PR multi-party system is configured. North America could really learn something here…

    “The Finnish Parliament consists of one chamber with two hundred members. The members are elected for a four-year term by direct popular vote under a system of proportional representation. According to the Constitution of Finland, the Parliament elects the Prime Minister, who is appointed to office by the President. Other Ministers are appointed by the President on the Prime Minister’s proposal. The current Prime Minister of Finland, as well as Chairman of the Centre Party is Matti Vanhanen (who in the second half of 2006 was President of the European Council).

    After the parliamentary elections on March 18, 2007, the seats were divided among eight parties as follows:

    Party Seats NetGain/Loss %ofseats %ofvotes

    The Centre Party 51 –4 25.5 23.1
    The National Coalition Party 50 +10 25.0 22.3
    The Social Democratic Party 45 –8 22.5 21.4
    The Left Wing Alliance 17 –2 8.5 8.8
    The Green League 15 +1 7.5 8.5
    The Swedish People’s Party 9 +1 4.5 4.5
    The Christian Democrats 7 0 3.5 4.9
    The True Finns 5 +2 2.5 4.1
    Others 1* 0 0.5 2.4”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finland

    North America implements a backwards, disproportionate system which facilitates political monopolization and the subsequent 2-party paradigm (AKA, the fallacy of false alternative).

  7. 7 news article 11 February, 2013 at 4:59 am

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  1. 1 proportional rep and a good first step « Tarts and Letters Trackback on 20 September, 2007 at 7:02 pm

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