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.
This 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.
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.