A question for PR supporters

If the next federal election were being held under a proportional representation system, would the Conservative Party care if their leader spoke French?

That’s the question. My answer is “no.” That is, of course, speculative, but here is my thinking.

Right now what the Conservative Party is aiming for is a majority government. If that is the objective, then you can’t afford not to compete for the 70-odd Quebec seats that have a francophone majority electorate. If there’s one thing everyone can agree upon, it’s that first-past-the-post electoral systems create enormous pressure to create very broad-based political parties, that appeal to the maximum number of voters. That is the precisely the pressure that the Conservative party is experiencing now.

Proportional representation (PR) takes majority government off the table, even with the current party configuration. PR would also generate new parties over time, further increasing the difficulty of obtaining a majority. So all political parties, including the Conservative, will be looking at forming coalition governments. The question then becomes, should you accept the compromises required to keep a Quebec wing of the party happy, including narrowing the leadership contest to those with passable French, or should you just forget about Quebec, and look to enter into a coalition with a Quebec-based party after the election? I think Conservatives would opt for the latter.

Quebec voters, it should be noted, also accept a number of significant compromises, in order to ensure that they have a “seat at the table” of any federal government. Under a PR system, the possibility of a majority government in which Quebec is shut out becomes much less of a concern. Thus the best way to ensure a “seat at the table” is to have a soft-nationalist, non-ideological party, that basically vows to defend and advance Quebec’s interests at the federal level, and is willing to enter into coalition with any other party to form a government, as long as their list of demands is met. In other words, I think you would see the emergence of an ethnic party in Quebec (maybe evolving from the Bloc), that would get 40-50 seats in every election, enough to hold the balance of power in any future Canadian government. They would then use that power in a highly instrumental fashion, to extract as much money and power as they can from the Canadian federation.

If an ethnic party emerged in Quebec (or the existing ethnic party, the Bloc Quebecois, found a way to regain its electoral appeal, and toned down the separatism), then I think that the most other political parties would find it pointless to compete seriously in most of the ridings outside Montreal and the Eastern Townships. Easier just to form a coalition with that party. Also Conservatives, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, are not in a very compromise-friendly mood these days. The Alberta wing in particular would be more than happy just to write off Quebec, hoping to make a deal later.

Also, in case the Conservative Party did not decide to write off Quebec, but continued to make the compromises necessary to remain a truly national party, competitive in all ridings across Canada, then you would see the emergence of a far-right, anti-immigrant splinter party, based in Western Canada, funded largely by the oil industry. This party would also need to be included in any right-wing governing coalition.

None of this, incidentally, would improve the quality of political deliberation in Canada. What you would get instead is just a lot more horsetrading and deal-making. This is all dependent, of course, on the scenarios that I am envisaging, which seem the most likely to me. I am curious what sort of scenarios supporters of PR are imagining. Are they the same, but being evaluated differently? Or are they imagining that things will play out quite differently?

So maybe my questions to PR supporters should be more basic. Switching to a PR system, apart from bringing the Green Party into parliament, would probably result in the creation of 2-3 more viable political parties. What do you think these will be, and what impact do you think their appearance will have upon the existing parties? Or upon the quality of Canadian democracy more generally?


A question for PR supporters — 15 Comments

  1. I don’t think PR would increase the amount of political deal-making, rather it would increase its visiblity. The deal-making happens within parties now, with PR it would happen between parties, in public.

    • Additionally it would have to become a lot more explicit. No more relying on “We’re a team / your wing of the party will get its turn if/when we fail”, you’d have to make constant and specific concessions in order to maintain support of members of your coalition. Naively, this seems like a good thing? e.g. conflict would be more easily foreseeable and would be easier to differentiate from personality clashes?

  2. I tend to think that the quality of Canadian democracy would be diminished by PR. The electoral incentive towards big tent parties and broad policy is preferable to the inflexible coalition agreements produced through the horse trading and dealmaking negotiations necessary under PR. But I’m curious though if there’s any comparative literature that looks at this question explicitly.

    An under discussed dimention is also the importance of opposition, which can become ineffective and very muddied under PR. Take Germany. In 2005 and 2013 the two major parties were unable to form a coalition with any minor parties so they formed a coalition with each other, a Grand Coalition. This can be problematic because opposition in parliament relies on minor parties which represent narrow interests and in elections accountability becomes difficult to assign.

    Anyway, although it’s two years old, this article on Grand Coalitions in Europe is interesting food for thought.


  3. Let’s be clear: the scenario described above, where the Conservatives win a plurality of seats and then make a deal with a Quebec-first party that has enough seats to complete a majority government (or enough seats to help the Conservatives pass a bill), is just one of many, many possible outcomes of a proportional system, and I’m not convinced that deal-making between an Alberta-based party and a Quebec-based party is such an objectively bad thing for Canada.

  4. I’m not sure that we can reasonably expect the emergence a single Quebec based party earning 40-50 seats per election. The Bloc’s high watermark for popular vote is just under 50%, and that’s 38 seats (or a few more due to rounding), and I’m not sure that politicians in Quebec who want to opt out of national parties are willing to all opt into a single party, when that’s not really necessary to get into parliament.

    None of this is to say that I disagree that the current Conservative party would be less likely to require a leader speak French under PR (though I think the emergence of a new Reform-style party is reasonably likely and might change the face of the Conservative party enough to make speculation difficult). I do think the parties that come to exist will be more focused than they are now, though I’m also not certain that a Quebec based party would be willing to make a deal with just anybody. Harper’s approval in QC was lower than elsewhere, and I’m not sure a QC party would be willing to install a PM who couldn’t speak (at least some) French, for their own electoral sake.

  5. I think it is very hard to speculate accurately how Canadian political culture will be represented under a PR system but I would expect representation from the Greens, a Quebec party and more ideologically-focused parties on the right and left. The concept of right and left is pretty simplistic though so who knows what configurations of fiscally liberal/conservative and socially liberal/conservative will arise. The beauty is that citizens will be able to explicitly vote for (or form!) those parties that best represent their values and approaches and those parties will have to negotiate the formation of a government that will tend to reflect the values and approaches of the parties that did best. I also think that we will tend towards more policy stability in the absence of the amplification effect of FPTP.

    Also, hard to agree with you on the pressure to form broad-based parties under FPTP; strong regional parties ie the BQ and Reform have done well under it. And how would oil companies fund a party under our fundraising laws?

  6. As a PR supporter, I was interested to read this post. Andrew Coyne responded to it on twitter today, arguing that it mischaracterizes the effect PR would have compared to first past the post. I would be interested to know Heath’s response to Coyne’s criticisms.

  7. Missing lots of things. I’m not a PR fan (at least in its common ‘list’ form) but so much of what’s said in this article is busy wrong.

    While appealing to a smaller section of voters is a thing that parties do in PR systems, the governments that result are still somewhat balanced because of the pack of dictatorial power that comes in coalutions.

    What’s more regionalism is reduced because a magical code in eastern Quebec is just as important as a marginal vote in suburban Regina. ‘Can’t compete outside of Montreal/Eastern Townships’ isn’t a thing because those other parts of the province aren’t monoliths, and it matters if the ‘winning’ party gets 35% of the votes or 65%, something that doesn’t matter in FPTP. The Bloc’s best ever election would have netted less than 40 seats under a PR system, yet FPTP gave them over 50 three times.

    Ideological targeting is a thing in PR systems, but regional targeting really isn’t. If the cons today were to give up their French-speaking voters in a PR system, they may also be foregoing their chance at even being a senior member of any coalition.

  8. Overall, a pretty good article. And I don’t see anything inherently wrong with a governing coalition that has (for the first time) a minimal Ontario presence.

    Yes, PR encourages all sorts of single-issue parties that can’t find influence in big tent parties. Wether you think this is a bug or a feature is a different matter.

    However, this:

    “you would see the emergence of a far-right, anti-immigrant splinter party, based in Western Canada, funded largely by the oil industry”

    You clearly have never met anyone you are talking about. The oil industry is the second most pro immigration group around (the first being seasonal farm labour). It doesn’t matter if you go to an office in Calgary or into the field, you’d be shocked when you meet all the engineers and labour from Venezuela/Iran/Philippines/etc.

    • Not sure I understand the desire to have a minimal Ontario presence. Thirteen million people live in Ontario, a bit more than a third of the country. Why should Ontario’s influence be minimized?

  9. Seems plausible overall, but why J.H. thinks the anti-immigrant party would be based in Alberta and funded by big oil is beyond me. I’d expect that an anti-immigrant party would be competitive in rural areas across the country and would receive (and need) little corporate funding, relying instead on relatively small donations from social conservatives and protectionists.

  10. As a student of electoral political science, you have the incentive schemes of the systems you discuss backwards, though it’s hard to be specific regarding “PR” without discussing which PR system we’re talking about.

    FPP incentivizes a minimum winning coalition approach – not a broad base comprising as many people as possible, but a group as small as possible so long as it is larger than other groups. The usual vote percentage required per district (riding) is ~30%. That’s not a particularly broad base. The reason parties *can* become very large in FPP is because vote-splitting disincentivises running against parties you share something in common with; the threshold of dissatisfaction before you run against (or vote for) third parties therefore has to be significantly higher.

    I imagine that you’re right about the emergence of new parties under PR, especially a ‘soft’ Bloc Quebecois. However, once a new party exists in Parliament and holds a balance of power, they hold a *very* strong bargaining position. It is *much* easier to compete in those seats, appeal broadly, and then negotiate with the MPs you have from that community who you know are ideologically similar to you and over whom you (as the party leadership) hold some form of influence.

    Finally though, aside from a re-emergent Bloc Quebecois and a Green Party gaining ground, I don’t imagine the party structure fracturing too significantly in the Canadian case. The Liberal, Conservative, and New Democratic parties would create a quite dynamic party system just on their own, and even in pure List PR systems a higher ENPP (Effective Number of Parliamentary Parties) than 3-4 is rare over time. What may be seen is two or three very minor parties which exist in Parliament mostly as support partners in coalitions to minimize the major party’s reliance on any one partner, and tweaking policy settings slightly. That’s been the New Zealand experience, at least. Starting a new party is a heck of a lot of hard work, requiring enormous specialist knowledge and significant expenditure for uncertain payoff – when you *can* move through existing party systems to achieve your goals, you do.

  11. While I agree the situation you outline is far from ideal, something similar to it is already in place in the UK despite our having fptp in place. Scotland is entirely dominated by the SNP and we have a radical right populist party who, while a marginal presence in parliament, have nonetheless been extremely influential in our political scene in recent years. Part of me wonders if ukip in particular haven’t been kept going by the existence of the European parliament, which is elected proportionally and has kept them somewhat relevant as well as providing funds and visibility around European elections.

  12. I’m surprised to see the commentators musing about ideological or regional parties forming under a Canadian PR regime. Surely what is more likely is personal parties. Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Winston Peters in New Zealand: in all these cases (and many more), PR encouraged parties based largely on the charisma (not to say egomania) of a single person whose celebrity-based success allowed them to appoint crowds of blindly-devoted followers to the legislature. Canada’s leader-centric processes already encourages that trend here, for sure, but under FPTP it can be resisted. Surely the most likely new party under PR here would be, eg, the Kevin O’Leary Party, or another based on whoever was the latest celebrity PM wannabe.

  13. As some other commenters haven noted, this article has a few false premises.

    For one thing, it presumes that FPP creates enormous incentives to create broad-based parties that appeal to the maximum number of voters. That’s pretty strange, considering that different parties have managed to capture power while shutting out entire regions of the country (the Liberals having very little representation west of Ontario, the Harper Conservatives not having much east of it). Surely Joseph Heath is familiar with “western alienation” and the feeling among many Western Canadians that our concerns don’t matter to politicians who can get elected with the support of Ontario and Quebec-not to mention John Ibbitson’s bragging about the “end of the Laurentian Consensus”?

    Not to mention that we have had regional parties get federally elected in Canada multiple times before, whether the Progressives on the Prairies, the Créditistes under Réal Caouette in Quebec, and obviously the BQ and the Reform Alliance. So new parties can be and are generated under FPTP, particularly when people in one particular region of the country feel that the established “big tent” parties can get elected by appealing to the most populous regions of the country and shut others out altogether. And who can forget Canada’s first separatist movement getting elected in Nova Scotia?

    Oh, and Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper were known for their very tight, top-down control of their parties, such that regional voices weren’t as loud as they might have seemed on paper.

    Most forms of PR that I’ve seen advocated are actually mixed-member, so that only a portion of seats in Parliament are distributed according to the popular vote. In a situation where minority governments are more likely, parties are quite likely to be forced to compete for every seat they can…which ironically leads them to need seats from Atlantic or Western Canada as much as from the more populous Ontario and Quebec. Such parties could, in addition to being forced to broker and horse-trade with each other, also be forced to broaden their appeal as much as they can.