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In defence of FPTP

It's pretty clear that I began supporting proportional representation for selfish partisan reasons: I was tired of my vote never electing anybody, or helping the parties I liked get any power. I think this is a common motivation, which is why you see a lot of NDPers and Greenies (and before they merged, Progressive Conservatives) supporting the movement and less support from Liberals, Conservatives, or the Bloc.

So I got involved with Fair Vote Canada and we brought Larry Gordon to speak and we started a chapter. Now -- to nobody's surprise -- I am having second thoughts. Other smart people and organizations (including The Toronto Star appear to favour FPTP and reject PR. Maybe there are good reasons for this.

I think that most of the arguments from those who support fair vote have to do with process: the idea that voting outcomes should better reflect the desires of the electorate. Most criticisms come from outcomes: if we do allow systems where the wishes of the electorate are respected, what kind of government system do we end up with?

First-past-the-post certainly has advantages: it chooses a government, the government usually has a majority, and governments switch from time to time. Under PR the situation is more uncertain.

Here are the better arguments that are nagging me now:

0. First-past-the-post governments have stable majorities, and so can get work done. PR systems end up with coalitions, and if wherever the coalition parties oppose each other you get paralysis. That doesn't seem like a good way to make hard, unpopular decisions.

Contrast this to the federal Conservative party. It is well-known that party members disagree on many things. But they meet and hammer out those issues at policy conventions, and then they put up a united front at elections. Under coalitions that hammering has to happen after the election (which wastes time) and there is a lot less incentive for the parties to agree.

1. There is the question of minority party representation. You don't want small parties who have nothing to lose getting into a coalition and then dominating the government with their extremist views. I don't know how often very small party support is needed to form coalitions but I believe it happens sometimes.

2. It is hard to punish parties for doing bad things. In the 1993 Federal election Kim Campbell took the fall for Brian Mulroney's incredible unpopularity during previous terms. They got 16% of the popular vote and two seats. PR proponents point to that as a bad thing, but I am not totally convinced.

Under PR bad parties (who are more bad than usual) will still get some support, especially if they are large. That raises the spectre that there could be parties who never get out of power.

3. A point that is particularly pertinent to Canada is the issue of regional representation. We have to deal with Quebec and Western alientation (and to some degree Maritime alienation). There is already a perception that fat-cat Ontario (and to some lesser extent BC and Alberta) dominate federal politics. I do think that smaller geographic and ethnic groups should have representation in Canadian politics, but I don't know what that would look like under a PR system.

The cavalier response is that people could have better regional representation either by supporting national parties or by running regional ones. I am not convinced.

4. Related to punishment: under PR coalitions nobody really takes the blame for mistakes. The parties in the ruling coalition can just point fingers at each other when something goes wrong. I think that accountability is pretty important, if only so we know who to kick out of power during the next election.

There may be more criticisms that will come up. Maybe further study will be of some use; what political systems do the most successful countries in the world use? How can we model our systems to follow those ones? Do those successful countries use PR? How do they address the fears I have listed?

See? This is why I am bad at community activism, and why I should not join up with groups like Fair Vote Canada.

On the other hand, I do strongly believe that we have to consider the positions of those who oppose us and take them seriously. For one they might be right. For another we will have to deal with their criticisms, and by being self-critical we can do a better job of handling their tough questions.

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Mood: confuddled