GUEST COLUMN: Proportional representation would keep extremists out

Pioneer of B.C. electoral reform argues for yes vote in referendum

By Nick Loenen

I will vote in favour of proportional representation (Pro Rep) in the referendum on electoral reform this fall, because Pro Rep is more effective at keeping extremists from government than the existing voting system.

In Canada, we’ve avoided extremists in government not because of strong institutional safeguards, but rather because Canadians themselves have largely shunned extremists. Now that is changing. Today, all around the world, extremism is on the rise. That’s why now is the time to strengthen our institutions.

Pro Rep is an opportunity to take pre-emptive action, lest a Donald Trump or Doug Ford take power in Victoria. Don’t think it can’t happen here: in B.C., we have exactly the same system that elected these two extremists. Trump won control of the executive branch of the U.S. government even though the majority of US voters—54 per cent—did not vote for him.

In Ontario, Ford’s Conservatives gained control of government by increasing their vote-share seven per cent, but incredibly, received 46 per cent more seats. It is our system that produces wild swings in government like this.

The weakness of B.C.’s status quo voting system is two-fold: only some votes count and governments get elected with a minority of the vote. Under Pro Rep, all votes count and governments get elected on legitimate majorities. Under Pro Rep, neither Trump nor Ford would ever have a chance to form a government. Changing our voting system to Pro Rep almost guarantees that no extremists will come to power. If you are apprehensive of the likes of Trump and Ford, vote in favour of Pro Rep to make our voting system more robustly democratic, and keep extremists far from the levers of power.

B.C.’s referendum proposal has built-in mechanisms to keep extremist and fringe parties from gaining control. Parties must win a minimum of five per cent of the popular vote to win seats in the BC Legislature. Even then, winning seats in parliament is not the same as controlling or influencing government.

In recent years, European far-right parties have increased their vote-share and gained more seats. But significantly, and with few exceptions, extremists have not gained influence on government. The most recent example is Sweden, where a far-right party increased its seats, but still has no part in government.

In his landmark study of 22 democracies, Arendt Lijphart, the world’s foremost scholar of voting systems, tested the effectiveness of small parties and concluded that in nearly all instances, parties have influence commensurate with their numerical strength and no more. Our own experience in B.C.’s current coalition government bears that out.

Under Pro Rep, all significant political interests and diversities exert pressure on the tiller of the ship of state in proportion to their numerical strength. In contrast, under the current voting system, the captain, elected on a minority of the vote, takes over the helm and orders everyone else off the bridge.

Everywhere democracy is in retreat. Fuelled by fears, people look for strong leadership. But what is strong leadership? I will vote for strong leadership based on inclusion, consensus, cooperation. The best guarantee against abuse of government power is to share that power among the many, rather than the few.

Nick Loenen is a former Richmond councillor and Social Credit MLA, co-founder of Fair Voting BC and author of the 1997 book Citizenship and Democracy, a case for proportional representation.

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