GUEST COLUMN: Proportional representation can contain extremist movements

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

I will vote in favour of proportional representation (PR) in the referendum on electoral reform this fall, because it’s 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.

But that is changing. Today, all around the world, extremism is on the rise. That’s why now is the time to strengthen our institutions.

PR 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 the exact same system that elected these two extremists.

Trump won complete control of the executive branch of the United States’ government even though the majority of U.S. voters – 54 per cent – did not vote for him. In fact, his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump.

In Ontario, Ford’s Conservatives gained total control of government by increasing their vote-share by seven per cent, but incredibly, received 46 per cent more seats. It is not the voters but our voting system that produces such wild swings in government.

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 PR, all votes count and governments get elected on legitimate majorities. Neither Trump nor Ford would ever have a chance to form a government.

Changing our voting system to PR almost guarantees that no extremists will come to power. If you are apprehensive of the likes of Trump and Ford, vote in favour of PR to make our voting system more robustly democratic, and keep extremists far from the levers of power.

The referendum proposal for PR has built-in mechanisms to keep extremist and fringe parties from gaining control. Political 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 over 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 PR, 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 and cooperation. I will vote against extremists. 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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