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Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal, CM is a Canadian senator, political strategist, author, commentator and academic. He was chief of staff to Ontario Premier Bill Davis and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Read the OpEd



What does making every vote count have to do with economic stability, fiscal responsibility, and prosperity? In addition to delivering fair, representative election results, the research shows that proportional representation outperforms winner-take-all systems on measures of democracy, quality of life, income equality, environmental performance, and economic growth.

In a research study out of the London School of Economics, Carey and Hix (2009) looked at 610 elections over 60 years in 81 countries and found that countries with moderately proportional systems were less likely to have deficits and more likely to have fiscal surpluses.

Knutsen (2011) looked at 107 countries from 1820 to 2002 – 3710 “country years” and found that both proportional and semi-proportional systems produced higher economic growth than plurality-majoritarian systems (including First Past the Post) – “a strong, significant effect” (p.86)

Knutsen concluded:
“PR systems likely produce higher growth because they promote broad-interest, rather than special interest, policies, and perhaps because PR systems produce more stable and thus credible economic policies. PR and semi-PR systems are thus not only beneficial for representation of diverse groups in politics (Lijphart, 1999; Carey and Hix, 2009) and for decreasing the distance between median voter and median government member (Huber and Powell, 1994; Carey and Hix, 2009). PR and semi-PR systems also generate more prosperity than plural-majoritarian systems.”(p. 89)

Economics and political stability are often said to be related. How stable are countries using proportional representation? In a comparison of winner-take-all and proportional countries over 50 years, Dennis Pilon (2007) found that countries using First Past the Post averaged 16.7 elections, while countries using proportional systems averaged 16 elections. Clearly, stable, representative government can go hand in hand.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal explores the connection between economic health and proportional representation below. (An interview with economist J Peter Venton exploring the problems of inequality and its connection to electoral reform can be found on the Inequality and Proportional Representation page).


Hugh Segal joined the Canadian Senate in 2005, after four decades of public service which included Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister of Canada, Associate Cabinet Secretary (Ontario) for Federal-Provincial Affairs and Policies and Priorities, Legislative Assistant to the Leader of the Opposition (Ottawa), President of the independent Institute for Research on Public Policy. Chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism, he is a former Chair and present member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. He headed a NATO parliamentary delegation to Washington and is a former Chair (Calgary 2004) of the annual Canada-UK Colloquium.

A University of Ottawa graduate in history, he is a Senior Fellow at the Queen’s Schools of Policy Studies and Business, the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a member of the Working Group on National Security at Cranfield University’s Centre for Security Sector Management. He chaired the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies and was the founding Vice-Chair (Research) of the Canadian International Council. He sits on the Council of the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (Stockholm) and sat on the Council of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (London).

He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2003 and holds honourary doctorates from his alma mater and the Royal Military College of Canada.

Senator Hugh Segal (conservative,Ontario) campaigned for proportional representation in Ontario and PEI referendums on electoral reform.

Proportional Representation and Economy – Op Ed by Hugh Segal

There is a great tendency in modern digital societies for debate and controversy to embrace the apparently urgent as opposed to the truly important. This tendency is made worse by key stakeholders who have huge self interests protected by the status quo. There are few challenges facing Canadians where this is more true than that of electoral reform.

Whether one is on the right or left in our politics,whether one is part of the politically disinterested, either by virtue of being very wealthy or very poor, whether one is young or old, a small business person, union member,student or recently laid off – our first past the post system is a negative economic force in your life.

Here’s how and why:

Parliaments and legislatures elected through the the first past the post system, where only the winning votes are counted in any election, often represent far less than fifty percent of those who voted in any constituency-in some cases this number could be as low as thirty five percent – in the vast majority of cases those who govern, oppose,question or engage as elected MPS or MPPS, speak for very few of their voters-almost always a minority, regardless of party.

As first past the post elections manufacture contrived majorities-where thirty eight percent of electors can elect sixty percent of the seats-majority governments who classically eschew compromise with other parties get to impose economic policies from the right or left that do not reflect a balanced or inclusive economic policy framework. This can and has led to bad policy, excessive or inadequate tax initiatives, tilted labor relations, excessive or incompetent regulatory régimes. All of these can and have cost Canada and provinces economic slow downs, wild lurches from one economic policy to another and so on. This costs us vital time and setbacks on issues like jobs, investment, tax reform, poverty reduction, and education. These are setbacks that hurt people’s lives, aspirations and economic and social prospects.

A dysfunctional electoral system that discourages participation,‎ helps reduce voter turnout, favours established parties, manufactures illegitimate and undemocratic majorities, is not a detail or sidebar. It is central to how effectively a society’s economic and social framework operates. Those frameworks are established through elected parliaments from which governments derive the basis for governing. If the basis of those elections are systematically exclusionary, economic and social policy are unavoidably flawed, short term and shallow.

As those who are elected under the first past the post regime, have won within that regime’s strictures, they are unlikely to want it to change. This strident complacency leads to an unwelcome tolerance for unrepresentative democracy.

Is economic policy contained in a budget, approved by a legislature that was chosen by 55 per cent of eligible voters legitimate? What if the government that proposed the budget had a majority, but was only elected by 40 percent of the 55 per cent?

Economic policy that is set by a government barely representing 20 percent of eligible voters is unlikely to be strong or deeply rooted in economic or social reality as experienced by that vast majority of Canadians. This is true in almost every province and Ottawa, except when leaders like Mulroney, Diefenbaker or Lougheed received huge majorities‎ in high turn out elections.

Our present system of first past the post manufactured false majorities, plus budget secrecy creates the context for fiscal and economic policy that may be both narrow and disconnected. This is bad for business, labour, and the entire economy.

Electoral reform would break this cycle and create incentives for a much broader economic debate where truly democratically representative legislatures and parliaments would make budget, trade, fiscal and tax policy more truly reflective of how people actually voted.

Economic policy only works when it reflects‎ economic and social reality. In a democracy that reality is made real by parliaments that are representative of how people actually voted. First past the post alters,dilutes,frustrates and often negates how people actually voted. Economic policy based even in part on this distortion cannot but be distorted itself.

Proportional representation is the only way to set this right.

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