When opponents claim that proportional representation in Canada will lead to “fringe parties”*, they haven’t done their homework.
All models of proportional representation for Canada, whether Mixed Member Proportional, Single Transferable Vote, or Rural-Urban PR, are moderately proportional systems. Both are designed to keep MPs connected to local communities, while producing proportional results.
How easy would it be for fringe parties to win seats with made-in-Canada PR? The answer: not very
All the proposals being put forward by electoral reform advocates would require that a candidate or party have reasonably significant local support (at least 5%) to be elected. With some proportional designs, the natural threshold (based on how many seats are available in a region or district) is higher than that.
In the last three federal elections, all 15-20 fringe parties in Canada couldn’t get 1% of the vote put together. In the last three federal elections the next party below the Green Party and the BQ won no more than 0.21% of the popular vote (the Libertarian party in 2015).
While some smaller parties may achieve some of their objectives and may be included in a coalition government, government policies by and large are more closely based on the platform of the larger party. The larger party holds most of the seats and therefore more of an opportunity to use the power of government in line with its philosophy.
It’s important to remember that nobody is proposing a system such as the Netherlands ‘Pure PR’ system with a nation-wide party list. “Pure PR” is just not an option for Canada.
Most countries which use proportional representation systems include a threshold a party must meet before it is entitled to any seats. In Sweden and Norway, the threshold is 4%. In New Zealand, which uses a Mixed Member Proportional System, a party must earn 5% of the vote, or win one constituency seat, to qualify for compensatory seats. In Germany, which also uses MMP, the threshold is 5%, or winning three constituency seats.
To put that level of support in perspective, it took Canada’s Green Party 20 years of work to cross the 5% threshold in the 2008 election, dropping to about 3.8% in the last two elections. Getting almost one million Canadians to vote for your party, as the Greens did in 2008 is not an easy task, but in that election, first-past-the-post awarded Green voters no representation.
A threshold for Canada?
Most Electoral Reformers agree that we need a Made-In-Canada system of proportional representation. With over 90 Countries using some form of proportional representation, Canada could base its new system on best practices from around the world.
Here are a couple of examples:
Mixed Member Proportional representation is a system where we still elect most of our local MPs to single member ridings. Voters unrepresented by the local results elect regional MPs. This tops up the local results so the total MPs match the vote share.
Does an MMP system for Canada need a threshold? The Law Commission of Canada – whose 2004 report “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada” recommended MMP – didn’t think so.
The reason is simple: MMP designed with the most proportional model possible for Canada would mean 12-14 MP regions (consisting of ⅔ local constituency MPs elected like today, and ⅓ regional MPs elected on an open list). The natural threshold to win a seat in a 12-14 seat region would be 7-8% of the vote.
Most people would not call a party which wins 7-8% of the vote a “fringe party.”
Due to geography, the need to create regions which naturally fit together, and provincial boundaries, not all regions of Canada would have 12-14 MPs. The smaller the regions, the higher the threshold to win a seat. In a region with 8 MPs (5 local and 3 regional), the threshold to win a seat would be about 12.5%.
Using the Green Party as an example (since Canada has no fringe parties which are anywhere near winning seats with any proportional system for Canada) would Green Party MPs win more seats with a highly proportional version of MMP?
Yes. With their current vote share, the Greens would have won about 10 MPs using the model designed by the Law Commission. There’s an extremely good chance that when people know their votes will likely count the Green vote, and seats, would rise.
Germany uses Mixed Member Proportional representation. The current number of parties in their legislature is 6. No fringe parties were elected. In Canada’s last Parliament (2011-2015) we had 6 parties, plus Independents.
Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) is a proportional system which uses a ranked ballot in a multi-member district to elect a team of local MPs.
Does an STV system for Canada need a threshold?
Consider an STV district which elects a team of 5 MPs. The natural threshold for a candidate to win a seat in this district would be about 17%. Sometimes, depending on the situation, the last candidate elected could win the seat with as little as 10-12%, but it would be very unusual for the final winning candidate to have started with less than about 10% first preference support.
Even in a larger STV district of eight MPs, which might be used in a large urban centre such as Toronto or Vancouver, the natural threshold to win a seat would be about 11%, so it would be very unusual for the last candidate elected to have started with less than about 5% first preference support.
In most areas of the country, the vast majority of voters would elect an MP from the party of their first choice using STV (e.g., with three 4-seat districts in Toronto, based on the results of the 2015 election, we estimate that 96% of voters would have an MP from their preferred party) and the overall results are highly proportional for all the major parties. Even if we used relatively small districts (2-4 seats), we would largely eliminate regional sweeps and significantly reduce the “leader’s bonus” that so frequently occurs under our current voting system.
However, with smaller districts outside large urban areas, STV presents a challenge for parties with lower levels of support in some parts of Canada, and Green Party voters in many areas. Even with a significant increase in their vote share with PR, Greens would be unable to elect Green MPs in many parts of Canada.
Ireland uses Single Transferable Vote. The current number of parties in their legislature is 7, plus Independents. In Tasmania, which also uses STV, the number of parties with seats is three (a left party, a right party, and the Green Party).
Concluding Words about Proportional Representation and “Fringe” Parties
The idea that proportional representation in Canada will make it easy for fringe parties to win seats is unfounded, and only demonstrates that the source claiming it has not done their homework.
The real problem is that Canada has 25 million eligible voters, yet 4.6 million voters elected Liberal MPs who hold all the power in our country.
* Note: Fair Vote Canada decided to use the word “fringe” in this blog not because we do not value the contributions of very small parties to our political process, but because that is the word opponents are using to scare people about PR. Fair Vote Canada believes that as closely as possible, all voters should have representation of their choice. Many countries with list systems implement thresholds which require smaller parties to achieve a certain level of popular support before they are able to win seats. Whether a 3-5% threshold is desirable for Canada is subject to theoretical debate with a interesting case on each side. But as this blog points out, PR systems designed for Canada have a threshold built into the design.