In an age of chronic minority governments, where no party has enough support to maintain a majority, proportional representation makes more sense than ever.
In a [recent piece](http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/coming-to-terms-with-minority-government/article1190248/) in *The Globe and Mail*, former Conservative Party advisor Tom Flanagan claims that, as of 2004, we have entered a period of chronic minority parliaments. Canada’s electoral map, Flanagan argues, is simply too divided for any single party to gain the support needed for a majority government – a situation he sees continuing into the future.
As Flanagan correctly notes, the obvious consequence of this state of affairs is that in order for Parliament to accomplish anything of substance, our political parties will need to cooperate more regularly and effectively than they are accustomed to.
In this vein, he points to the recent Harper/Ignatieff “power-sharing” agreement to study employment insurance as an important step towards the type of sustainable cooperation he believes is needed. Flanagan ends his piece by expressing a hope that this sort of cooperation will continue in the months, and indeed years, to come.
While Flanagan’s analysis of Canada’s contemporary political geography is correct, his conclusion – in which he adopts a strangely Pollyanna-esque prescription for the future – does not follow. Whatever he may hope for, Flanagan ought to know that Canada’s political system – at least in its current configuration – is systematically biased against inter-party teamwork. This makes sustained cooperation highly unlikely.
One of the main sources of this bias is our electoral system. By making majority governments a real possibility, our current system creates perverse incentives against cooperation. Essentially, parties are presented with the following questionable choice: why cooperate now – something that necessarily entails compromise and getting less than what one wants – when one can stall progress, allow the situation to deteriorate, blame the other side for the negative outcome, use the unhappiness and anger with the situation to propel one to a majority in the next election, and then do what one really wants without having to compromise?
One does not even need to view parties cynically for this logic to apply. After all, parties believe that their preferred policy option is the best for Canadians, so it is their duty to fight for this option and not compromise. Thus, until parties – at least the dominant ones – realize that a majority government is not in the cards, they have little incentive to cooperate.
This structural bias is exacerbated by the fact that despite claiming to desire more cooperative politics, voters routinely punish politicians when they seek to cooperate.
The 2008 coalition debacle demonstrated that many Canadians, apparently unaware of – or at least uncomfortable with – how our parliamentary system works, opposed an unprecedented level of cooperation that would have installed a government supported by representatives who garnered a greater percentage of the popular vote (53.72 per cent) than any other peacetime government in Canadian history. Granted, some of this opposition was based on certain reasonable objections, but no small amount of it emerged from other mistaken notions that what the coalition proposed to do was somehow unfair or unconstitutional.
Similarly, the critiques of Stephane Dion, and more recently Michael Ignatieff, for supporting their Conservative opponents in parliamentary votes – what cooperation actually looks like in action – show some of the dangers for any politician that seeks to cooperate with another party, even when this cooperation could arguably benefit the country in the long-term.
All of this gives one more reason, though a too-often-neglected one, for electoral reform in the direction of increased proportionality in our electoral system. By creating “false majorities” (majority governments that don’t actually command majority electoral support) our current system has inured Canadians into believing that minority governments are an aberration, and a distasteful one at that, despite the fact that they actually represent a much more realistic representation of Canadians’ preferences.
Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments against increasing the proportionality of the system is that the current first-past-the-post system is more likely to deliver majority governments and “strong government.” If we accept Flanagan’s analysis, this trade-off no longer holds and the current system loses one its most important supports.
By removing the lure of false majorities, a more proportional system would force the parties to cooperate and actually work with the preferences expressed by Canadian voters. While it does not completely eliminate the incentives structures I detailed above, it does reduce their salience and introduce more positive countervailing incentives.
Instead of hoping that the parties will change their ways without changing any of the incentives to do so, as Flanagan suggests, proportional representation offers a realistic prescription for more cooperation and more representative public policy.