Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Matthew Yglesias, the sole American (as far as I know) who actually pays attention to Canadian politics, notes that a movement is afoot there to introduce proportional representation (PR) into the Canadian electoral system. This development is a source of some amusement to me, for reasons of personal experience. I spent a little time in Israel in 1990--a year that does not exactly stand out as a high point in the annals of Israeli politics. The electorate at the time was very nearly equally divided between the two major party coalitions, and both began resorting to a series of increasingly dubious maneuvers in an effort to establish a bare majority in the country's parliament.

During my stay, I heard numerous friends explain to me that the underlying cause of the problem was Israel's system of proportional representation. PR, they explained, removes all accountability from individual members of parliament, who win their seats based on their positions on their party's list, rather than on any direct support from voters. It thus rewards craven party hacks over politicians of broad stature whom the party leader might consider a threat. It also gives considerable power to small, unaffiliated parties, who can then sell their loyalty to one or the other major coalition at an arbitrarily large and unseemly price. What was needed, my friends argued, was a system of parliamentary districts--like the Canadian one.

Of course, I was familiar with the Canadian reality, and I patiently explained to my friends that in fact Canadian members of parliament are about as likely to be craven party hacks as their Israeli counterparts. Because party leaders determine who will fill the executive, cabinet and top civil service posts should their party form a government, they completely control the levers of power, and voters thus almost always vote based on party leadership rather than the identity of the local back-bench candidate. Backbenchers thus owe their election prospects--and their hopes of rising in the party leadership--entirely to their status in the party.

As for the mercenary aspect of PR, it's simply replaced by the old-fashioned pork barrel. Many ridings have a tradition of loyalty to one party or another--or even to whichever party appears about to win--and milk that loyalty for lucrative government handouts. The only difference between this form of bribery and the kind experienced in Israel is that the constituencies being bribed in Canada are geographical rather than broadly political.

Finally, district-based voting--at least with a "first past the post" voting system--has the drawback of tending to exaggerate the mandate of the most popular party, often giving an absolute majority in parliament to a party with perhaps a third or so of the popular vote. Of course, this setup has its advantages as well: with majority governments more likely, horse-trading to form coalitions is much less common. But those majority governments also have much greater political power than their popular vote would suggest they deserve, and thoughtful Canadians have thus long believed that PR would be a fairer, more democratic system.

In fact, it seems to be a popular conceit in just about every democracy that problems such as pork-barrel politics, cynical political horse-trading, and party hackery represent subtle flaws in the system's plumbing, and that a few careful adjustments to its gaskets and stopcocks can simply make the ugliness go away. In reality, just about any reasonable system will soon bring the voting public the government they implicitly want (and richly deserve), through the straightforward process of politicians being punished for displeasing the electorate. If Israelis--or Canadians--really didn't want politicians haggling for goodies for their constituents, then they could refuse to vote for politicians that did so. If Canadians--or Israelis--really didn't want to be represented in parliament by party hacks, then they could refuse to vote for parties that nominated them to stand for parliament.

Somebody, though, is voting for these people--enough, in fact, that they're still getting elected. 'Nuff said.

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