So if FPTP isn't really the problem here in Canada, what is?How do we explain why two countries with very similar parliamentary systems and identical voting systems differ so much in how well their parliament functions and in their approach to government formation?

Everyone may love PR, but FPTP isn’t the problem

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson’s latest piece argues that Canada’s voting system, commonly referred to as First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) is increasingly inadequate for our multi-party political system. He points out how almost everyone else uses some form of proportional representation (PR), which forces parties to work together and form coalitions since PR rarely results in a single party winning enough seats to form a government on its own, and also provides more checks and balances on the head of government. Simpson writes:

In contrast to many other systems, the Canadian provides very few checks and balances on a prime minister with a majority. The unelected Senate is a wet noodle; the government backbenchers are yes-men; the cabinet members are appointed by the top dog. With a couple of exceptions, none would dare stand up to such a domineering leader and his controlling staff.

All of that is very true, however, none of it is really the fault of FPTP. At the beginning of his column, Simpson writes that FPTP is “a system inherited from Britain, but even in that country, the system no longer easily fits with a fractured electorate.” And that is his last mention of the UK. If the problems Simpson lists are the result of (or at least, massively amplified by) FPTP, then surely they would be present in the UK as well?

The truth of the matter is that even with FPTP, the UK House of Commons functions far better than does its Canadian counterpart. Yes, the UK Prime Minister is quite powerful, but there are more checks and balances on a UK PM. For example, because UK parliamentary group caucuses can depose their leader, a party leader cannot ignore his or her backbenchers. The caucuses also have far more control over the selection of the party leader (it varies by party). This serves to keep the leader in check, even if they are the Prime Minister. The House of Lords, also unelected, regularly defeats pieces of Government legislation. Many Government bills will start off in the House of Lords and it is the upper Chamber that will do most of the heavy lifting in terms of considering the bill at committee stage, thus ensuring that the bill will proceed more quickly once it is sent to the House of Commons; no party leader in the UK can count on their MPs to vote the way the whips would like them to; rebellions by backbenchers are commonplace. Ministers and the PM are regularly grilled before committees, called down to the House to face Urgent Questions; get questioned by all MPs following ministerial statements.

In other words, simply changing the voting system won’t fix what is wrong with Canada’s parliament. The problems that exist have next to nothing to do with FPTP.

Simpson goes on to say:

Across the aisle, the New Democrats and Liberals are terrified even to talk to each other about post-election scenarios that might force them to work together to form a government. This kind of discussion would be common in PR systems, but not in Canada.

Worse, because of the amateurish attempt by previous leaders of the Liberals (Stéphane Dion), New Democrats (Jack Layton) and Bloc Québécois (Gilles Duceppe) to unseat Mr. Harper after the 2008 election, any hint of pre-election discussion will be condemned by the Conservatives as anti-democratic plotting. What might be normal in other systems is considered verboten in Canada’s.

Again, why no reference to the UK here? Following the hung parliament result of the 2010 General Election, the UK ended up with a majority coalition government. That coalition government has survived the full five years, and for the most part, worked extremely well — or at least, no worse than many single-party governments. By all accounts, the May 7 2015 election will also result in a hung parliament, and, if seat projections hold true, a very messy one. In contrast to the situation here in Canada, everyone in the UK is speculating about possible coalition arrangements. While not enamoured by the idea of coalition, it is generally preferred over the idea of a single-party minority government.

The attitudes towards coalitions in Canada and the UK have nothing to do with the voting system. Certainly a switch to some form of PR would force Canadian parties into coalitions, but it doesn’t require a change of voting systems to make coalition a normal, acceptable election outcome, as has been demonstrated in the UK.

So if FPTP isn’t really the problem here in Canada, what is?How do we explain why two countries with very similar parliamentary systems and identical voting systems differ so much in how well their parliament functions and in their approach to government formation?

A lot of this can be attributed to the political culture in both countries, of course. I would argue that there seems to be a greater knowledge of and respect for parliament and its many conventions among UK MPs than exists among Canadian MPs. As someone who follows news coverage of parliament in both Canada and the UK, I have to say that the UK media on the whole does a better job — meaning they cover more than just PMQs. There also seems to be a greater desire to and interest in modernizing and reforming parliament in the UK. That is a direct result of the 2009 expenses scandal, of course. British MPs realized they had to regain the public’s trust, make their parliament more open, and find new ways to engage the public. Reforms such the election of committee chairs by the whole House and the election of committee members by their caucus, the revival of the Urgent Question by Speaker Bercow, the introduction of the Backbench Business Committee, etc., have created a far more dynamic parliament.

There are are also institutional factors. For example, the concept here in Canada of “officially recognized parties” greatly undermines the House of Commons. Procedure and the conduct of business is organized around parties rather than MPs as the main actors. Leaving the selection of party leaders to party members rather than caucus undermines the accountability of the party leader to their caucus, and weakens the position of MPs. So does having the party leader approve candidates who run for the party. Switching to some form of PR wouldn’t impact any of that; our House of Commons would be more proportional, but procedurally still as dysfunctional.

I’m not arguing that electoral reform isn’t worth pursuing, I am simply pointing out that Mr. Simpson is wrong if he thinks FPTP is the cause of the problems he identified in his column. It isn’t. The problems go much deeper than that.


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  • Azgri

    And yet many of the problems that you identify are characteristics of Lijphard’s concept of majority democracy. It may be that Canada is the most extreme example of the majority democracies and therefore has the most toxic political culture. A shift to PR would be a major shift towards consensus democracy.

    Very few political scientists would regard parliamentary procedure as determinative of political culture, rather they would certainly argue that procedure reflects political culture.