Letter: proportional representation leads to better governance

In democracies, you aim high, not low.

The most important thing to look for in every government is good outcomes for all in society. So the question in front of you is: do we get those outcomes in countries or provinces that use the first-past-the-post election system to elect their governments?

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According to Bill Tieleman, a strategist and former Tyee columnist, there is no need to explain how first past the post works, as it is very simple.  

I hope this presumed general understanding includes that when 87 individual riding elections are held, instead of one province wide election, the results are not the same. Strategic voting further increases the difference in results. It makes possible for a party to receive a majority of the seats in the legislature with only 40 per cent of the vote.

Although first past the post seems to be stable as a purely political system, it doesn’t necessarily mean that will make for good governance. We can see this in B.C.

The lack of affordable housing is an almost provincewide issue; the previous government also failed to address casino money laundering and foreign speculation with B.C. real estate; both ICBC and BC Hydro ran into debt; long-term planning for addiction treatment facilities has resulted in staggering numbers of overdose deaths; overall societal inequality and injustice has deepened.

In B.C., many Indigenous people live in poverty as the settler governments continue in their quest to extinguish Indigenous rights and title. Resource extraction without Indigenous consent continues, often leading to serious environmental degradation. One in five children lives in poverty. Parents are unable to pay for their children’s and their own dental care. People are unable to afford their prescribed medicines. Students are taking on huge debts for post-secondary education.

These results are the outcome of bad governance.

So what happens in a proportional representation election? Every voter casts a vote for the political party candidate of his, her or their choice. All those votes together reflect the political preference of the voters. The seats are assigned based on the percentage of the votes a party received. If a party got 30 per cent of the vote, it gets 30 per cent of the seats, etc.  

There are different ways of doing this, but all methods provide for proportionality. There are questions about local MLAs and all systems currently proposed in the upcoming referendum – from Oct. 22 to Nov. 30 – provide for local MLAs. So you won’t lose that familiar face in the riding.

Living for 37 years in a country that uses a proportional election system, the Netherlands, has given me a very good understanding of the kind of culture that develops with it and how it creates better outcomes for all citizens. ProRep politics is gentler, more consensus-based and when a new government starts, I have never seen them tear down what the previous governments have built up, something we have seen in B.C. many times over. This practice is currently on full display in Ontario.

Tearing down what has been built up is considered bad governance as its wastes years of societal investments.

As mentioned, proportional elections reflect the political preferences of the voters. The convention is that a government must have at least 50 per cent of the vote to govern, so majority coalitions must be formed.

Tieleman would shout: “Coalitions are weak!” Not really, as it is all about the policies and those are good in areas from affordable housing to health care, from addiction treatment to infrastructure, from education to dental care for all children and adults, from economic and societal innovation to climate action.

Yet, I can hear Tieleman exclaim: “Proportional representation allows for extremist parties to gain seats in parliaments!”  That is true and as the son of a holocaust survivor, I share this concern fully. Yet, these parties have been kept out of power in number of ProRep countries as other parties don’t want to work with them. I rather like to have those parties in clear view and work on taking away the grievances that make people vote for them, although that must be within reason. Racism and discrimination we cannot tolerate.

As I am writing this column, I think of my father in the Netherlands, who has entered the last days of his life. My father worked for the country's oldest water board. This 770-year-old organization is responsible for dikes, for keeping the polders dry, for monitoring water quality and for treatment of waste and sewage water. Without these water boards, the country would not exist. That is societal investment and the result of good governance.

When I hear some tell us to look only at the ProRep countries that seem to struggle, due to cultural and historical reasons, I respond: “This can never be a reason to ignore the countries where proportional representation leads to very good outcomes for all.”

As my father says: “Aim high, not low.”

Anton van Walraven

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