Bad PR Arguments Everyone Needs To Stop Making

The campaign over the proportional representation referendum is in full swing. As with any campaign, that brings on a slew of bad arguments. Here are a few of the common bad arguments and why they fall apart.

Extremists Will Benefit Under PR

How anyone in the age of Trump can pretend First Past the Post keeps out extremists is beyond me. First Past the Post proven to be susceptible to extremists. One of the key features of FPTP is parties can win majority control of a legislature with a minority of the votes. Even a majority opposed to extremists may not be able to prevent them from winning under the current system.  PR on the other hand limits extremists to their share of the population. If extremists were to gain a foothold in a PR system, the problem would be with a society where extremists are 10 or 20 percent of the population, not a flaw in the system. The main difference between FPTP and PR is whether extremists co-opt the existing party structures or form their own party.

We Need PR To Keep BC Liberals/Conservatives Out Of Power

This argument tends to come up after any right of center party wins a FPTP election, although it has been repeated during the referendum campaign. There are two problems with this argument, it isn’t true and it poisons the well.

A quick look at countries using PR shows right of centre parties are not shut out of the system. Germany and the Netherlands, to take but two examples, are led by centre-right parties and leaders, despite both using PR systems.

Now some might say “okay, but those are European countries, Canada is different”. But a quick look at electoral history in Canada should dispel that. In the post war era only a few elections have resulted in a party winning not just a plurality but an outright majority of the seats. Federally, that would be the 1958 and 1984 elections, won by John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney, both Conservatives. Trudeaumania, by contrast topped out at 45% of the vote. Similarly at the provincial level, the elections where a party won a true majority are the 1945, 1949 and 2001 election. The Liberal-Conservative Coalition won and 1945 and 1949 and the Liberals won the 2001.

Proportional representation isn’t an ideologically left or right system. All this argument does is help polarize the debate and make half the political spectrum deeply suspicious of reform attempts.

The Only Difference Between Canada And Italy Is How We Vote

Okay, that heading is a bit factitious. The actual argument is that PR makes for unstable political systems, as seen in countries like Italy and Israel. That argument largely relies on cherry picking the data. While Italy is unstable, other PR countries like Germany have a stable and robust political system and culture. The electoral system is but one factor that shapes a polity’s political culture. Norms, institutions and the internal political divisions all shape how politics is conducted. There is no reason to assume that a place like Canada, with strong political norms and institutions will end up like Italy, rather than Germany.

Bad People Like First Past The Post

This one is mainly making the rounds on social media and is usually in response to someone who isn’t well like for whatever reason, saying they support the current system. I’m mostly seeing this argument made with respect to billionaires and developers.

It should go without say, but apparently it needs to be said, no, we shouldn’t setting the structure of our democracy to make some billionaire angry. The system we eventually settle on should stand on its own merits and not as a “own the billionaires” reaction.  I almost didn’t include this, but I have seen smart people who should know better, making these posts.

PR Means The End Of Local Representation

No it won’t. The three systems being proposed all maintain local representatives. MMP has a local riding representative and a few top up regional representatives. DMP has two local representatives per riding and RUP has one or more local representatives per riding, depending on whether the riding is rural or urban. Anyone repeating this claim is either ignorant, and should learn about the systems before debating them, or deliberately spreading falsehoods.

In fact two of the systems, DMP and RUP, actually increase local representation as people would have multiple representatives. If an MLA is bad at constituency services, as has happened with MLAs of all parties, people would no longer be stuck with them and would be able to get service from one of their other representatives. RUP even adds the incentive to be a good constituency MLA as multiple candidates of the same party run in each riding. They can no longer coast on their party identity, they would be at risk of being ranked lower than another candidate of their same party and potentially losing their seat.

PR Will Lead To X Policy

Courtesy of MLA Bowinn Ma, who suggested the introduction of legislation to (re)create a BC Human Right Commision. Of course the fact that this is happening under a government elected under FPTP shows how ridiculous that argument is.

A more general issue with such an argument is, as demonstrated above, PR doesn’t guarantee any political ideology power. Maybe a government favourable to a particular policy will be elected, maybe not. And given the proclivity for minority and coalition governments, it is hard for voters to know ahead of time what will and won’t make it into the governing deal or onto the Legislature’s order paper, let alone be put into practice.

Vancouver Will Dictate What The Rest Of The Province Does

This one goes “if we have PR, Vancouver will dictate how the province is run” and on social media shows a colour coded (often in party colours) of Vancouver and the rest of the province.

Example of the Vancouver will control everything meme

The rhetorical sleight of hand at work here, hides the argument for distorted political representation. At its core is an argument that some British Columbians should have their voice reduced because where they live in the province. People, not land, vote. A region’s political representation should match their share of the population. If the opponents of PR believe there should be two classes of voters in BC, they should say so. But they won’t because it goes against the deeply held democratic principle of one person, one vote.

What We Should Be Debating

There are several open questions that can and should be debated.

  1. Are the benefits of regular majority government under FPTP worth the trade offs of a less representative system?
  2. Since there will be more coalition governments, the terms of such arrangements will be negotiated between parties, making it more difficult for voters to know how their vote will translate into governance and makes providing feedback at the voting booth harder. Is this uncertainty worth trading for a system that ensures MLAs better reflect the views of British Columbians?
  3. Are there too many unknowns details of the systems being proposed for British Columbians to feel comfortable approving of one?

There are just over three weeks left in the referendum, and most ballots still to be received. Can we please raise the level of discourse?

And of course, please vote.

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