Opinion: What Canada can learn from New Zealand on electoral reform
By Dominic O’Sullivan — Associate Professor of Political Science, Charles Sturt University
The results of the recent Canadian election don’t reflect the will of the people, and the situation is reigniting calls for proportional representation.
Some have outlined what Canada’s House of Commons would have looked like under a proportional representation system.
The result would be slightly different under different systems. But whichever way Canada opted to go, the biggest parties would have fewer seats and the smaller parties would have more. There wouldn’t be a single-party majority government. Minority governments, an aberration under Canada’s first-past-the-post system, would be the norm.
One of the criticisms of proportional representation is that it makes stable governments hard to form, and gives small parties too much influence.
But is this true? What actually happens in practice? What happens when a country makes the change from first-past-the-post to proportional representation?
How the system changed in New Zealand
New Zealand voted to change its electoral system from first-past-the-post to a proportional system in 1993.
Voters had become disillusioned with the country’s electoral system. They couldn’t see that it provided enough checks and balances on single-party government, and thought it too easily allowed the executive — the goverment’s cabinet ministers — to dominate parliament.
In 1978 and 1981, more people had voted for the Labour party, similar to the Liberal Party in Canada, than for the National party, similar to the Canadian Conservative party. But National won more seats in parliament and formed government.
In 1984, Labour won government and established a Royal Commission on the Electoral System. The Royal Commission recommended change. Two referendums resulted in the switch to a mixed member proportional (MMP) system in New Zealand, the system recommended by the commission and the one used in Germany.
Increased the size of parliament
The first MMP election in New Zealand was held in 1996. The House of Representatives — New Zealand’s parliament has just one House — previously had 99 members elected from single-member geographic electorates, known as ridings in Canada.
To make proportionality mathematically possible under the new system, the size of the House was increased to 120 members.
Sixty-five were elected from single-member first-past-the-post electorates. Fifty-five were elected from national party lists. By 2017 the number of electorate members had gone up to 71 and there were 49 list members. Voters had two votes — one for their electorate member and one for the party list. Here’s how it works:
[For an explanatory video, click this link:]
The list vote determines a party’s overall entitlement to seats in parliament. If a party doesn’t get its proportionate share from its electorate seats, it receives whatever number it needs from the party list to bring it up to its entitlement.
In 1996, the largest party, the National party, had an entitlement of 44 seats. It won 30 electorates, meaning it was entitled to an additional 14 members from the list made public before the election.
Parties must receive five per cent of the national list vote to enter parliament. The purpose is to provide proportionality, but not at all costs. The threshold protects against very small and extreme parties.
However, to recognize regional interests and the potential for geographic concentrations in party support, a party is exempt from the five per cent threshold if it wins an electorate seat.
The Sainte-Laguë Forumula of allocating seats determines exactly how the support for parties who do not meet the five per cent threshold is reapportioned.
Winston Peters dismissed
There was a brief period of instability during the first MMP parliament. Prime Minister Jenny Shipley dismissed the leader of her coalition partner, Winston Peters, as deputy prime minister for his “refusal to accept cabinet collective responsibility” and his party left the government. The prime minister was able to negotiate support elsewhere and the government served out its term.
No government since 1996 has lost the confidence of the House of Representatives.
No government has failed to pass its budget.
In the last election in 2017, the National party won 56 seats and Labour 46, both short of a majority in the 120-seat House of Representatives. The Green Party, with eight seats, was not willing to support a National-led government.
The New Zealand First Party won nine seats. It negotiated with both the National and Labour parties to see if a government could be formed.
A minority Labour/New Zealand First coalition government was the result, and Jacinda Ardern of the Labour party became prime minister.
A majority for the government is assured through what is known as a Confidence and Supply Agreement between the Labour and Green parties.
The Greens got three ministers outside cabinet and certain policy concessions in return for their support. But they’re not bound to support cabinet decisions except in their own portfolios.
Women, Maori, ethnic minorities represented
MMP advocates in New Zealand argued that in a system where every vote makes a difference, parties have an incentive to actively court the votes of people traditionally underrepresented in parliament — especially women, Maori and ethnic minorities. There would be an incentive to place them in winnable positions on the party lists.
This argument has proved correct. Women comprise 40 per cent of the parliament elected in 2017. Twenty-two per cent are Maori. And the parliament is broadly representative of New Zealand’s ethnic and age demographics.
Twenty-seven of the parliament’s 120 members are members of the executive. They don’t dominate parliament, which can then serve its proper function of holding the executive to account.
The parliament is large enough for its committees to properly scrutinize legislation. And the number of political parties is sufficient to ensure philosophical diversity on those committees.
On the other hand, reducing the number of electorate seats to make space for list members has significantly increased the geographic size of the electorates. The ability of members to stay in close contact with their constituents may therefore be reduced.
List members are not directly accountable to the people. They owe their positions entirely to the parties. Voters cannot directly support or oppose the views of an individual list member at the ballot box.
This is especially important for democratic accountability on conscience votes in parliament — including votes on issues like abortion and euthanasia, when members vote according to conscience rather than according to a party line.
Unlike Canada’s newly elected House of Commons, New Zealand’s parliament does reflect the will of the voters. Demographically, its membership looks like New Zealand. It provides stable government and a parliamentary check on executive power.
So do other proportional representation systems. Canada has plenty of choice.
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