Opinion

Proportional representation aids extremism

By Dan Brown, The London Free Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period on Parliament Hill Monday as Conservative MPs look on in a file photo. (Reuters files)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period on Parliament Hill Monday as Conservative MPs look on in a file photo. (Reuters files)

Extremism in Canadian politics is a bad thing. A proliferation of moderate voices is an intrinsic good.

Do you agree with that premise?

If so, then you must join those who oppose any move by Justin Trudeau's governing Liberals to replace this nation's first-past-the-post electoral system.

One of the options that may be on the table is some form of proportional representation.

Our current method of conducting federal elections, as flawed as it is, has one major virtue: It encourages parties and politicians to move to the centre of the political spectrum.

A proportional system, on the other hand, offers no such carrot.

Instead, proportional representation rewards parties for sticking to their extreme positions.

As you likely know, in a country such as Canada, the majority of the votes are in the political centre.

That's the ideological ground most Canadians naturally occupy. They shy away from supporting leaders on the outer fringes, be they left- or right-wing.

That's why the NDP has never garnered enough support to take over in Ottawa.

It's also why --when the Reform Party was a thing -- voters never chose Preston Manning to be the one pulling the levers of power.

So in order to win come election time, any party has to moderate its positions on the issues of the day.

If a leader wants a majority, and that's what every party leader desires, he or she must appeal to the widest swath of voters, those in the middle.

But that's not how proportional representation would work. Seats would be doled out based on the popular vote, every party (above a threshold to be determined) would get a share of the seats.

So why would a party water down (or moderate) its platform? There's little incentive to do so.

Any amount of votes past the threshold gets you a place at the table. And if you play your cards right, even if you don't become the country's leader, you could gain influence beyond your electoral clout, as kingmaker, as part of a coalition.

I realize this is a simplification, based on some of the proposals being floated right now for "mixed" proportional representation schemes, but bear with me.

The effect proportional representation could have on Canada's politics is we could become more like Israel or Italy, where fringe parties would proliferate.

If you agree with former prime minister Stephen Harper that coalition governments are inherently evil, proportional representation would be your nightmare scenario. One-issue parties would multiply. Instead of one separatist party in Parliament, we'd likely have a bunch.

Who wants that?

This isn't to say the first-past-the-post electoral system is perfect. It's not.

However, we should think long and hard about how we want to reform our government. There's no need to rush.

There's a reason why voters in a number of provinces have defeated proportional representation proposals in referendums.

Canadians are right to be suspicious of parties and leaders who would rather change the electoral rules than move to the centre, because they have a history of losing under the current regulations.

The devil we know might actually not be so bad, especially when compared to the alternatives. It might even, in some regards, be the most fair.

dan.brown@sunmedia.ca twitter.com/danatlfpress