23 October 2006

Which PR?

The current issue of the Public Justice Report carries an article by James W. Skillen, Election Hype and Political Stagnation. Writing within the American context, Skillen notes that his fellow citizens are increasingly disaffected from electoral politics and especially the two major parties. This shows up in an increasing number of professed independent voters and in low voter turnout. Why bother to vote when one's own vote for a losing candidate is effectively a wasted vote?

In response Skillen proposes the adoption of proportional representation (PR) for elections to the House of Representatives. Of course there are different forms of PR. The one Skillen favours is a state-by-state party list system in which voters would vote, not for an individual candidate, but for a party and its programme. This would eliminate the need for the periodic redrawing of electoral boundaries, along with the dangers of gerrymandering for partisan purposes.

I am pleased to count Skillen as something of a mentor, as I acknowledge in the preface to my Political Visions and Illusions. I agree with him wholeheartedly on the need for a more proportional electoral system in those countries, such as the US and Canada, where it is lacking. However, I disagree with his proposed form of PR, namely, the party list system. Why does he favour this particular reform? Skillen isolates a key problem:

Our system, after all, is one that was designed from the start to frustrate the power of the national government. Only one national official is elected by American voters as a whole, and that is the president. In November, all those running for Congress—both House and Senate—will be elected by the voters in single districts or within a single state's borders. The priority of each representative who is elected will be to function in a way that benefits his or her district or state. Senator Lieberman (D-Conn.), who argued on the one hand for lobbying reforms and election-finance reform, nonetheless made clear during his losing primary race against Ned Lamont, that the bacon he has brought back to Connecticut from Washington is great for Connecticut. My point is that we do not have national parties with an ability to govern for the national good in the United States. Voters, therefore, have little if any control over what Congress does as a body of interest-group brokers, each of whom is conscious of the need to serve his or her home district or state. All that voters can do in the few districts and states where competitive races will be held this year is to throw out one interest-group broker for another and wait to see how he or she will play the same game in Washington.

There can be no doubt that logrolling is a significant obstacle to doing public justice through the legislative process in the US. We in Canada are not as prone to this notable defect, primarily because of our more disciplined political parties and the Westminster system that places a premium on party solidarity. Garth Turner's recent expulsion from the Conservative Party's parliamentary caucus is a case in point and would be unlikely to occur south of the border.

Of course, not everyone is keen on giving more power to political parties, and it might be that, if Skillen were living and working in Canada, he might come to a different conclusion. For example, Nick Loenen, who comes out of the same Reformed tradition as Skillen and myself, favours the single transferable vote (STV), because it empowers ordinary citizens rather than party élites. Too many Canadians believe that their local member of parliament, far from representing their interests in Ottawa, does little more than to represent Ottawa back to them, as if he or she were a mere satrap of a distant imperial government.

I myself could live with either STV or a party list system, but I would much prefer a German-style mixed-member-proportional (MMP) system. Why?

In the first place, it potentially combines the best features of our current single-member system and PR. The mere fact of local, rather than fully national, representation in a parliamentary body will not necessarily lead to logrolling, if the institutional machinery, both within the party and within the legislature, is in place to facilitate a more expansive deliberation on the substantive public interest. Perhaps even more significant than institutional factors is a supportive political culture recognizing, along with Edmund Burke, that a representative is a trustee of the public interest and not merely an agent of a particular territorially-defined group of citizens. But institutional reform of any kind will not necessarily bring about this change of attitude.

Second, it recognizes that one cannot so easily cordon off local from national interests in the way that supporters of the party list system appear to assume. Again, a Canadian example should suffice to illustrate this. In 1980 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau firmly believed that enacting his National Energy Programme was in the interest of the Canadian polity as a whole. Yet Albertans disagreed and came to be persuaded that it lopsidedly benefitted the more populous provinces of Ontario and Québec at the expense of their own economic interests. A party list system would have done little if anything to ensure that the less populous provinces were not left out in the cold. Pursuing the national interest cannot mean ignoring local needs and aspirations, which must be taken into account by policy-makers. Skillen appears tacitly to acknowledge this by allowing for a state-by-state list system rather than a nationwide list system, as in Israel and the Netherlands. Yet, with Skillen, I heartily agree that the national interest cannot be reduced to a mere aggregate of local interests.

Next: More reasons to favour MMP.

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