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Letter to the Editor
John C. Courtney

Sir: 

In his review of my book, Elections, Dennis Pilon while agreeing with many of my conclusions about various Canadian election procedures, takes exception to my analysis of the efficacy of First Past the Post (FPTP) and characterizes my view of democracy as “narrow, limited and elitist.” This is a serious misreading of the book. 

A fundamental of Canadian democracy that critics of FPTP (such as Professor Pilon) often overlook is that elections are not simply a way of expressing one's preference(s) among parties and/or candidates.  They are also about other matters of equal or even greater importance. 

Principal among an election's functions are: constructing a parliament and, eventually, a government that can ensure some measure of economic and political stability; guaranteeing as great a degree of electoral accountability as possible; and fostering parties and a party system that can aim to ensure inter-regional, accommodative representation in caucus and around the cabinet table.  An election in Canada is about brokering often conflicting demands that surface naturally in a vast, diverse country. 

He says my book holds to a position that is “out-of-date.”  I would argue the opposite. For electors to cast an informed vote Canadian political parties must do their best to broker conflicting social and regional demands prior to an election, not subsequent to it. FPTP encourages that more than proportional voting.  One need look no further back than the post-election negotiations following the recent German and New Zealand elections to be reminded of that fact. 

I would be the first to accept (as is witnessed by everything I have written on the question of electoral reform over the past quarter century) that FPTP has not always produced parliaments and parties that brokered or mediated inter-regional rivalries well. We need only think of the National Energy Program or the CF-18 refitting in recent times or as far back as the Manitoba Schools Question in the 1890s to remind ourselves that governing parties can take policy positions that effectively destroy their capacity to mediate inter-regional rivalries. 

The essential point is that a set of party strategies might well come into play under proportional voting that would make it rational, at least in electoral terms, for prospective coalition partners in government to essentially “vacate” particular regions or groups to one another. What such a development would mean for brokered and accommodative politics in the weeks, months or even years leading up to a federal election is far from certain at election time.  The bottom line is a well-established truth of political science: as electoral systems impact on representation it is difficult to predict how a change in one will affect the other. How a new electoral system would change representative (and ultimately governing) practices in Canada remains an open question and, for some at least, a cause of unease. 

Electoral reformers cannot have it both ways. They cannot criticize others for making comparisons with non-FPTP countries such as Israel, the Netherlands, or Italy while at the same time persisting in calling for the introduction of some unspecified form of “Proportional Representation” (PR) in Canada. Each of these three countries has some form of PR. Until such time as there is unambiguous agreement in Canada on a single alternative to FPTP and until such time as advocates of electoral change stop referring generically to PR, it is fair game to include all non-plurality electoral systems in comparisons. 

Finally, it is simply wrong of Professor Pilon to assert that my book constructs a “straw argument” by concluding that there is no “automatic relationship” between PR and women's representation. I took some care in constructing the analysis of electoral systems and women's representation and noted that “some comparative studies … confirm a positive link between proportional elections and increased election of females” (p. 151) and that list PR offers the most “woman-friendly” electoral system (p. 152). I also made clear that history, cultural values, and political socialization are every bit as important as the method of election in explaining why in some countries women are elected in larger numbers than in others. 

John C. Courtney
Professor Emeritus, Political Studies
University of Saskatchewan and Public Policy Scholar 
Woodrow Wilson International Center Washington, DC 


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 28 no 4
2005






Last Updated: 2019-07-15