B.C.’s election—a teachable moment on proportional representation

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, May 12, 2017

Former U.S. President Barack Obama popularized the phrase “teachable moment” by pointing out that events, even tragedies, are often opportunities for the public to learn more about policy. The election results in British Columbia, which are still to be finalized, are a teachable moment for anyone interested in electoral reform.

The preliminary election results indicate a minority government for the incumbent Liberals, who with 40.8 per cent of the vote secured 43 of the legislature’s 87 seats. Several ridings require recounts including one riding where the NDP, which placed second overall (41 seats), leads by only nine votes. If this riding flips to the Liberals, they will secure a majority government but with only one seat to spare.

The teachable moment exists in the fact that this electoral result, namely a minority government, is the norm rather than the exception in countries that elect their politicians using proportional representation (PR). For example, a recent study showed that 83 per cent of elections in advanced democracies that use PR resulted in coalitions compared to only 15 per cent in countries that elect their politicians the way we do in Canada.

Simply put, it’s standard fare in PR countries for large parties to have to negotiate with smaller, even fringe parties, to secure support and potentially a coalition to form a majority government because it’s extremely difficult for large parties to secure enough seats to form a majority without coalitions with other parties. These negotiations often lead to larger parties having to adopt the policy preferences of smaller parties to garner their support, resulting in important policy consequences, including higher levels of government spending and larger deficits in countries.

In Tuesday’s B.C. election, the third place Green Party won three seats based on 16.7 per cent of the vote and now holds the balance of power (unless the Liberals win another seat due to recount). This means the province could soon be governed by a coalition government for the first time since the early 1950s.
As a number of commentators have already observed, the Green Party now is in a position to demand that either the Liberals or NDP adopt some of their policy preferences in exchange for their support in governing. This effectively means that some of the Green Party’s policies, which more than 80 per cent of the province voted against, could be enacted because either the Liberals or NDP require Green support to form a government.

For example, one area of policy the Green Party might push for is the province’s carbon tax. The Green Party recommended increasing the tax to $70 per tonne by 2021 compared to the current $30 per tonne. This is in contrast to the Liberal plan to freeze the carbon tax and the NDP plan to increase it to $50 per tonne by 2022. It’s possible the Green Party may make their preferred carbon price a prerequisite for their support.

This kind of disproportional policy influence from smaller parties—a normal feature of PR election systems—is unfamiliar to most Canadians since our electoral system is designed to more often than not deliver majority mandates. It remains to be seen just how the events of Tuesday will unfold, but B.C. may well soon be an example of how empowered small parties disproportionately influence policy.

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