B.C.’s election: the perils of proportional representation

Green Party policies, rejected by more than 80% of B.C. voters, could be enacted because its support is required to form a government

By Lydia Miljan,
Jason Clemens

and Taylor Jackson
The Fraser Institute

VANCOUVER, B.C., May 17, 2017 /Troy Media/ – 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 are a teachable moment for anyone interested in electoral reform.

proportional representation
Lydia Miljan

The preliminary 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. Six ridings requested recounts and two were approved by Elections B.C., 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 with just one seat to spare.

The teachable moment? TA minority government is the norm rather than the exception in countries that elect their politicians using proportional representation (PR). 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.

proportional representation
Jason Clemens

Simply put, it’s standard fare in PR countries for large parties to have to negotiate with smaller, even fringe parties. They must secure support and potentially a coalition to form a majority government. 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. That results in important policy consequences, including higher levels of government spending and larger deficits.

In the May 9 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 be governed by a coalition government for the first time since the early 1950s.

proportional representation
Taylor Jackson

As a number of commentators have observed, the Green Party can demand that the Liberals or NDP adopt some of their policy preferences in exchange for their support in governing. This means that some Green Party policies, which more than 80 per cent of the province voted against, could be enacted because the Liberals or NDP require Green support to form a government.

One area of policy the Green Party might push to expand is the province’s carbon tax. The Green Party recommended increasing the tax to $70 per tonne by 2021 from 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. The Green Party could make their carbon price a prerequisite for support.

This kind of disproportional policy influence from smaller parties – a normal feature of PR 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 how events will unfold, but B.C. may soon be an example of how empowered small parties disproportionately influence policy.

Lydia Miljan, Jason Clemens and Taylor Jackson are contributors to a recently released collection of essays published by the Fraser Institute on electoral reform.

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