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Democracy Cookbook: Strengthening the opposition through proportional representation

The Democracy Cookbook
The Democracy Cookbook

 

By Sean Fleming

 

One of the most serious problems with democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador is the absence of an effective opposition. Provincial elections typically result in landslide majorities that leave the other parties too weak to keep the government in check.

 

Sean Fleming
Sean Fleming

 

Although one-party dominance is due partly to Newfoundland and Labrador’s culture of political bandwagoning, it is greatly exacerbated by the first-past-the-post voting system, which tends to award a disproportionate share of the seats to the winning party. Replacing first-past-the-post with a form of proportional representation would improve democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador by strengthening the opposition.

A healthy democracy requires competition for power. Even the most competent and honest governments are prone to groupthink and complacency, so it is necessary to have a strong opposition party that holds the government accountable and offers a credible alternative to voters. Newfoundland and Labrador has had many well-meaning governments that have made ill-considered and costly decisions. The weakness of the opposition creates the conditions for mismanagement and waste.

Newfoundland and Labrador has had many well-meaning governments that have made ill-considered and costly decisions.

Ideally, first-past-the-post should produce a two-party system with a strong opposition party. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it produces alternating one-party dominance with “non-governing parties that are so dishevelled and partisan that there is often no credible opposition.” First-past-the-post magnifies one-party dominance by over-representing the government at the expense of the other parties.

These exaggerated majorities leave the opposition with neither the personnel nor the resources to hold the government accountable. With so few opposition members, legislative committees are ineffective. The real decisions tend to be made in cabinet committees. In addition, because research funding is allocated based on seat shares, the offices of the official opposition and the third party are underfunded.

What Newfoundland and Labrador needs is a voting system that awards the opposition a seat share approximating its vote share. One promising option is mixed-member proportional, which is used in Germany and New Zealand. Voters in mixed-member systems cast two votes: one for a local candidate and another for a party. Some of the seats — say, two-thirds— are allocated to candidates based on their vote totals, as in first-past-the-post. The remaining seats, known as “list seats,” are then allocated to parties so that their total seat shares are roughly equal to their vote shares. Mixed-member proportional is essentially a compromise between first-past- the-post and simple proportional representation.

For example, suppose that the 2007 general election was conducted using mixed-member proportional. There are 32 constituency seats and 16 list seats, and each party receives the same vote share and the same share of the constituency seats as it did under first-past-the-post. The distribution of constituency seats would be lopsided: 29 for the government, two for the opposition and one for the third party. However, the distribution of list seats would balance out the result: four for the government, nine for the opposition, and three for the third party. The opposition and the third party would receive a combined total of 15 seats (31 per cent) instead of the four (eight per cent) that they received under first-past-the-post.

Mixed-member proportional would both mitigate one-party dominance and provide strong local representation. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would get the opposition for which they vote, but they would still directly elect their local MHAs. It would even be possible to increase representation for remote areas of the province without adding constituencies. For instance, some list seats could be reserved for candidates from Labrador or the south coast of Newfoundland.

In the long run, mixed-member proportional would change the structure of the party system as well as the composition of the legislature. The case of New Zealand, which replaced first-past-the-post with mixed-member proportional in 1996, is instructive. All 19 elections from 1938 through 1993 produced majority governments for either the National Party or the Labour Party, and other parties were all but shut out. However, none of the seven elections since 1996 has produced a single-party majority, and other parties currently hold about a quarter of the seats. The switch to mixed-member proportional did not result in chaos, as critics feared, and a healthy majority of New Zealanders voted to keep the system in 2011.

Mixed-member proportional would alter Newfoundland and Labrador’s party system in similar ways. The NDP would become more competitive, the Labrador Party and the Green Party would likely win seats, and minority or coalition governments might eventually become the norm. The Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties would continue to win most of the seats, but they would often have to co-operate with other parties — sometimes even each other — in order to pass legislation. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would get a more effective opposition, a more accountable government, and a political system much less prone to mistakes and mismanagement.

Even the Liberal party and the Progressive Conservative party would gain in the long run from replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system with mixed-member proportional. Although they would no longer win exaggerated landslides, they would no longer be decimated and humiliated when they lose. Never again would either party fall into disarray while its rival holds all of the power.

 

About the Author

Sean Fleming (Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge) is a PhD candidate and Rothermere Fellow at the University of Cambridge. His research has been published in the European Journal of International Relations. His interests include state responsibility, early modern political thought, and the politics of artificial intelligence. He is also a close observer of Newfoundland and Labrador politics.

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