Saturday, November 8, 2008

Criticism #2: BC-STV will lead to more minority governments.

This is another common argument presented that switching to BC-STV will lead to more minority governments, with critics trying to paint this apocalyptical picture of never-ending minorities mired in legislative stand-offs with political life being relegated to one long campaign as endless elections, being called every 6-12 months, usurp political discussion.

First off, I’ll start off by saying that, yes, there will be more minorities. And that’s how it should be; it’s pretty rare for a majority of the population to vote for a single party. So if a party only wins minority support in the ballot box, then it should likewise only win a corresponding minority of seats in the House or Legislature. Conversely, a party should be awarded a majority government only if the electorate wants one i.e. a majority of the electorate votes for that party. So when you think about it, the critics’ argument that FPTP is better because it produces more majorities is poor because it has to do so by misrepresenting the votes of the people.

But that’s not the only flaw in their argument. The critics’ assertion that switching to BC-STV will mean more elections because of more minority governments is based on the assumption that minorities under BC-STV will be as unstable as under FPTP. This isn’t true. In the Republic of Ireland, the average life of a minority in the last sixty years has been 3.7 years. Over the same time period Canada and BC, governments have lasted 3.15 and 3.55 years respectively (info courtesy of Antony Hodgson). And don't forget that we have had more majority governments. There is actually a page on the Elections Ireland website that lists the election years along the top. If you take a look, you see that elections actually happen relatively infrequently, with some minority governments even lasting as long as 5 years.

Why is this? Because there is a flaw, inherent to FPTP, that actually provides incentives for politicians to bring down minority governments sooner rather than later. Since STV addresses this flaw, the incentive is removed, leading to longer lasting minority governments.

This flaw, again, has to do with our FPTP system’s failure to produce proportional results; it simply is not cut out to deal with elections where there are more than 2 candidates. Because it is not able to account for vote splitting, margins of victory etc., you have these elections where small changes in the polls can lead to wildly skewed election results.

Let’s take our 2008 federal election as an example.

Stephen Harper and the Conservatives ended up winning 143 seats, a 15% increase from 2006, despite the fact that their share of the popular vote only increased by 1.3% (from 36.3% to 37.6%). On the flip side, Stephan Dion and the Liberals lost 27 seats, a 26% fall from 2006, even though they only dropped 4% in the polls. (wikipedia)

And this is why politicians call elections so frequently under minority governments. Because they know that small changes in public popularity can lead to huge swings in election results. So they wait until the political winds shift ever so slightly in their favour, and then bring down the government, hoping to capitalize on the windfall.

Mr. Harper called an early election for this very reason, banking that the polls would shift just enough to give him a majority. If the polls went in the other direction, you can bet it would be Mr. Dion working to bring down the government.

Now let’s take this scenario and apply it to the context of STV. Under STV, because it is proportional, a small increase in the polls would lead to.... only a small increase in seats won and visa versa. So the Conservatives 1.3% boon would only translate to about an extra 3-4 seats in the House; calling an election wouldn’t have really changed the look of parliament. The incentive has now been removed because public opinion usually doesn’t vary that much so politicians don’t have a reason to call an election since it’s not going to lead to a dramatic shift in power.

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