The pains of voting system in Wellington and Canada

The pains of voting system in Wellington and Canada

Wellington, October 24, 2019

Peter Dunne

As the interminable saga surrounding the Wellington Mayoralty election result drags on, some are already blaming the uncertainty on the fact that the election was carried out under proportional representation – in this case, the Single Transferable Vote system Wellington has used for several recent elections.

Had this been a First Past the Post election, they argue, the incumbent Mayor would probably have been returned with about 40% of the vote, on a turnout of just over 40%, meaning his effective mandate would have come from about 16% of the total Wellington electorate.

At least, when the Wellington result is finally determined, it will able to be said that the person eventually elected will have had the support of the majority of voters, however slim that might be.

The Canadian Conundrum

On a bigger scale, if ever there was an example of why proportional representation systems provide for a fairer expression of the public will, however perverse and contradictory that might be, this week’s Canadian Federal election is surely it.

In the lead-up to the election, conducted under the First Past the Post system, there was much commentary about how split and divided Canada has become and that this would be reflected in the election result, possibly to the detriment of the Trudeau Liberal Government.

Indeed, the results reflect that. The Liberals have won 157 out of 338 seats to remain the largest party, but no longer with an overall majority.

The Conservatives are a clear second on 121 seats; the Bloc Quebecois has 32 seats; the New Democratic Party 24 seats and the Greens 3 seats. A period of minority government looms, unless the Liberals and perhaps the New Democratic Party can come to some sort of agreement on confidence and supply issues. Already, there is speculation that Canadians will be returning to the polls in a couple of years.

Proportional Representation

However, had the election been conducted under a proportional representation system, like, for example our MMP system, a completely different result would have occurred.

While more complex, it would have nonetheless been more reflective of the regional and cultural differences bedevilling Canada at present.

Under such a scenario the Liberals would have been joined as the largest party in Parliament by the Conservatives. With 34.4% of the vote the Conservatives would have won 116 seats, the same number as the ruling Liberals who won just 33% of the vote. The New Democrats would have jumped from 24 to 54 seats, reflecting their 15.9% vote share, and in a similar vein the Bloc Quebecois would have dropped to 26 seats, reflecting their 7.7% vote share. The Greens, meanwhile, would have been the big winners, jumping from 3 seats to 22 seats because of their 6.5% vote share.

Of course, such a result would have made government formation even more difficult, although it would have brought the New Democrats and the Greens with a combined putative 76 seats more strongly into play as potential partners for the Liberals, than the actual 27 seats they won between them.

Now while such a result is of course hypothetical, it does highlight some of the imbalances within First Past the Post electoral systems.

The New Zealand experience

We know from the New Zealand experience that First Past the Post consistently over-represented the major parties at the expense of the smaller ones. In this Canadian election, the two major parties received just over 67% of the vote between them, however won over 82% of the seats in Parliament. Even between them, the result was uneven.

With more than 1% less of the vote than the Conservatives, the Liberals still managed to win 36 more seats than them.

And the result highlighted how much more difficult First Past the Post electoral systems are for smaller parties.

Although just over 30% of voters supported the three smaller parties, they actually won only 18% of the seats. The Greens were undoubtedly the hardest done by – their 6.5% vote produced just three seats, just under one-seventh of what it would have been under proportional representation. Put another way, this result has over-represented the major parties in Parliament by around 20%, while under-representing the smaller parties by almost 75%.

Canada undoubtedly faces a challenging period ahead.

Healing the wounds of what was a very bitter election campaign, while resuscitating the shattered dreams of the last three years, following the return of second generation Trudeaumania three years ago will be mighty tasks.

However, Canada is no stranger to minority federal governments. There have been fourteen in all, including three successive minority governments under both the Liberals and the Conservatives between 2004 and 2011.

Notwithstanding the vagaries of its electoral system, Canada has nevertheless made minority government work over the years, by focusing on building consensus.

The parallels in Wellington

There are parallels here for the current situation in Wellington.

On the reasonable assumption the current Mayoral result holds, the Council will have a clear majority for the left, although the Mayor is from the right.

If, as early signs worryingly suggest, the left’s approach will be to simply try to use its force of numbers to win everything its way, Wellington is effectively in for three more years of stalemate. Canadian minority governments over the years have governed by focusing on what brings the country together, rather than division on too stark a set of party lines. It is a lesson that should not be lost on the Wellington City Council as it embarks upon the new triennium.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He founded the UnitedFuture Party but wound it up when retired from Parliament. Mr Dunne lives in Wellington.

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