First Past The Post (FPTP) works

Journalist Tristan Hopper, writing in the National Post, says the he and his newspaper polled several constitutional scholars to get “their favourite arguments in favour of FPTP.” In the interests of the free discussion of ideas I am quoting his article at length, under the Fair Dealing provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act. The experts say FPTP is better than the other choices because:

  • It lets you know who to blame
    Frequent majority governments are the signature aspect of FPTP. Under a Brian-Mulroneyproportional representation system, Brian Mulroney and John Diefenbaker would have been the only prime ministers of the last 70 years able to obtain the 50 per cent plus one of the electorate needed to command a majority. Majorities, even false majorities, are good because they ensure maximum accountability. If Canada’s in tatters in four years, voters can lay the blame exclusively on Justin Trudeau, and he can’t weasel out by pointing the finger at some coalition partner. Other countries don’t have this luxury. If Israelis take issue with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy planks, for instance, he could easily pass the buck to one of the hardline religious types holding his coalition together. This has been a problem for some time in Israel. As far back as 2008, this exact charge was being levelled at Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. “The need to satisfy the narrow and often contradictory wishes of his coalition partners made it almost impossible for Mr Olmert to pursue coherent policies,” wrote the Financial Times.
  • It throws bums out
    Canadians don’t just vote out governments, they vote them the hell out; the 1084px-Canada_1993_Federal_Election.svgProgressive Conservatives reduced to two seats in 1993, the B.C. NDP reduced to two seats in 2001, etc. But under a system in which the share of MPs perfectly represented the popular vote, the 2015 election might not have decisively blown Stephen Harper into the political wilderness. Rather, the ex-Conservative leader could have commanded a respectable caucus of 108 seats staring down a Liberal minority holding only 39 per cent of the House of Commons. “I can’t imagine anything much worse than a voting system that leaves half-dead governments living on life support,” wrote U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in a 2011 op-ed in support of FPTP. Incidentally, that year the U.K. put their own electoral system to a referendum vote, and FPTP won.
  • It keeps the Queen out of our business
    It’s very, very rare that the Canadian governor general is actually called upon to do anything. For about 100 years, all they’ve really needed to do is rubber stamp majority governments and — in the case of minority governments — swear in whichever party got the most votes. But in a more fractured parliament, where majorities would be exceedingly rare, the governor general would be in the frequent position of deciding the rise or fall of Canadian governments. (This might be fine, but Canadians have a history of freaking out whenever it seems like Rideau Hall is about to do something that actually affects us.)
  • It’s not fair — but it gives government cover to do fair things
    This is the argument that pro-FPTP types roll out when someone calls it “unfair”: Yes, it’s inherently unfair for people to become MPs with only 33.4 per cent of their riding’s support, but the system does have a track record of (generally) doing the right thing. Arguably, first past the post is at its best when a government has to do something that is right, but not politically popular. Successive majority governments, for instance, gave the 1990s Jean Chretien government sufficient cover to slash the deficit. This would have been far trickier if, as would have been the case under proportional representation, Chretien had been leading a Liberal minority that could have fallen at any minute on a budget vote. “I do think that the kind of security that governments enjoy with a majority government, it’s an important part of the distinctiveness of Canada,” veteran political scientist David E. Smith told the National Post.
  • 149 years without a revolution
    It’s a bit tricky to definitively rank the world’s oldest continuously operating governments. But Canada — tiny, young, unassuming Canada — is easily in the top 10, noted Peter Loewen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Every other country in the G20 save for the United States and the U.K. has had to rejig their government at least once in the last 150 years, sometimes violently. France, for one, drew up an entirely new republic as recently as 1958. It’s admittedly easier to keep a country stable when it’s rich and has secure borders, but parliament-watchers like Loewen urge Canadians to appreciate the staying power of the current system. Just like an Ikea dresser, that European-style proportional representation system might look good now, but it’s a whole different story if the handles break off in a few years.
  • New ideas aren’t shut out — if they’re good and popular, they’re just stolen
    Tommy Douglas is widely revered as the father of socialized healthcare in Canada. 1998_douglas_stampBut of course, it wasn’t a Prime Minister Douglas who ushered in the change, it was a bunch of savvy Liberals and Tories who stole his idea because they could see which way the wind was blowing. More recently — as the satirical website The Syrup Trap has pointed out — the Liberals won their majority government in 2015 with a platform eerily similar to that of the 2008 Green Party. A critique of FPTP is that it essentially hands the government to two parties, and shuts out alternative voices. But new ideas do find their way onto Parliament Hill, just in a skulduggerous way that is obviously quite frustrating to political upstarts: You have to run a quixotic Bernie Sanders-style campaign and, if you get enough votes and shake up enough ridings, your best ideas will simply be co-opted by faceless “big tent” competitors. “That’s the joy of brokerage under FPTP,” Ottawa-based Westminster expert Philippe Lagassé said. “New and fringe ideas aren’t ignored. They’re co-opted based on how good and potentially popular they are.”
  • It’s fascist-proof!
    This is a bit of a stretch, but extremists do terribly in first past the post parliaments. Across the Atlantic at the original first past the post parliament, British history is filled with extremist movements who crop up, make flags and run candidates, only to get relentlessly thrashed come election day. Even at the height of their influence, the neo-fascist British National Party could crack 500,000 votes, but they never got close to getting an MP elected. One British historian has even called FPTP a “major obstacle” for Britain’s far right. It’s also a key explanation of how brazen racists have infiltrated almost every legislature on the European continent, but are conspicuously absent in Westminster (the only FPTP system in Europe). Under FPTP, parties have to be on guard against vote-splitting, which necessarily favours boring “big tent” parties where extremism is thoroughly stamped out.
  • Instability-plagued Italy is doing almost the exact opposite of Canada
    Oddly, just as his Canadian counterpart promises to dismantle his country’s own Cover-Vanity-Fair-47-2013-Matteo-Renzi_305x380majority-favouring electoral system, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi [pictured] was moving heaven and earth to do the exact opposite. Last year, Italy approved a reform package that grants an instant majority to any party that achieves at least 40 per cent of the vote. The reason? Stability. Italy has had 13 governments in 20 years and — as the experience of Greece has illustrated — constant elections can really be a pain in the neck when things start to go sideways.


Those, especially the last two notions that FPTP helps keep extremists out and that it helps make governments stable are especially compelling.

There are, really, no good, compelling arguments for any system  other than FPTP, in my opinion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an off the cuff promise that this would be the last election run under FPTP. Conservatives, rightly, demand a national referendum and we should also demand that any referendum offer a range of options, including, at least:

  • The existing FPTP system ` which most Conservatives favour;
  • A real, list system based, proportional representation  ~ which is most favoured by the NDP;
  • A mixed member constituency ~ which some Liberals favour; and
  • A single, transferable ballot system ~ which many Liberals favour.

No change away from our established, understood FPTP system should occur unless one system gets 50%+1 of the ballots cast.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

2 thoughts on “First Past The Post (FPTP) works

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: