Elizabeth May succeeded despite the barriers of first-past-the-post

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Elizabeth May at a Trans Mountain pipeline protest on Burnaby Mountain. Photo: Elizabeth May/Facebook

Elizabeth May has stepped down as leader of the Green Party of Canada and will focus on her work as a parliamentarian, a role in which she has been exemplary. She will continue to act as leader of her three-member caucus, and will, no doubt, work hard to mentor her two rookie MP colleagues.

In her years as a leader, both on the political stage and in the environmental movement, May earned her reputation as a knowledgeable, determined -- and always candid -- advocate for the planet. Many opinion polls rated her at the top of the party leader standings. 

That favourable rating did not do the Greens much good when it came to winning seats in elections. In fact, given the built-in biases of our electoral system, it is a minor miracle that May’s party managed to win any seats at all in the House of Commons.

The German Greens’ experience provides a striking contrast

In the most recent Canadian election, Elizabeth May’s Greens, who ran candidates in most of Canada’s 338 ridings, won 6.5 per cent of the vote. That gave them only three seats, less than one per cent of the total. 

By contrast, the Bloc Québécois only ran candidates in Quebec’s 78 ridings, where it won a bit more than 7.5 per cent of the entire Canadian vote. That gave the Bloc 32 seats, more than 10 times as many as May’s party.

Contrast this to what happened in Germany in 1998. 

In the election of that year, the German Greens, led by Joschka Fischer, won a little over 6.5 per cent of the vote (as did May’s party in Canada this past October). But that percentage of the vote gave Fischer’s Greens 47 seats in the German equivalent of our House of Commons, the Bundestag, about seven per cent of the total.

Fischer went on to become a partner in the left-of-centre coalition government which Gerhard Schroeder, leader of the Social Democrats, put together. Schroeder became chancellor and Fischer vice chancellor and foreign minister, where he served with distinction for more than six years. 

Like Elizabeth May, Joschka Fischer often topped the polls as Germany’s favourite political leader. Unlike May, for Fischer that personal popularity translated into a significant role in Germany’s government.

If Germany had our winner-take-all, single member plurality (or first-past-the-post) system, the Greens would never have won even a single seat in the Bundestag. 

But the Germans have a mixed system. They vote twice: once for single constituency members, just like ours, and once for parties, with seats apportioned proportionately on a regional basis. In 1998, the Greens did not win any of the single-member, first-past-the-post seats. All of its 47 seats came from the party vote, distributed proportionately. 

The German mixed system has prevented what so often happens here in Canada: an excessive geographic concentration of support for political parties. 

If post-war Germany had adopted our system, its two main parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, would have become, in essence, regional parties, with the latter completely dominating the north and the former the south. 

We know all about that sort of geographic distortion in Canada. Just look at the recent results in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the Conservatives won all, save one seat. The Liberals had similar lopsided results, completely out-of-whack with the popular vote, in two elections in the 1990s in Ontario. 

If Canada had a blend of our first-past-the-post system with a balancing element of proportionality, there would now be a handful of NDP and Liberal members from Saskatchewan and Alberta, the Bloc’s parliamentary caucus would be somewhat smaller and the NDP’s bigger, and the Greens would have more than the 12 members needed for full-party status in the House.

The distortions of first-past-the-post exacerbate regional differences

The official line of the Ottawa power elite since the election is that first-past-the-post spared us the spectre of Maxime Bernier’s party (which was shut out on October 21) gaining a foothold in Parliament. 

That is false alarmism. 

It disregards the fact that nearly all proportional or partly proportional systems set a minimum popular vote threshold below which a party gets zero seats. Israel sets that minimum limit quite low, at 3.5 per cent. But even under that low threshold, Bernier’s Peoples’ Party would not have won a single seat this past October. 

In any case, one could make a good argument that the pernicious, distorting results of our first-past-the-post system far outweigh the possibility of electing a few fringe party MPs in a mixed system. 

Our system exacerbates and exaggerates regional differences. The incentives in the system motivate national parties to maximize their regional appeal -- which is what the Conservatives have done in the West. 

Worse, our system gives outsized rewards to geographically-focused parties such as the Bloc, while it punishes parties, such as the Greens, which seek to appeal to voters in all parts of the country on the basis of ideas and policies, not (real or perceived) regional grievances.

It is entirely to May's credit that she managed to make the Green party a relevant force despite the massive disadvantage of our skewed and undemocratic electoral system.  

The good news for all of us is that May is not leaving the House of Commons. And so, we can expect her to be a continuing and strong voice not only for the environment and serious action in the face of a warming planet, but for a long-past-due reform our electoral system.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

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