While we wait for the final results to be tidied up (especially in the Senate) from last month’s federal election in Australia, a provincial election last week in Australia’s Bizarro-twin, Canada, serves to remind us how much worse things could be – at least in terms of electoral systems.
Ontario went to the polls on Thursday to elect a new provincial parliament. In the previous election, in 2018, the Liberal Party (centre to centre-left) crashed out of office, losing almost half its votes and seven-eighths of its seats. It was replaced by the Progressive Conservatives (PC; right to centre-right), who won 76 of the 124 seats. The New Democrats (NDP; left to centre-left) became the official opposition, having clearly beaten the Liberals in both votes and seats.
So this time around the PC, under controversial premier Doug Ford, were seeking a second term; the NDP was somewhat improbably positioned as the alternative government (it has held office only once, in the early 1990s), and the Liberals were desperately trying to reclaim some relevance.
And if you just look at the votes, the opposition’s performance doesn’t look bad. The Liberals and the NDP took 47.6% of the vote between them, this time with the Liberals fractionally ahead (official results are here). That was well ahead of the PC’s 40.9%. Adding in smaller parties – the Greens and two right-wing minor parties – brings the totals to 53.5% for the left-of-centre and 45.4% right-of-centre, a quite unambiguous result.
But as you’ve probably guessed, this being Canada, the result in terms of seats bears almost no relationship to votes cast. Ford’s PC had won their large majority in 2018 with just 40.5% of the vote; this time, with a very slight increase, they added another seven seats. Although their two opposition parties were almost tied in votes, the NDP won 31 seats (down nine) and the Liberals only eight (up one). The left comfortably outvoted the right, but the right won more than twice as many seats, 83 to 40 (the Greens managed one seat for their 6.0%, and there is one independent).
A Wikipedia user has helpfully done the calculation for a Gallagher index, the standard measure of electoral unfairness. It comes out at 22.6, up (that is, worse) from an already dreadful 18.0 in 2018. Higher numbers represent greater inequality, up to a theoretical maximum of 100 (for the case where one party wins all the votes but another party wins all the seats): as a general rule, anything over ten is pretty bad and over 20 in a democracy is very unusual.
Not that Australia has any cause for complacency here. A state election in Queensland in 2012 recorded an extraordinary Gallagher score of 31.2, and the election we’ve just had came out at a higher-than-usual 15.5 for the House of Representatives, driven mainly by the large over-representation of the ALP. But we at least have the Senate, which performs better – 8.2 on provisional figures; Canada’s provinces have no upper houses.
Compare all this with a genuinely democratic electoral system, such as New Zealand’s, which at its last election (in 2020) scored just 4.2. Proportional systems in Europe routinely produce figures in the low single digits; picking one at random, the last Finnish election, in 2019, was 3.6. As I’ve said many times, this isn’t rocket science.
The causes of Ontario’s gross disproportionality aren’t hard to find. Single-member districts mean that the largest party gets a big bonus; first-past-the-post voting means that Liberals and NDP waste votes by running against each other. Districts (called “ridings”) are also badly malapportioned, which seems to particularly benefit the NDP.
The more difficult question is why do people put up with this? It’s not surprising that politicians stick with the system that got them elected; the bigger problem is with the media, who not only fail to point out the inequity, but generally fail to provide enough basic information for ordinary voters to work things out themselves. There’s no sign that Canada is alone in that respect.
But the failure does more than entrench an unfair system; it also distorts political debate. Ford’s brand of Trumpism (much like the American original, but with even less excuse) is discussed, whether favorably or not, in terms that presume it to represent a collective choice on the part of Ontario’s voters. Yet that is demonstrably untrue.
The same sort of ignorance and distortion affects debate in Australia, in ways that no doubt we’ll consider as final figures come in over the next couple of weeks. But at least we have the consolation that we’re not as badly off as Canada.