LGBT Canadians should be wary of changing our electoral system

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It has only been quite recently that all mainstream political parties in Canada have embraced LGBT equality, not just in marriage, but also in matters of civil rights and criminal law. Those hard-won equality rights are now enshrined as fundamental legal principles in this country and are not seriously challenged by any of the political parties with a legitimate claim to representation in our legislative institutions. Our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system makes it very difficult for fringe political parties to reach the necessary threshold to elect representatives in Parliament or the provincial Legislative Assemblies. This is an important feature of FPTP systems that acts as a check on extremist political movements that can be hostile to LGBT people. The example of some other western democracies that use a form of proportional representation (PR) to elect their legislatures should be a warning to LGBT Canadians.

In the FPTP system that is used to elect federal Members of Parliament in Canada, a political movement must secure a plurality of election votes in any given riding to send an elected representative to the House of Commons. It is relatively difficult for Canadian political parties to elect Members of Parliament; there are currently 21 parties officially registered with Elections Canada, but only five have elected MPs in the House of Commons.

The experience of the Green Party of Canada (GPC) is often used by opponents of FPTP to illustrate the supposed inequities of our current electoral system. The smallest party in Parliament, the GPC won 3.45% of the national popular vote in the 2015 election but elected only one MP, leader Elizabeth May, who represents 0.3% of the 338 MPs in the House of Commons. Ms May won her own seat with 54.35% of the vote in her BC riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, but Green Party candidates failed to win a plurality in any other riding. Green Party support is spread thinly across Canada, and the party has difficulty concentrating its support in most ridings in sufficient levels to achieve a plurality of votes. By comparison, the Bloc Québecois elected ten MPs, or 3% of the total, with only 4.7% of the popular vote, because the party’s support is concentrated in several ridings in the Province of Quebec.

Two western democracies with a form of proportional representation can serve as examples of the potential danger to the LGBT community of a PR electoral system. The Parliaments of Hungary and Greece demonstrate how extremist parties with agendas hostile to LGBT interests can gain influence in legislative institutions.

Hungary has a mixed-member proportional system with 199 seats in its Parliament. 106 of those seats are filled in single-member constituencies by a first-past-the-post election. The remaining 93 seats are allotted based on proportional representation from national lists of candidates. These lists can be published by political parties or by what are known as ’national minority local governments’ (groups representing ethnic minorities such as Slovaks, Germans, and Roma). To qualify for a national list, parties must have candidates running in at least nine out of Hungary’s 19 counties, plus the capital and at least 27 single-member constituencies. There are 63 registered political parties in Hungary, but only 18 of them meet the criteria to set up national lists. There are 13 ethnic minorities that qualify to set up national lists. Parties and ethnic minorities must meet a threshold of 5% of the popular vote for their lists to be represented in Parliament.

In Hungary’s last Parliamentary election in 2014, 23 political parties and 13 ethnic minorities were represented on the ballot. Five political parties elected members in the single-member constituency elections, and nine political parties sent members to parliament from the national lists. None of the ethnic minority lists met the threshold for representation in Parliament.
Of particular interest in the Hungarian election is the party known as the “Movement for a Better Hungary”. It is commonly called by a shortened version of its Hungarian name, “Jobbik”. After the 2014 election, it sent 23 party list members to Parliament, although it did not elect any members in the FPTP constituencies. The party earned approximately a million votes, or 20.2 % of the total, and ended up with 11.6% of the seats in Parliament. Without the PR list candidates, Jobbik would not have been represented in the Hungarian Parliament.

Jobbik (Hungary)

JOBBIK (HUNGARY)

Jobbik describes itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party”. It says its fundamental purpose is “protecting Hungarian values and interests.” It has been linked to extreme Hungarian ethnic nationalism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. In 2012, Jobbik introduced a bill in the Hungarian Parliament to ban the “popularization of sexual deviancy” to “protect public morals and the mental health of the young generations”. The bill proposed to amend the criminal code and laws governing advertising and the media to target “homosexuality, sex changes, transvestitism, bisexuality and paedophile behaviour”. The bill would have criminalized the activities of anyone who “popularises their sexual relations – deviancy – with another person of the same sex, or other disturbances of sexual behaviour, before the wider public”. These activities, which would have included Gay Pride parades, would have been punishable by three years in prison, or five years if the activities were conducted in front of minors (ten years if the minor was under the perpetrator’s care). At the time the bill was introduced, a Jobbik spokesman said, “All normal people think that (such behaviours) have a distinctly negative effect on the psychological development of the younger generation.” The bill ultimately failed to become law.

Greece uses a form of proportional representation called “reinforced PR”. Deputies to the Greek Parliament are elected in 56 single- or multi-member local constituencies and 12 nationwide constituencies. Voters choose from party lists using a preferential ballot. The party with a plurality of the popular vote is “reinforced” with a 50 seat “premium” after the election. Political parties receiving at least 3% of the popular vote receive a minimum of six seats in Parliament. There are currently 19 registered political parties in Greece, eight of which have elected members in the Greek Parliament.

An especially odious political movement in Greece is represented in Parliament by the Golden Dawn Party. It has been described as a fascist neo-Nazi movement which espouses extreme racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic ideas. Members of Golden Dawn have been responsible for acts of violence directed at political opponents, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals. Golden Dawn supporters are suspected of being behind a rise in attacks against LGBT people in Greece, including a 2014 incident where a gay couple was attacked and severely beaten in Athens. Golden Dawn politicians have publicly made homophobic statements directed at the LGBT community in Greece, praising Hitler and calling homosexuality a “sickness”.  Party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, along with four Golden Dawn Members of Parliament and 14 party members, was arrested in 2013 in connection with the murder of an anti-fascist Greek rapper.

Golden Dawn (Greece)

GOLDEN DAWN (GREECE)

Although Golden Dawn is considered to be on the fringe of Greek politics, the country’s PR electoral system ensures that it is well-represented in Parliament. In the 2015 national election, the party received 6.99% of the popular vote, winning 18 seats in the 300-seat assembly. It is now the third-largest party in Parliament, despite obtaining only 380 000 votes out of a total of 5.4 million ballots cast. The party also currently holds three of the 21 Greek seats in the European Parliament.

Although one should not draw direct parallels between the political cultures of Canada and countries like Hungary and Greece, these two examples point out a feature of FPTP that protects minorities like the LGBT community from extremist political movements. In both Hungary and Greece, PR guarantees that fringe parties like Jobbik and Golden Dawn are represented in the elected legislatures, and in multi-party systems where coalition governments are common, small fringe parties often hold power over coalition formation that is disproportionate to their level of popular support.

In a FPTP system like Canada’s, a political movement must earn significant support in multiple ridings to be elected to Parliament, and to become a significant political player a party must earn broad support across the country in many regions. To achieve this support, Canadian political parties must adopt platforms with deep and widespread popular appeal. Parties with narrow or extreme political agendas rarely meet that threshold. Of the 21 official federal political parties in Canada, only five have managed to elect members to the House of Commons. Most of them are nowhere near the nationwide level of support enjoyed by the Green Party; the party with the next-highest level of support, the Libertarian Party, had only 0.21% of the popular vote in the 2015 election.

However, fringe parties with anti-LGBT agendas are active in Canada. The Christian Heritage Party got approximately 15 000 votes in 2015, or 0.09% of the popular vote. This party’s platform includes opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBT civil rights, and restrictions on education curriculum elements sympathetic to LGBT people. Although obviously not as virulently anti-gay as Jobbik or Golden Dawn, the Christian Heritage Party would clearly roll back LGBT rights in Canada if given the chance.

In our current FPTP system, fundamentalist Christian activist organizations with anti-LGBT agendas such as the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) must work within mainstream political parties to influence the national political agenda. The CLC attempts to “take over the political process” by encouraging its members to joinmainstream political parties, to serve on local party electoral district associations, to influence the election candidate selection process at the riding level, and to support sympathetic party leadership candidates. Recently the CLC mounted a sustained, but unsuccessful, campaign to stop efforts by delegates to remove language opposing same-sex marriage from the Conservative Party of Canada’s policy declaration at the party’s Vancouver convention in May 2016.

Since a mainstream party must present a platform with broad appeal to a wide cross-section of the electorate in order to form a government, the FPTP system exerts a moderating effect on political parties and minimizes the influence of anti-LGBT fringe parties and activist groups. In a PR system, organizations like the CLC would throw their support behind a party like the Christian Heritage Party, helping it to reach the much lower electoral threshold required to send MPs to Parliament. Fringe parties in a PR system would, like Greece’s Golden Dawn Party or Hungary’s Jobbik Party, feel no pressure to moderate extreme political positions.

The FPTP system, for all its perceived drawbacks in accurately reflecting the electoral will of the people as expressed by the popular vote, has features that create moderate, stable governments. Adopting a PR system in Canada would make it easier for small activist groups espousing policies hostile to the interests of LGBT people to be represented in Parliament and, ultimately, to influence the national political agenda. Abandoning the FPTP electoral system risks abandoning the safeguards that put extreme political movements where they belong: on the margins of public discourse.

Eric Lorenzen
Hastings County, Ontario

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