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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

BC STV Referendum: The Irish Experience

There was a post here on the Western Standard the other day that kind of took me by surprise.  It was about the BC STV Referendum, and it was titled "Short for Stymies Traditionalist Voters"?.

Besides misunderstanding how the BC STV system works (and here's a video both sides in the referendum point to, which explains STV better), the writer of the post said "I'm discouraged that no one is looking closely at how similar voting systems have played out in other countries."

Visit the home pages of either side in the BC STV referendum, and it won't take you long to find them referencing the foreign experience.  In fact, it was the BC-STV 'No' side's prominent, and I think irrelevant, dig at Ireland's system which got me looking - not at the absence of talk about how the system works in other countries - but about the quality of that talk.

I've lived in Ireland, and of all the many problems I saw when I was there, I never heard a single person attribute any of them to the voting system.  In fact, when you look into it in any way, the criticisms you see of the Irish STV experience are almost the exact opposite of the criticisms you see here in BC.

Next week I'll be putting up another piece on STV with interviews with a few prominent professors.  One of those interviews is with Professor Michael Gallagher, of Trinity College Dublin.  Dr. Gallagher is Ireland's foremost expert on voting systems.  Among his books on the topic is The Politics of Electoral Systems.  It's a book that the Canadian Journal of Political Science calls 'no less than the bible of electoral systems'*.

The first question I had for Dr. Gallagher was - 'does the Irish system work'?

Michael Gallagher (MG): Yes, it does. Parties in Ireland are represented in parliament in close proportion to their voting strength, comparable with the average for proportional representation electoral systems across Europe. In policy terms, it is true to say that the main Irish parties are not very different from each other

Western Standard (WS): The criticism of PR-STV that you have described as 'the most plausible' is that it imposes an excessive burden on TDs (Members of Ireland's Parliament) to perform constituency duties.  Here in Canada, opponents of STV are attacking the system for the exact opposite reason, claiming that it would effectively cost many small and rural communities their representation.  Can you please explain what effect STV has on constituency representation?

MG: That is the most widespread criticism of PR-STV in Ireland, but others believe that the close links between TDs and their constituents result more from the political culture in Ireland (voters expect this close contact and would insist on it regardless of the electoral system) and from the small size of the country (a ratio of around 1 TD per 12,000 voters), and thus are not convinced that PR-STV is the cause of those close links. In much larger constituencies, such as those in BC, MPs would still have an incentive to be responsive to their constituents, both to win more support from other candidates of their own party and to attract lower preferences from supporters of other parties.

WS: In 'Politics in the Republic of Ireland' you wrote that STV can have 'consequences for government stability'.  Could you elaborate on this?

MG: Like any PR electoral system, it is less likely than the first-past-the-post system to create an 'artificial majority' that means one party can form a government on its own. Hence coalition governments are much more common under any kind of PR, including PR-STV. In practice, government stability has not been a problem in Ireland.

As I said, next week, as we get closer to the referendum, I'll be posting a few interviews from other professors on both sides.

You can read my previous interviews with the leaders of the Yes side and the No side here.

Posted by Robert Jago on May 5, 2009 in Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


I am sorry that I made a mistake in assuming how BC-STV would work, for which I apologize.

In my defense, however, if I can make such a mistake being a person who tries to follow politics closely, we can expect that there will be a lot of spoiled ballots with an STV election next time should it be adopted. Watch for people to vote for five or six first choices for MLA, as I would have. (That wouldn't be a strong argument not to adopt STV, certainly, but on the level of "Why introduce a headache that you don't need?", it might be interesting to consider.)

In my own comments on STV, I tried to cite several examples of how preferential voting--which will be a feature of BC's system--tends to work out in practice.

I suggest that fans of smaller government might have reason to fear that an STV would work against them. This would be due to leftward voting tendencies of B.C. voters-- namely that they would probably be more likely in the current election and perhaps the next election or two, to vote Green than for the parties of the right.

To make Shotgun readers happy, we would need to have the second and third choices, as happened in the 1952 and 1953 B.C. elections, go to another "conservative" party. Can we count on that happening every single time with the preferential voting system that STV would be? I think that B.C. was lucky in the 1950s and suggest that conservative voters here cannot expect to press their luck successfully under STV.

What I suggest would be interesting would be to talk to the leader of Ireland's Libertarian Party. Are they able to elect members to Ireland's parliament, or does the voting system tend to elect members from the extreme left parties instead? In Ireland, do budgets and the size of government grow to cater to the small leftist parties, whose seats (or second and third preference votes) are needed to return governments to power?

I would very much like to be wrong, as I am making an educated guess here, but if Irish libertarians, for example, were to sigh and tell us "STV doesn't help us to get elected, really", then I suggest that would be a bad sign.

Posted by: Rick Hiebert | 2009-05-05 1:20:14 PM

Until it was disbanded earlier this year, the Irish libertarians had a party called the Progressive Democrats. They formed a part of 4 coalition governments and forced Ireland right, cutting taxes, cutting welfare, and privatizing and liberalizing the economy.

Posted by: Robert Jago | 2009-05-05 1:38:45 PM

The leftward argument is not a valid on against STV. The government more representative of the wishes of the electorate. It has not produced more left wing policies out of Australia. Bottom line STV should eliminate strategic voting which is where FPTP becomes very complicated!

Posted by: Louis Poirier | 2009-05-06 10:29:28 AM

Normally spoiled ballots are not a particular problem with STV.
In 2007, Scotland used MMP for the Parliament, and for the first time, STV for local elections. These elections were held on the same day.
Despite these unpropitious circumstances, there were less than 2% of ballot papers spoiled using STV. Whereas there were more than twice that many spoiled using the already tried system of MMP, resulting in an official enquiry and an apology.
This belies the standing complaint by opponents that STV is too complicated. In fact it is not.

Posted by: Richard Lung | 2009-05-06 1:00:11 PM

My chief concern is that this system would result in more minority governments. As the ongoing circus in Ottawa demonstrates, they can be quite dysfunctional. Parties spend so much time trying to topple governments and provoke elections that they forget to create policy.

I'd be more sympathetic to this proposal if it came with an overhaul of our electoral system that eliminated confidence motions, set fixed election dates, and in general eliminated the problems associated with minority parliaments in this country. Unfortunately, that might require a a new Constitution.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-06 1:10:03 PM

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