Paul Tuns has a meandering piece in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen that ends up arguing against proportional representation, claiming that it is “a solution that is worse than the supposed problem it addresses.” One could debate this claim, but I won’t. Reasonable people can disagree about the advantages and disadvantages of PR. But in making his case, Tuns uses some seriously flawed, not to say totally manufactured, “facts.” Like so:

According to [John] Pepall, PR is “the political drug of choice for small parties” because it gives them seats in a legislature without winning broad support. Often in PR systems, small parties hold the balance of power, giving them disproportionate power within government, such as in Israel, where small religious parties often join coalitions with their handful of members dictating a broad range of policy positions as the cost of propping up the government.

Similarly, in West Germany from 1949 through 1990, the Free Democrats won about a quarter of the votes the Social Democrats did, yet held almost the same number of cabinet seats as they propped up both the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats while finishing third in every election. How proportionate is that?

I can’t speak to the situation in Israel, but his narrative of German post-war history is pretty much entirely wrong.

For one thing, counting cabinet posts is a bizarre method of assessing proportionality – you look at seats in parliament for that. But even if the method were sound, Tuns’ figures are still way off. Between 1949 and 1990 (why those dates?), the Free Democrats were the junior partner in all but two governments: in 1957, the Christian Democrats won an absolute majority and governed alone for the next four years, and from 1966-69, the government was formed by a “great coalition” of the two largest parties, the Christian and the Social Democrats. In all, the FDP belonged to 11 out of 13 governments over those decades.

(That’s simplifying things a bit, since there were technically 16 governments: one was re-formed virtually unchanged after a scandal led to the mass resignation of much of the cabinet in 1962; one was reconstituted when the long-reigning Chancellor Adenauer handed over the party leadership to Ludwig Erhard in 1963; and one was formed when the Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt resigned in 1974 and was replaced by his colleague Helmut Schmidt. But none of those changes involved a switch of ruling parties, nor did they follow an election, which is why taking them into account would mean misleadingly double counting posts and seats.)

Over the same period, the Social Democrats were part of five governments (using the same logic to avoid double counting).

As the governing party, they held 56 cabinet posts in those five governments, just over 11 on average, as well as the chancellorship. As junior partners, the Free Democrats held 42 cabinet posts in their 11 governments, under four on average. The SPD had 59 individuals fill its posts over the years, the FDP 36.

Which is to say, however you count, Tuns is simply incorrect in his assertions. In each and every government to which they belonged, the Free Democrats held roughly a quarter of cabinet posts – more or less the proportion their share of the vote merited.

Now, one could be silly about this and say that somehow, the total of cabinet posts held over four decades is a more representative figure, but that still leaves the FDP trailing the Social Democrats, despite the fact that they served in over twice as many governments. And even if you make the mistake of double counting (see above), the FDP still had fewer ministers (58) than the SPD (67).

There’s much more to be said. One could talk about what the FDP had to do in order to serve as the minority party under two very different senior partners, and how those shifts in policy and personnel affected their fortunes at the polls; one could discuss whether the Free Democrats actually ever wielded disproportionate political influence in any of the governments they belonged to (and if that influence grew or shrank depending on their share of the vote or on the personalities involved); one could wonder why it is that so very few German governments have ever collapsed because of the desertion of a coalition partner (the fall of the second Schmidt government in 1982 is the odd one out here). But those are substantive issues, and I’m not concerned with those right now.

My point here is simple: if you want to use history as an argument against the system of proportional representation, you better make sure you’re getting your history right. Paul Tuns didn’t.

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