Thu, Sep
27
2007

Why I Support Mixed Member Proportional
Part 2: The System on the Table

Thu, Sep 27, 2007

Previously

Vote for MMP

One possible alternative to the riding-based First Past the Post system of voting is full proportional representation. The extreme of this version would produce parliaments with seats apportioned to parties exactly according to their popular vote. But how representative would such a system be?

I am a late convert to the idea of proportional representation. I originally suggested accepting it as a means of electing senators, using the strengths of one system to balance the other. First Past the Post (FPTP) has its flaws, but it retains some strengths. While party has subverted politician in recent years, a lot of people still vote according to who they want their local representative to be. The riding system still provides the clearest means we have of identifying which member of parliament is responsible to us. And when none of the parties appeal to us, a number of our voters have gotten together and elected independent candidates, including most recently the late Chuck Cadman and Andre Arthur. A system that completely dissolves ridings to produce a truly proportional result in parliament sacrifices these benefits. Mixed Member Proportional representation is about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The proposal on the table would shrink the number of local ridings in the province from 107 to 90 — a small increase in the number of voters per riding which maintains multi-riding representation in all the regions of the province. We would then add 39 “at large” seats to Queen’s Park that would be assigned proportionally. Voters would receive two ballots: one to elect your local representative, and another to select your preferred political party. The 90 local elections would proceed as normal. Then, once the results are in, the seat totals of each party would be compared to the proportion of the party vote. Those parties that have fewer seats than the percentage of the party vote would be granted some of the 39 “at large” seats in order to adjust the balance. These seats would be filled from a list of candidates that each party must make available to the electorate before the election.

The system isn’t perfect. I myself have complaints about it, but the system is better than the current First Past the Post model. It preserves local ridings while producing parliaments that match the voter preference of the whole province. It makes it much harder for individual parties to win a majority of seats, unless a majority of voters decide to grant them that privilege. In my opinion, MMP improves the likelihood that we will have parliaments more open to representing (or at least giving voice to) the will of all Ontarians.

But there are those out there who seem to fear the new system, who fear change, or who fear losing the powers granted to them by the old system, no matter how undemocratic those powers are. This was brought home to me when a friend of mine circulated a mass e-mail that had been passed on to him deriding the MMP proposal and the referendum process.

I, of course, let my friend and all of the people he had carbon copied the e-mail to, know that I was a supporter of MMP. And while I respect the fact that other individuals might have different opinions, there was so much innuendo and falsehood being peddled as fact that the whole e-mail was a shameless exercise in ignorance.

It has been noted that support for MMP increases the more people know about what MMP actually is. It is unfortunate, then, that detractors of MMP have such an incentive to keep Ontarians in the dark.

Here’s the letter in question:

Subject: Referendum October 10, 2007
From: (Name withheld for privacy sake)
Date: Mon, 24 Sep 2007 20:19:09 -0400
To:

Did you know a referendum was taking place on October 10, 2007?

I do, but I’m a political junkie. Elections Ontario is doing the best they can to make Ontarians aware of this “other” election, but they can’t choose sides, and so far their literature has very little fire in it to motivate people one way or the other. The campaigns in favour and against MMP are rather underfunded. It’s a shame, but the media seems more interested in seeing other politicians go at each other in easily identifiable partisan colours than engaging in a debate that has supporters and opponents which cross party lines. MMP has supporters from a wide spectrum of politics, from old Reform Party members, Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, all of whom frustrated that the message isn’t getting out.

On October 10, 2007, as part of the next Provincial election, the people of Ontario will be asked if they want to replace the current electoral system. In essence, they will be asked if they want to shift the power from the people of Ontario (local voters and ridings) to the politicians at Queens Park. There has been no education on this referendum and its timing, coinciding with the October 10 Ontario election, may allow for an easy pass by sheer overshadowing.

I’m pleased that you’re helping people get to know that there is a referendum taking place on October 10, but your statement implies a sinister import that isn’t the case in reality.

And your statement that the new system shifts power from “the people of Ontario” to “politicians in Queen’s Park” isn’t supported. But we’re still early in this letter, so let’s see what you come up with to defend your argument.

What is being proposed and how does it impact all of us?

(1) Decrease the current number of ELECTED MPPs from 107 to 90.
(2) Incorporate a new NON-ELECTED number of MPPS
(3) Enlarge the number of MPPS to 129.
(4) 90 MPPs will be Elected by us the people
(5) 39 MPPs to be Selected or Appointed by the politicians.

WRONG! The reality is this: Ontarians vote for their local representative in 90 local elections, and then make a vote for their preferred party. The popular vote received by the various parties is compared to the seat totals based on the 90 local elections. Parties which have elected fewer MPPs than their popular support would indicate they deserve are assigned a selection of the 39 seats in such a way that the final seat count more closely approximates the various levels of popular support.

For example, the Green Party is currently polling at 7% in Ontario, that’s 7 out of every 100 voters or, potentially, 1 out of every 14 people you meet on the street. Unfortunately, history suggests that the Green Party will not receive a single seat in the upcoming election, even though they theoretically deserve 7. That’s a fair number of Ontarians whose views aren’t being heard in parliament. Is that democratic? Is that fair?

And this only covers those individuals we know will likely vote for the Green Party. What about those individuals favouring such entities as the Freedom Party, the Family Coalition Party or the Libertarian Party, who either choose not to vote, or vote Conservative because they believe that a vote for the smaller parties is wasted? What the New Democrat who votes Liberal because his party doesn’t have a strong candidate in a riding, and he fears a Conservative victory? Don’t they deserve a voice in parliament as well?

Now, voters who wish to vote Green now have the opportunity to obtain a voice in Queen’s Park, by voting Green on the regional ballot. Other individuals can vote for a preferred local candidate and pass their regional vote onto a different party, if that’s they so desire. No longer are votes for the smaller parties wasted. Ergo, the 39 MPPs are still elected by “us the people” (and, parenthetically, shouldn’t that be “we the people”?)

(6) Not democratically elected and Party elites

That’s basically point number five re-emphasized. For my response, backtrack four paragraphs, and read again.

Now, I will admit that this method of choosing individual politicians for the 39 proportionally assigned seats is not my preferred model. I’ll talk about my preferred model in the next post. But the suggestion that these 39 seats would automatically be filled by party hacks and other unqualified, unaccountable politicians is simple fearmongering.

First and foremost, the proposal on the table requires the parties to PUBLISH THEIR LISTS before an election, so that voters can consult these lists and alter their party vote accordingly. Any party that puts forward a list of party hacks can be punished in the polls by losing popular support. Defeated candidates can’t be offered list seats as a consolation prize unless they’re on the list already, and with only 39 list seats available, and with those seats split as many as three ways, there’s not much room for people looking for a second chance into parliament in case of defeat.

And to hear critics speak, they make it sound as though the new system is going to flood the legislature with list MPs. There are only 39 spots. They will, in all likelihood, not be assigned to the leading party (since a party that wins 40% of the vote — enough to almost guarantee majority government under FPTP — will more than likely win more than their fair share of ridings). That’s less than half of the riding-based house, and the larger parties would most certainly be predominately riding-based.

(7) Decreased accessibility to government
(8) 17 fewer local ridings and decreased accessibility

What’s particularly funny about these two points is that, later in the e-mail, the letter writer writes the following:

Using our tax dollars to pay for 22 more politicians and their staff at Queens Park, and without any sense of what the additional 22 will be doing or to whom they will be accountable, suggests that the people of Ontario are weak, indecisive and need decisions made for them.

In one breath, they’re complaining how the reduction of ridings from 107 to 90 will reduce accessibility to government, theoretically making politicians less responsible to the people, while later complaining that this system adds 22 additional politicians, giving the people more politicians to get in touch with. Never mind how the letter writer intends to serve Green Party voters under the current system if they’re not allowed a politician to voice their views in parliament, let’s not forget that Ontario used to have 130 seats, until Mike Harris cut the number to 103, in a move that didn’t increase accountability or particularly decrease costs.

But then the complaint about adding more politicians is too much of a old populist chestnut to avoid making, even as you complain about the decreasing number of riding MPPs available per voter. If you want to scare a voter into thinking your way, complain about “elite politicians”. Personally, I note that the amount of money it costs to support a politician’s job is minuscule compared to the budget we expect our politicians to manage on our behalf. I would rather pay a little more for twenty-two extra politicians if those politicians were better able to represent the interests of all Ontarians, and I think the proposed new system does that.

(9) Elected members will have local riding issues to manage
(10) Directly accountable to constituents

Variations on a theme, really. The letter writer is trying to strengthen his argument by gathering twelve statements that, in total, sound vaguely ominous. And notice also, that the letter writer starts out stating about how the proposed system differs from the current system, and then gets into his own arguments about how the proposed new system is bad. That’s a bit disingenuous, but it helps to create an impressive list of twelve statements supposedly backing up his points. However, with points 5 and 6 saying basically the same thing, and with 7, 8, 9 and 10 raising their own similar point (and not very coherently, I might add), the list really contains eight statements, mostly of innuendo and arguments that don’t reflect the facts. Not very impressive.

(11) Appointed MPPs have no such responsibilities

This is untrue. We have “at large” elections in municipal governments across Canada. Do we say that these representatives, who are not elected to serve individual wards, have no responsibilities? No. These 39 “at large” MPPs would be as responsible as riding MPPs to sit on committees, engage in debates, question the government, propose bills and cast votes. These individuals, elected by Ontarians just like the riding MPPs, would be almost indistinguishable from standard riding MPPs. Indeed, they would be another go-to person for an individual voter to go and obtain help his or her government. Theoretically, they would be responsible to voters across the province.

And those list MPPs who did a bad job, or who faded in the background and did nothing, would be held accountable at the next election. As I mentioned before, the parties have to publish their lists before the election so that voters can look them up and see who the parties intend to put forward. It is, of course, in the interests of the various parties to put forward lists of people that voters will recognize, such as individuals who are well-known and well-liked throughout the province. An unpopular politician or a do-nothing guy becomes a liability to the party list, and could well not be asked back.

(12) Brokerage Politics may make positive change more difficult.

This is basically crying over the fact that parties representing 40% of the voters will no longer have the ability to run roughshod over the interests of the remaining 60% without engaging in consultation and negotiation.

Oh, boo hoo. This is what democracy is all about, and only laziness speaks otherwise.

Quite often, the people who make this comment point to the minority governments that have been in place at the federal level since 2004, calling these governments unstable and fractious. Certainly these governments have been marked by overheated debates and committee-room shenanigans that have lowered the tone of parliament. But I suggest that it speaks less about the inherent flaws of minority governments than it does about the quality of the politicians involved, and the fact that each participant in these minority parliaments believes themselves to be one sucker punch away from the majority control required to free them from the pesky requirement of actually consulting with groups outside their own bobble-head echo chamber. And I should further point out that the quality of question period during the Mike Harris majorities in Queen’s Park was enough to make speaker Gary Carr flip out and call parliamentarians public embarrassments.

The fact that any one party only has to work just hard enough to get their numbers into the low 40s in order to no longer worry about working with the other parties gives those parties little reason to allow a minority parliament to work for Canadians. That’s not how the scenario would likely proceed under the proportional model. I believe, if it is known that a defeat of a government and a new election will simply return the parties to another minority parliament situation, then the various parties will have no choice but to clean up their acts and negotiate in good faith. The risk that parliamentarians are going to continue to act like spoiled children is not worth giving one set of spoiled children the full powers of a majority government that a majority of Canadians don’t want.

Did you ask for this referendum and the associated costs?

Yes. See below.

This proposed two-tier government system called “Mixed Member Proportional” MMP) is the government’s solution to reduced voter turnout in the current electoral system. There is a risk that this referendum question will be overshadowed by the debate of who will form the next provincial government and could result in the people giving up their historic power in the way we govern ourselves.

And that’s fearmongering, again not supported by the facts.

The fact is, that in order for this proposal to pass, it must be supported by 60% of voters across the province, with simple majorities in at least 64 out of 107 ridings. By comparison, the province of Newfoundland voted to join Confederation by a simple majority of fifty-percent-plus-one, and they had to do it twice. The Quebec referendum would have launched the groundwork for Quebec independence based on a vote of fifty-percent-plus one. Now you have to wonder who’s really afraid of what.

The government spent millions of our dollars on a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform. Purportedly, the members of the Citizens Assembly were chosen randomly but no one can establish which database or what information was used to determine such random participation, or history making participants.

Um, question: did you perhaps try to, oh, I don’t know, ASK THE GOVERNMENT? (Here’s a FAQ)

I happened to meet a member of the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform this past month, while in training for the Campaign Tales website. She’s a young woman from Ottawa in her mid twenties, just out of University, and not particularly politically active in partisan politics. She seemed pretty random to me. It’s a shame that, in raising fears about this democratic process, the letter writer feels the need to cast suspicion on the 103 hard working individuals who spent a lot of time doing a lot of research and consulting with a lot of people to come up with the proposal now on the table.

The people of Ontario did not ask for this referendum.

Yes, they did. Pressure for proportional representation has been building across the country for years, now, straight from the time when Western Canadian populists suggested this as a way to ensure that Western Canadian voices weren’t drowned out by the voting block of Ontario. We’ve had referendums in BC and PEI, and the referendum in BC was supported by the majority of voters there (though not enough to pass the “super-majority” requirements imposed by the government).

During the 2003 election, Dalton McGuinty promised to set up a citizens assembly of 103 individuals, selected randomly from their riding, to consult on the alternatives and bring forward their proposal in a referendum. You can look it up; it was on their campaign literature. And, of course, McGuinty won the election. The Conservatives certainly didn’t deride the process as it was taking place, and the New Democrats seem strongly in favour of it.

Ontarians DID ask for this referendum and now they’re getting it. It is either blatantly dishonest or woefully ignorant to suggest otherwise.

The people of Ontario want more accountability. They do not want paid MPPs that have no accountability: not to ridings or constituents or any other defined entity or channel.

More unproven innuendo.

The people of Ontario want more transparency of their various tax dollars, at all levels of government. They want to eliminate misuse, abuse and squandering of their money and will not tolerate monies provided for apparent immoral means. Shifting the people’s power will not help suppress scandals such as the most recent Cricket club affair. ($100,000 requested and $1,000,000 one million paid for no apparent benefit to the people of Ontario).

And, this is true: there is no guarantee that the new system will encourage a better breed of politician to take power at Queen’s Park and represent the people’s interest. That task has always remained with the people of Ontario, and that power is still in their hands. The likelihood that a single governing party, however, would become arrogant enough to engage in these scandals is reduced, in my opinion, since they will be unlikely to command a majority of seats in a house, thus giving them near-immunity from opposition scrutiny for four years.

  1. A more elite legislature
  2. Reward for faithful service
  3. Delivery of votes
  4. Financial help
  5. Decreased accessibility to politicians
  6. Less Democracy

And here the letter writer is double dipping, repeating the baseless innuendo of above. Point two is blatantly wrong, since I’ve already said that the requirement that the lists be published provides a disincentive for the parties to put forward lists of candidates voters like the letter writer would surely find toxic.

If people of Ontario are to make an informed decision, they must have the opportunity to hear more than one side of the debate on electoral change.

One wonders what this letter writer is complaining about, since those who oppose the proposal on the table have been speaking about it in the media and on the blogs about as loudly as those speaking in favour of it. In this, at least, we have a debate that crosses party lines. We have MMP supporters from all three parties, as well as MMP opponents in all three parties (well, actually, primarily Liberals and Conservatives, the two parties most often associated with the “misuse, abuse and squandering of (our) money” that depend on the current system for their majority governments). The debate is on, and the no side is making their influence felt, no matter what the letter writer has to say about the passion of those ordinary Ontarians who favour change.

There are things about the current MMP proposal that I do not like. The party ballot does not recognize independent candidates, and it would seem that if independent candidates wanted to run to become list MPPs, they would have to form their own individual political parties. I could see that becoming very troublesome very quickly, although perhaps one enterprising soul could put together an Independents Party full of candidates running on independent platforms, although one doesn’t see much likelihood of that happening.

And having the 39 list MPPs serving “at large” to the whole province is far too large an area for these people to represent. While FPTP plays up regional differences too much, regional differences still have to be respected, and I’ve seen no measure under the current system to ensure that those 39 list MPPs are properly distributed across the province, meaning that possibly the North or Toronto or southwestern Ontario could come up over represented. There needs to be more control over who gets assigned these seats, and where these people reside.

And the neat trick of publishing the party lists before an election doesn’t mitigate the fact that the task of assigning these 39 list seats to particular MPPs is not in hands of the electorate as much as it should be. While this leaves open the possibility that decent politicians who can govern well despite campaigning poorly might finally get an in on parliament (suggested recently by this blogger), this is a bit of control that I as a voter am loathe to give up.

These are the flaws of the proposed “provincial-closed” MMP system. They’re serious, but they pale in comparison to the flaws presented by First Past the Post. So, despite these flaws, I still intend to vote in favour of MMP on October 10. Indeed, my resolve to vote in favour of the new system has been dramatically strengthened by seeing the depth of ignorance on display by some on the opposing side.

There is a system out there that I would much prefer to be voting for on voting day. The system addresses most of the remaining concerns about the provincial-closed model of MMP. What is it? And why am I still voting for the system on the table? Stay tuned. You’ll have your answer tomorrow.



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