Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Referendum

In ten days there will be an election in Ontario. But this time around there will be more than just an election. On the same day, Ontarians will be voting in a referendum which could radically change the way elections are conducted in this province. And, because Ontario is Canada's most populous province, that decision could have ramifications for the whole country. Experiments -- like medicare, which began in Saskatchewan -- often begin in the provinces and are later adopted and adapted in Ottawa.

The referendum gives the voters of this province two ways of choosing representatives to the provincial legislature. The time honoured way -- what is generally referred to as First Past the Post -- could remain as the the option voters feel most comfortable with. Essentially, it operates on the principle that the candidate with the most votes -- regardless of how many candidates compete -- wins the right to represent the voters of his or her district, or riding.

But this time, voters are being presented with a second option, which was formulated -- not by political professionals -- but by a Citizens Council, whose purpose was to discuss electoral reform. What the Council is proposing is called Mixed Member Proportional, which (as the name suggests) is one type of proportional representation.

The decision confronting voters is not easy, because there are strong arguments for each option. But before considering each option, a brief review of Ontario's electoral history is in order. There are three major political parties in Ontario: the Progressive Conservative Party, whose positions are, generally speaking, to the right of centre; the Liberal Party, whose policies are generally to the left of centre; and the New Democratic Party, whose policies are further to the left of the Liberals. It was a New Democratic government, for instance, which brought in a single payer health care system in Saskatchewan.

In the last seventeen years, Ontarians have elected governments from each of the three parties. The problem is that all three governments were elected by less than fifty percent of the popular vote -- around forty-five percent of all votes cast. When we elected a New Democratic government seventeen years ago, they won with approximately 37% of the popular vote . But this phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, this pattern goes back farther than just the past seventeen years. Even though the Progressive Conservatives held sway in this province for forty-two years before voters began a wholesale shuffle of governments, the fact is that the last time an Ontario premier received over fifty percent of the popular vote was over seventy years ago.

Because, under the present system, majority governments can be elected with less than a plurality of the popular vote, and because some see certain political victories -- like former premier Mike Harris' triumphs in the 1990's -- as brutal exercises in unbridled and unwise power and policy, Mixed Proportional Representation has a large constituency.

Essentially, under MMP the number of seats in the legislature would rise from the present 107 to 129. In an election, voters would cast two votes -- one for a candidate in each of 90 ridings and one for the party of their choice. The remaining 39 seats would be assigned by each party, based on the total popular vote each received on the second ballot. To qualify for an assigned seat, each party would have to receive a minimum of 3% of the popular vote, or about 150,000 votes.

Ironically, one of MMP's staunchest defenders is the conservative columnist, Andrew Coyne. "Supporters of the status quo," Coyne writes, "cite its tendency to produce stable majority governments. But these aren't majority governments. They're legalized coup d'etats." Moreover, under the present system, says Coyne, new parties can't get any traction. He points to the Green Party, which in the last federal election received 660,000 votes but not a single seat. As things stand now, writes Coyne, "The winner is not the candidate who receives a majority of the votes cast, but simply the one who comes in first place. With four candidates, it can be done with as little as 25% plus one of the vote. The other seventy-five percent of the voters are rewarded for doing their civic duty with . . . bupkis." This is not an argument to be dismissed lightly.

But, piling irony on irony, the liberal columnist, Ian Urquhart -- and his paper The Toronto Star -- have come out in favour of the present system. Under the new system, Urquhart writes, "the number of parties in the Legislature would multiply . . . and the political consequences could be quite unpredictable." As an example he points to New Zealand, which in 1993 adopted MMP, the same system now being proposed in Ontario. "Now New Zealand has eight different parties in its Parliament, including a Maori party, one that opposes more Asian immigration, and another that wants a hard cap on government spending." Trying to knit together a governing coalition composed of such divergent views could be difficult. Then Urquhart ends his argument with a touch of hysteria: "So we might end up with another Mike Harris who becomes premier with the support of a pro life party and/or a northern party that is against gun control and for logging in provincial parks."

It is most unfortunate that Urquhart has stooped to this bit demagoguery. For his side, despite its obvious flaws, has the better argument. The real problem with the new system is that the political parties would appoint the thirty-nine members whose seats would be assigned proportionally. A bedrock principle of responsible government is that representatives are directly responsible to the people who elect them. The new system makes these representatives responsible to their parties, not to the electors in each riding.

The other flaw in the MMP proposal is that it assumes that parties are static organizations whose policies and, indeed, whose principles do not change. People forget that the Conservative Party which Mike Harris headed was not Bill Davis's Conservative Party. When Davis retired, a core of former students from the youth wing of the party, steeped in the economics of Milton Friedman and the neo-conservatism of Irving Kristol -- and inspired by the success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan -- assumed leadership positions in the party hierarchy. When Harris retired, the party (under John Tory) returned to positions much more akin to those which Davis, whom Mr. Tory had worked for, favoured.

And political parties come and go. Remember the United Farmers of Ontario? Or the Progressive Party? Or Social Credit? Or Les Creditistes? More importantly, the party name does not guarantee a consistent set of principles. The Liberal Party of British Columbia does not operate on the same principles which defined the federal Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau. The names stay the same; but the platforms depend on who is in charge at a particular juncture in history. Those who are in the wilderness today may be at the centre of power tomorrow. Stephen Harper springs readily to mind.

Therefore, despite its flaws, the present system is preferable to a well intentioned, but less desirable, alternative. And while I have decided to reject MMP, I do agree that changes are needed. To begin with, as the supporters of MMP insist, we need more seats in the legislature, so that populations within ridings are more equitable. Perhaps, now that we have set standard election dates, we should have a provincial census a year before each election. It is worth remembering, too, that it was the Harris government which reduced the number of seats in the legislature from 130 seats -- one more than MMP proposes -- to 103 seats. They claimed that the province could not afford 130 politicians, so they configured Ontario's provincial ridings to the corresponding federal ridings.

The best way to safeguard a democracy is to ensure that there is a direct link between the people and their representatives. In the end, we get the politicians we deserve; and we have to take responsibility for the choices we make.


Gaianicity said...

There is a 3% threshold that a minority party must pass to be entitled to the party seats.

As far as a member being directly responsible, at a time of salivating party whips, how directly responsible is your member? How many free votes do we see? What happens to the member when she casts a vote to oppose the party line? Are parachuted members directly responsible? Direct responsibility is a red herring.

What about the voters—usually the majority of the voters under our current system--who have rejected the elected member? Their vote doesn’t count. Small wonder then that there is wide-spread voter apathy. Over time, statistically, most citizen’s votes don’t count most of the time. So really, it is small wonder that there is voter apathy. The wonder is that people still vote at all.

The idea that the smallest elected party would control power in a coalition government doesn’t hold water. With many parties, there are many possible alliances to pass a given measure. For example, who holds the balance of power in the present Harper government? The Liberals? The NDP? The Bloc?

There is a misunderstanding of the party list proposal. Although the party will choose the list, it will also have to describe to voters how the list was compiled. This is a crucial distinction. If one party’s nomination process is arbitrary and unsatisfactory you can simply choose not to support them.

The MMP process is inclusive. Your vote finally counts. The first-past-the-post system is exclusive. Your vote may count (if you are lucky); or, it may not (again).

MYM said...

The entire thing gives me a headache, but I think I'm sticking with the past-the-post system for many of the reasons you stated. We do need electoral reform but I'm not sold on MMP.

Love your blog, btw.