This Wednesday, Ontarians are going to the polls to decide whether Dalton McGuinty or John Tory is the least depressing fuckup. However, this particular election is of interest because in addition to the usual festival of dull that is a provincial election, there’s also a referendum to change our entire system of legislative government. This referendum offers the possibility of exciting, lasting and exceptionally positive change, which is of course one of the reasons that the Tories and Liberals have quietly banded together to do their utmost to make sure it doesn’t pass – starting with a sixty-percent supermajority requirement to pass the initiative and continuing from there.
The choice in question, for those of you who do not know, is between our current first-past-the-post riding-based system and a hybrid system entitled Mixed Member Proportional, or MMP for short.
First-past-the-post is of course quite simple to explain: you have X number of geographically-laid-out ridings (currently in Ontario this is 103, expanding to 107 with this election), each riding has its own election, whoever wins the riding gets the seat in your given representative body.
MMP is somewhat different, combining elements of both a riding-based system and a purely-proportional system. The number of ridings in Ontario is reduced to 90, but 39 new seats are added to the legislature. When you vote, in addition to voting for a candidate in your given riding, you also have a second vote which you issue to the party of your choice. Parties then get a number of seats from the list intended to equalize (or as close as possible) their portion of the popular vote to the percentage of seats they control in Parliament.
Example: The Rhinoceros Party wins 15 ridings and thus gets 15 seats, but their share of the popular vote is twenty percent (or about 25 seats in the legislature). The Rhinos receive ten seats from the list slots, for a total of 25 seats.
Now that we’ve explained the basics of the system – which, honestly, you could have done by going to the election services website, but I am nothing if not a provider of useful services – it’s time to explain to you why you should vote for MMP.
The simplest and most obvious reason to vote for MMP is that it’s innately more democratic than first-past-the-post. FPTP produces weird results all the time. Consider the 1987 New Brunswick provincial election, where the Liberal Party won sixty percent of the vote – and every seat in the legislature. Or the 1993 federal election, where the Tories won 18 percent of the vote, and a mere two seats out of 295. Or the 1996 British Columbia election, where the the Liberals won 33 with 41 percent of the vote, while the NDP won 39 of 75 seats with 39 percent of the vote, and thus became the governing party without even getting a plurality of popular support!
Of course, these are outliers, the most freaky results. The real problem with FTFP is that the standard result in the Canadian political system is one party (usually either the Tories or the Liberals) getting a majority of seats in Parliament with about forty to forty-five percent of the vote. Ontario, for example, has only had one government in the past forty years that has actually received a majority of the popular vote (David Peterson’s Liberals in the mid-80s).
In practice what this means is that in most FTFP systems, two parties – those most capable of straddling minor dividing lines of political belief – rise to dominate politics in the area governed by the given system. In most of Canada, this again means the Tories and the Liberals.
(Occasionally there is a bit of a shift or regional difference – in British Columbia, for example, for a long time the difference was between Social Credit and the Liberals, and then when Social Credit imploded the NDP rose to fill the void, so now BC politics is dominated by the NDP and Liberals. But this is an aberration from the norm.)
This consequence – the de-facto two party system – is the worst consequence of FTFP, because it stagnates politics greatly. Because we in effect have a system where the only serious swing vote exists between the two major parties in any given system, this means that disproportionate attention is paid to the interests of the swing voter – which in turn means that the two major parties homogenize themselves into a shapeless, formless set of twin masses, vaguely similar in most respects, so as not to offend the sensibilities of those precious swing voters. Which leads us to the point where you can’t tell Dalton McGuinty apart from John Tory without a guidebook.
A great strength of MMP is that the list system forces parties to clearly establish their core beliefs in order to attract additional votes on the list: the strategic voter might be willing to vote Liberal on the ballot in order to keep a Tory from winning a riding, but on the list, where there’s no riding to consider, they can feel free to vote NDP or Green or Rhinoceros Party or what have you. You can’t get people to strategically vote with their heart, which is as it should be.
Another benefit of MMP is that it enables greater representation of women and visual minorities in the legislature. The riding system has its strengths and weaknesses, and one of those weaknesses is that minorities in Canada (as in most places) tend to be geographically clustered into a few ridings than spread out across the map. Likewise, potential female politicians tend to cluster into urban areas more often than not. MMP helps greatly in this regard by allowing parties to put additional candidates from those demographic constituencies on their lists. (This is not just some fantasy, either – female and minority representation has jumped upwards in every country to adopt MMP in the last twenty years.)
Finally, MMP is a good system because it’s fair to all concerned. A Tory voting in Trinity-Spadina today has as meaningless a vote as an NDPer voting in Don Mills or a Green voting – well, pretty much anywhere. No matter where you are and how you vote, your vote still ultimately counts, and that is right and proper.
Now, because I know some people have misgivings, I’m going to quickly address the arguments against MMP from nommp.com.
17 fewer local ridings, covering more territory, with less contact with your local representative
The 39 list representatives will have rotating constituencies, serving as local representatives throughout the province. Next.
39 politicians chosen by other politicians … not you
This is the “party hacks” argument that’s so very popular with anti-MMP debaters: the party lists will be filled with party loyalists and thus the system becomes less democratic!
Problems: 1.) This already happens with ridings, where the Tories and Liberals will cheerfully parachute in one of their chosen candidates into a safe riding whenever they damn well please, as everybody knows. 2.) The NDP and Greens have already both pledged that under an MMP system, their party lists would be openly elected – and once two of four major parties have promised that, it looks really, really bad when the other two don’t follow suit…
Closed door party deal-making for weeks after elections, to decide who governs the province
This already happens as well; it’s just called “negotiating to see who gets the plum Cabinet jobs” and it’s strictly monoparty.
Tax dollars paying for 22 more politicians and their staff at Queen’s Park
The proposed number of 129 representatives is not only less than what it was before Mike Harris’ government chopped it down to 103, but proportionally it’s a worse MP-to-citizen ratio than every other province in Canada, as well as the federal government. Memo to nommp.com: Ontario is a big province.
A confusing ballot and vote-counting system
…if you’re stupid, yes. The ballot is really quite simple to fill out. The first column is your standard ballot we’ve been using for decades, and the second column is the “pick a party” column. Honestly, this is not the second coming of Florida 2000, people. Stop trying to portray it as if it were.
A weaker, indecisive Ontario
This is code for “we will never again have a majority government ever.” Which is likely, in all honesty. Of course, not having majority governments hasn’t made Germany – which uses MMP and has for nearly sixty years – a weak and indecisive country. They’re actually kind of rich and influential and powerful, come to think! (As an aside: also note that under MMP, Germany’s unification came and went without so much as an electoral hiccup, which speaks very well for the stability of the system.)
Come to think, Lester B. Pearson’s Liberal governments were both minority governments as well, and all he did was institute universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, the Canada Student Loan system, the forty-hour work-week, the race-free immigration system, the adoption of French as an official language, the merging of the various branches of the military into the single Canadian Armed Forces, mandated vacation time, and a new flag. Heck, even Stephen Harper’s government, while being woefully antagonistic to everything I believe in, hasn’t been ineffective. They do what they want to do quite well.
Fringe parties holding the balance of power with 2 or 3 seats
I like to call this the “Italy argument,” where people mention Italy (which has pure-proportional representation, where parties get seats equal to their percentage of the vote) and say that’s the inevitable consequence of MMP: fascists getting seats and porn stars determining the fate of government.
This is of course mostly crap. Under the proposed MMP system, where a party needs to get at least three percent of the vote to get a list seat, the only existing small party likely to get representation through the list is the Green Party. Maybe, maybe the Family Coalition Party (currently sitting at 0.8 percent support) could manage to pick up a seat with a lot of hard work, but the proof of MMP is in the experience other nations have had with it: you have two or three major parties, and then a few outliers. Which is pretty much what we have now.
And here’s the thing: three percent of the population of Ontario is a little less than the entire population of Hamilton. I’ll be blunt and say that if you can get that many people to support you in an election, you pretty much deserve a goddamned seat in Parliament.
Since nommp.com hasn’t been kind enough to provide me with the final anti-MMP argument I hear most regularly, I’ll just add it here:
“these list members wouldn’t be accountable to the public.”
As opposed to right now, where if your local member is a useless, lying twat, you can just start up a petition for the recall procedure and – oh, right, that doesn’t exist. Ultimately, the only form of accountability we have is the next election. Is that good enough? Arguably not. But will voting for first-past-the-post instead of MMP change that? Definitely not.
I think the best argument for MMP, in closing, is this: you have to understand that the Tories and Liberals are desperate to make sure it doesn’t pass, because this threatens the power base they’ve come to take for granted for so long. Right now, the will of the voting public is too often subordinate to the whims of the major political parties. Shouldn’t that be the other way around?