Saturday, September 29, 2007

Did you hear we're having a referendum?

Ontarians are going to the polls on October 10th and only about half of us know that we are going to be asked to also vote in a referendum on electoral reform. There’s some blame to go around here. Whoever it was that decided that the education campaign about the proposed new system – Mixed Member Proportional – would begin at the same time as the election campaign began is an idiot. People need time to understand the change and also decide whether or not it is a change that they favour. Then there is the fact that the media is barely talking about it. Sure, most of the big papers have small sections explaining the changes, but it is most definitely not being treated as a big deal. This is way more important than who becomes premier. The Liberal and Conservative platforms are basically interchangeable. But the group most responsible for our lack of knowledge about the referendum issue is the voting public. Seriously people, inform yourselves! Now, if you’re not planning on voting then don’t bother. That's your business. However, for those who are actually going to turn up at the polling station on October 10 and put your X in a box (or whatever they’re having us do this time around… do we have stickers yet?), find out what you’re voting about! (You can read about it here). It matters. Voting alone does not fulfill you civic responsibility, you’re actually required to know what you're voting for.

I have long been a fan of the proportional representation. I think ideas matter more than neighbourhoods and would much rather have my vote count than be able to call my MPP to help me get a job or whatever they supposedly do at the local level. The fact of the matter is that I live in a community whose politics don’t match mine. If I called my MP to say that I’d like her to make sure that not a penny of the federal surplus goes to city coffers because it is the taxes of the Canadian people, not city council, I don’t think she’d heed my concerns. And, at the end of the day, in our province and country, our politicians belong to parties, and these parties pretty strictly control how they behave, so the idea that you get representation from your MPP is pretty laughable. As Bitter Lime likes to point out, the parties could send Muppets to Queen’s Park and it wouldn’t make a difference. But, you crazy kids seem to like having an MPP you can call your own. And that’s what is on offer, a mixed system that will let you keep your MPP while also giving you an extra vote on the ballot: for the party. New "list" MPPs will make sure that the number of seats a party holds in the legislature will roughly equal the amount of support it received throughout the province.

I’ve now been to two debates on this issue and I’ve heard the arguments. I went into the first relatively convinced that I was going to support MMP, but with an open mind that I might not have heard all the facts. I went into the second convinced that I wanted to hear Andrew Coyne and Marilyn Churley-NDP debate on the same side of an issue (a recap of that debate can be read here).

The arguments that I have heard to support First Past the Post (FPTP, our current system) are as follows:

It’s much simpler. Let’s recap our current system: The province is divided arbitrarily into “ridings”; each riding has a campaign to elect an MPP who represents a party. At the same time there is a province-wide campaign for premier that most people will pay more attention to. You have no power to elect your premier unless he is also running as the MPP for your riding. People go into the polling station and either vote for the candidate who has appealed to them the most, the candidate that belongs to a party that has appealed to them the most, the candidate that has the best chance of defeating the candidate that they hate the most, or the candidate whose name they recognize. Then we tally up the votes for that riding and whoever has the most votes -- probably not a majority -- gets to go to Queen’s Park. The party that has the most people sent to Queen’s Park forms the government and their leader gets to be the premier. In the case that the party leader did not win his seat, another MPP will probably give up his seat and allow the party leader to run in his riding so that he can be premier. If the winning party has more than half the MPPs, they now get all the power. If you voted for your MPP because you thought they were a swell guy or gal it doesn’t matter because they now have to go along with the party on pretty much everything. Now is that really simple, or is it just what you know? There is a difference. You know what is really simple? Dictatorship. Do we have supporters for that system as well?

All politics is local. I’ve heard this a number of times and I have yet to hear a defense of why it is true. Is tax policy local? Are environmental issues local? Is the math curriculum local? Sure, there are regional issues that matter, but I remain unconvinced that they are more important than all the other issues. And if your riding ends up being represented by someone in the opposition in a majority government, how well are your regional concerns being heard?

The parties will become too powerful. Sure, this is a concern. The parties will be responsible for drawing up the lists, and there are no rules about how this will be done apart from the fact that they have to present the list before the election. But under the current system the parties are really powerful, and there are a million examples of star candidates running in ridings where the party is strong rather than their own neighbourhood so that they can be elected. So I don’t really understand how it will be a big shift. Yes, parties could put party hacks on the list but ultimately that will affect the amount of support they get, so it might not be very smart.

It would lead to minority governments and they are unstable. Do we live in Iraq? I think I can handle the threat of a little instability in my government if it better reflects the views of Ontarians. But ultimately, I don’t think the argument is true. It is based on the premise that a minority government under MMP would be the same as a minority government under FPTP. What we know of minority governments is that they can’t ever accomplish anything because the Liberals are trying to force the Tories out or the Tories are trying to force the Liberals out and no governing gets done. But if minority governments become the norm, how acceptable will it be to Ontarians that the parties spend all of their time trying to bring down the government? It doesn’t seem like a good plan to get you reelected. Rather, governments will form coalitions around issues and make policy. And, as Andrew Coyne pointed out last night, in our current system a slight shift in the vote from one election to the next results in a radically different government, which isn’t particularly stable. Again it is just what we happen to know.

There will be too many parties. The only people who seem to make this argument are Liberals or Conservatives who fear that they will lose support. I care about democracy, not big parties, so I am completely unsympathetic to this argument. Claims that we will have radical religious parties, or far right or far left parties doesn’t seem to match up with the Ontario I live in. The Greens will probably get some MPPs, which seems acceptable given the amount of support they get each election. Over time new parties will probably develop as well. But given that they need to get at least 3% of the support to win even one seat, it is not likely that these people will be on the radical fringe. And if they are, so be it. They will still be very weak and if they are that radical it would be political death to align with them. The fact remains that, even if a particular party is distasteful to you, if they represent the beliefs of a significant number of Ontarians, who are you to say they don’t deserve a seat? The Liberals are distasteful to me and nobody seems to want to strip them of their right to run for office.

So that’s my case on the case against MMP. Stay tuned for the next edition of referendum blogging: the case for MMP.

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