23 September 2007

Mixed Member Propotional

Ontario is having an election and a referendum. Ontario - for my American friends - is the province I live in. It's famous for the being home to the world's most multicultural city - Toronto; forests the size of Europe (practically speaking); nuclear power plants; and, until now, a somewhat volatile political landscape. As we approach the next election, on October 10th, the main course will be accompanied by a side salad of political referendum. You see, the premier, Dalton McGuinty, make good on his promise of electoral reform (most would say one of the few promises he actually kept), and empowered the formation of a Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform. Not to bore you with the details - this is politics after all, and some of you would rather have a colonoscopy than read about politics - but the assembly have put forth a referendum on electoral reform, or smurf talk, "we are voting on how we will vote in the future of voting."

Hmm. Wait a minute, as I'm sure most of you are asking yourself. What the hell is this referendum you speak of? General apathy has abounded in the 2 weeks since the election was called. I don't know how the good old US of A does it, going through nearly two years on the campaign trail, but up here, we like our elections to be like teenage sex - short and to the point, with one party feeling wholly unsatisfied. With only a little over two weeks to go, most people in Ontario are hardly aware that there will be an election, let alone a referendum and what that referendum will be on.

Without further ramblings, here it is. The referendum is a simple question on whether voters would like to change the electoral system from First Past the Post (FPTP) to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), which is the system proposed by teh Citizen's Assembly (sounds strangely communist, doesn't it?) Under the current system, you vote for a person who represents a party (or is independent). This candidate runs in a geographical riding and whoever garners the most votes in the ridings represents the riding in the provincial legislator. The party with the most seats wins and forms the government. Should you lose by 1 vote or 10,000 votes makes no difference.

Under MMP, as the name implies, there will be a mix of two systems. Candidates will continue to run in their riding and be elected under a FPTP system. However, this will only determine about 75% of the seats in the house. The other 25% of the seats will be determined through a 2nd vote (which takes place at the same time - no worries, you won't have to consecrate more than one day every few years to vote). In this 2nd vote, you will cast a vote for a political party only. The remaining 25% will be filled proportionally to the number of votes a party receives in this second portion of votes.

I know it all seems complicated. It is fairly simple - which was clearly an obligatory consideration in today's apathetic citizenry. However, trying to explain it has made me realize that if I have trouble describing it, think of how the rest of you simpletons must feel. All humility aside of course, I believe that with a little bit of background reading on your part, you will see that it is fairly straight forward.

Having said that, I am here to encourage you to do 2 things: 1) Vote in the referendum, and 2) strongly consider voting for the MMP. As Ontario is a multi-party political landscape, parties tend to split the vote. It is very common to have the "winning" party garner less than 40% of the votes, but have those votes translate to 60% of the seats and thus 100% of the power. I can't take the credit (or rather the blame) for this slogan, as the Vote for MMP (http://www.voteformmp.ca/) people are using it as their own. The fact of the matter is that many thousands of people's voices are not being heard. A vote for MMP will be a vote for democracy - I strongly believe this. You can read all about this elsewhere, but very quickly, here are some Pros and Cons for the MMP.

1. "Fairer" election results. As you can see from the table, under the current system, the ratio of votes does not correspond fairly to the number of seats a party receives. In a way, this is a misnomer, as all parties know the stakes at hand. Under FPTP - a system used widely and with great success I must admit - all the parties know the rules. So it is not, by definition unfair. More to the point, it is not representative. Elections will never be perfect.

In a democracy, voters election members to "represent" them. These members are supposed to represent your voice. In a small enough population, everyone would have their own voice, but this is simply not feasible in a electorate of over 10 million people - not to mention we wouldn't have enough seats in a building to fit everyone! So we vote for representatives. Under the current system, a sizable portion of voters do not have their voice heard (10% for Party D have essentially no say, and another 20% of Party C have little say.)

2. "Accurate" results. Under the MMP system, votes cast will more accurately reflect the electorate's view. This will presumably allow more people to feel that their votes DO matter and encourage voter participation. Although this argument is being perpetrated by the supporters of MMP, I am somewhat dubious that anything less than handing out free cookies is going to increase voter turnout. The apathy with politics stem from the disjointedness with which politicians treat the populace, and the lack of education that most people have when it comes to politics. People simply don't see how the government can make a difference in their life, as they feel powerless to change anything. This brings me to my next point.

3. Efficient government. Contrary to a popular argument against MMP, I believe that such a system would lead to more efficient government. Not a more efficient bureaucracy, but rather a more compromising style of politics. Politics are divisive by nature - or so it would seem. But most politicians are divided on the "how" and not the "what". For example, politicians want a efficient health care system where everyone is given the care they need quickly. Where they argue is how to create a system. Unfortunately, we seem to currently have a situation in Canada - both in Ontario and on a federal level - where the parties seem to have the need to never agree that another party may have a good idea. Consensus building is lacking. Under the MMP, minority governments will be frequent. Much as in Germany, parties will be forced to form coalitions and work together on consensus building to work towards a common good. The legislature will be forced to become more collaborative or will simply fail. Currently, parties rarely attempt collaborative measures as they simply target a time when they can build a majority and sweep out all the work of previous governments.


1. The biggest negative of the MMP is that the citizenry does not have a direct say in determining who will make up the parties list for filling in the remaining 25% of the seats. Those in favour of the status-quo spew this argument at every chance they have. I do tend to agree with them. It would have been a stronger measure to legislate how parties would be required to name their candidates. Currently, if the MMP system were to come into effect, parties would be required to create a list of candidates that would fill in the proportional seats, but it does not obligate them on how to chose these people. This is clearly not democratic. However, voters will have a chance of knowing who will fill the seats. Moreover, I would expect that most parties would have a voting system much like the American primary system where members of that party will participate in electing their representatives. However, this is not so much different than the current system. Right now, local candidates are nominated by their party. So how different is the new system? If you don't like the body of candidates that a party puts forward, don't vote for them. The citizenry is still responsible for determining who will represent them.

2. Erosion of local representation. Similar to the first Con, detractors argue that the MMP candidates will not be accountable to anyone. What a bunch of bullshit. If your local member does not represent his or her area, its not as though he will be ridden out of town. Voters will simply scorn him/her in the next election. Similarly, voters will have the power to punish parties who nominate members who do nothing for representing the citizenry - except at this level, it will be the citizenry as a whole. Moreover, direct local candidates will continue to make up 75% of the seats. Local issues will continue to dominate the agenda. In fact, as provincial-wide issues make up the bulk of a citizenries concerns, it makes sense to have members who's focus is representing matters that are the best for the province as a whole. Such issues as northern forestry may only be important to a specific region, but issues like health care and education in particular effect us all, and an erosion of local representation will not handicap the house in dealing with either set of issues.

3. It will cost more money. Well, you got me there. Having more members will mean more cost to taxpayers. But saying this is simply laziness and apathy. Essentially to be against this argument would mean favoring a dictatorship. Saying "i don't want to pay too many politicians salaries", so why not just let one guy run everything? Ontario has the worse ratio of politicians to voters in Canada. Each MPP represents on average 120,000 people. This is nearly double as much as the 2nd worse ration in Canada. Electing a mere 25 or so politicians, if it leads to a more democratic and efficient system, will pay for itself.

There you have it. Feel free to comment, argue, call me misinformed, or purely stupid. I admit that the new system will have flaws, but these are fewer than the current system. Not voting for MMP when you think it is better than FPTP, but not merely good enough, is just plain naive. If the referendum does not pass, it will be a long long time before another is put in place. Whatever your reasoning, I hope that you vote the way you feel will be best for democracy, and not merely because this vote will help or hurt the political party you currently support.