March 30, 2017

Would MMP be an upgrade?

Marvin McInnis
Marvin McInnis
Grant Amyot
Grant Amyot

No: it would open the door to ‘party hacks’

By Marvin McInnis

A case might well be made for modification of Ontario’s electoral system but the proposed MMP system is not the way to go. It has too many unattractive features.

The foremost problem seems to me to lie in the creation of two classes of legislators. There would be members elected as representatives of their constituencies as we have traditionally done. But there will be a second class, albeit smaller in numbers, essentially appointed by their party organizations in proportion to the province-wide vote received by that party (unless that party succeeds in electing “too many” constituency members, in which case it has to be penalized). We need to think about who are likely to become the “appointed ones”.

My undergraduate political science professor was fond of stating that the main qualification for people to be appointed to the Canadian senate was for them to have been rejected at the polls at least three times. Service to the party was the key consideration. There is a strong whiff of that odour of the senate in the “appointeds” group of the MMP. To get on that list, appeal to the party organization would count much more than ability to appeal to citizen electors. In some cases generous financial contributions might help as well. Put bluntly, the list of “appointees” would tend to be a list of what we commonly call “party hacks”.

At a time when many people believe that party organizations exercise too much dominance over elected legislators this proposal would give even greater power to party organizations. Persons wishing to pursue political careers would now have to choose between two alternative routes. They could go the old way, or they could insinuate themselves into the party organization and score points with the powerful in the party. How much independence would they be likely to exhibit in caucus meetings? There, after all, is where members can express disagreement over party policies. Under the new system the party leadership would now have a group of beholden sycophants to help beat down motions for change in party policy.

Many critics of the MMP proposal have emphasized the encouragement the system would give to the formation of single-interest parties. Indeed, it would do that; it is one of the explicit objectives of the proposal. It has been noted that the adoption of such a system in New Zealand raised the number of parties with representation in the legislature from two to eight. I shall not dwell on that widely emphasized feature of the proposal. We could debate at length whether it is a desirable or an undesirable outcome, depending upon our view of what we desire legislators to do. It is also widely noted that MMP would lead us to a greater likelihood of minority governments, and there are indeed some who think that would not be such a bad thing.

I am more concerned that the “appointeds”, representing smaller, single-interest parties would effectively have disproportionally greater power and influence than other members. With a greater inclination to minority government the small, special-interest parties would be vigourously wooed for support. Their quid pro quo would carry a lot of weight. Moreover, that enhances the incentive to form a special-interest party rather than try to convince a mainstream party to promote one’s favourite policy. As an identified party, with enough appeal to squeeze an “appointed” list seat or two, you might stand a chance of holding the balance of power, and then you could really show your stuff.

Even short of that sort of influence parties which gained status in the legislature via “appointees”would be disproportionally favoured. There are considerations in which parties are regarded as equals, and not treated in proportion to their numbers of seats or to the popular vote they received. These have to do with speaking time allocations and “rights” to share platforms and television debates and many others. The MMP proposal reflects a simplistic and mechanistic view of the political process. One might think of it as a naive construct based on a numerical conception of politics.

There are many additional concerns that might be expressed about the MMP proposal. I would not try to relate them all but an example might help to convince readers that what we have before us is a half-baked proposal. Would parties be allowed to place regular constituency candidates on their “appointed” list as a kind of insurance? “Come on Suzy, run for us in Megalosuburbia and even if you can’t get elected we’ll put you high enough on our list that you’ll surely get in, one way or the other.”

If a change really is called for, why this MMP system rather than alternative approaches, such as the Single Transferable Vote, or giving each voter a budget of 10 (or even 100) votes to allocate among local candidates? When asked, the proponents of the MMP system have said “Trust us, we have looked at the alternatives and this is the best.” And who are they? By what democratic process did they get selected to choose an alternative to our present electoral system? Maybe it was all a plot make a proposal of such an obviously flawed system that people would have to turn it down.

Marvin McInnis is a professor emeritus in the economics department at Queen’s.

Yes: it would make legislature more inclusive, democratic

By Grant Amyot

In a good democracy, the majority rules, but the rights and interests of the minority are also recognized. Our current single-member, first-past-the-post electoral system achieves neither of these goals. No Ontario government has had the support of a majority of voters since 1937: the NDP won a majority of seats with only 38 percent of the votes in 1990; five years later, the Conservatives under Mike Harris won an even larger majority with only 45 percent of the votes. Both governments, especially the Tories, pushed through wrenching changes that were deeply unpopular with their opponents; many of them had to be reversed by their successors. The referendum that will take place on Oct. 10 gives us an opportunity to choose a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, which will give each party a share of seats that reflects its share of the popular vote. With MMP, we will be sure that any major change has real majority support, and will thus be more legitimate and lasting as well as democratic. The present system denies representation even to substantial minorities, such as the Greens, because they must win the largest number of votes in a riding to get a seat in the legislature: MMP will also give them representation, so long as they get at least 3 percent of the votes in the province.

MMP would also increase the accountability of local members significantly. Under the current system, citizens have only one vote, and have to decide whether to use it to pass judgment on the record and platforms of the government and opposition parties, or on the local candidates. The vast majority sensibly decide to vote for the party rather than the candidate. Under MMP, on the other hand, each voter will have two votes: one to choose a provincial party list, and one to pass judgment on the candidate in his or her own riding. Would MMP allow small parties, perhaps based on religion or ethnicity, to elect MPPs? To use a commonly cited example, Muslims in Ontario would only slightly exceed the three percent threshold MMP requires to elect a member, even if they were all citizens and they all voted for an Islamic party (which they definitely would not). The same is true of almost any minority group critics might fear. MMP could allow one or two more parties, such as the Greens, to be represented in the legislature, but this would not create unstable governments.

With MMP, we will be sure that any major change has real majority support, and will thus be more legitimate and lasting as well as democratic.

Germany has had MMP since 1949, and has had fewer major governing party changes than Canada—only four, compared to seven here. Its governments have usually been two-party coalitions, but they have lasted for a whole term or more—only one German government has fallen in parliament, while three have in Canada. MMP will protect us from minorities that want to impose their own policies on the rest of us, while giving fairer representation to all significant parties. It will make politicians much more accountable, and will encourage constructive coalition-building instead of partisan bickering.

MMP offers hope of reviving interest and trust in the political process and strengthening our democracy.

Grant Amyot is a politics professor at Queen’s.

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