Sunday, September 30, 2007

Your weekly smile: David Warren on MMP

David Warren, the Ottawa Citizen columnist and sworn enemy of Darwin, feminism and Islam, to mention but three of his pet peeves, takes a poke at Mixed Member Proportional representation today.

It's actually quite a fun piece to read, if only to see the particular type of argumentation that Warren specializes in--and the increasing desperation of the "No MMP" forces.

Warren, being a pontificator by trade, doesn't actually get to his anti-MMP assertions until the middle of his tract. He begins by describing the MMP voting process, which we should worry about, he says, because its advocates think it will operate "fairly." (At least, wisely in my opinion, he doesn't try to defend the proposition that FPTP works fairly.)

Then the familiar spectre of "sectarian, fringe and fruitcake parties" is invoked, in which he includes the Greens (currently at about 10% in the polls--that's some fruitcake) and the Family Coalition (Warren's description is more apt in this case: his own political values, as it happens, are just about identical with those of the Family Coalition).

First Past the Post, Warren avers, eliminates these groups in favour of broad-based parties in which differences are hashed out internally. But none of this really matters anyway, because unaccountable law-school elites have taken over the legislative function in Canada. Still, on principle, we should stand up against the menace of MMP and what it represents.

He proceeds to lump MMP in with every other form of proportional representation imaginable, and then to claim that all of them make government less accountable to the public. Now, in Ontario since the 1930s, every single majority government has a) been elected by a minority of the voters, and b) been able to do pretty much what it wanted between elections. Hence government after government has broken promises it never meant to keep in the first place, has effectively ruled out of the Premier's office, and has been accountable to no one at all for most of its term, taking comfort in the knowledge that it will require only another minority to re-install them in the next election. Accountability under FPTP is a joke. The old saying that our system is a "dictatorship punctuated by elections" is, I think, pretty accurate.

The political strategy under this system has been to ensure that another type of fringe group--the swing vote--is kept happy when E-Day rolls around. Because, under FPTP, a very modest shift in public opinion can mean a major political upset.

But finally, to Warren's specific claims:

1) Minority governments are nearly inevitable. This means that every special-interest party "can hope for a direct place at the public trough" in return for "shutting up about what is most important to it."

To return to Warren's original comment about broad-based parties, these too, of course, are coalitions. The Liberals can accommodate everyone from Hedy Fry to Tom Wappel; the Conservatives, everyone from
Peter MacKay to Rob Anders. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that minority governments are springing up all over the place under FPTP, the experience with MMP elsewhere, as in Germany, has been that coalitions are hashed out and prove to be quite stable. In one way or another, then, compromises are made across a range of political philosophies and positions, whether under FPTP or under MMP. Nor it is a wise political strategy for parties seeking coalition partners to form shaky alliances with fringe parties: the experience has been that coalitions of moderate parties are the rule.

2) Large parties will stack their lists with the very people that the electorate despises.

Perhaps I'm a political neophyte, but it occurs to me that a better strategy for electoral success might be to ensure that the list candidates have been chosen in an acceptable manner and comprise people of whom the electorate will approve. In Germany, the vast majority of list MPs have also run in constituencies, and do their share of constituency work. They are known, in other words, to the electors. I suggest that being despicable may not be a recipe for electoral success, on or off a list.

3) MMP makes it impossible to throw out a corrupt government entirely: parts of it will always return in the next coalition. This encourages corruption: we've seen it all across Europe.

In Germany? In Scotland? Is New Zealand famous for its corrupt governments? Some examples of MMP-fostered corruption would be welcome, but I suspect Warren doesn't have any. In the absence of concrete instances, in any case, one cannot carry this argument further. One might note, however, that FPTP right here in Canada has produced grossly corrupt governments (Jean Chrétien's Liberals, for example) that have been returned time and again against the wishes of a majority of the electors.

4) Repulsive party members will be spared the bother of having to campaign; they'll just be put on a list. The "shallow charmers" in the party will be the ones who run in constituencies, and they'll have no influence when the government is formed.

At this point, we're entering the realm of the surreal. Again, it doesn't seem to be much of an electoral strategy to stuff the lists with reptiles, and sideline the majority of the legislative caucus who were elected in constituencies when it comes to Cabinet formation and the like. A party that committed such offences against the electorate would disappear from the political map. Hint: parties need to court the electors, not insult them. Governments need to keep their support, not destroy it. Rival parties would be given heaven-sent opportunities to win hearts and minds if any party behaved in this hypothetically suicidal fashion.

5) MMP will allow divisive, sectarian parties to get easy representation. Reasonable minorities will be sidelined, because mainstream parties will be spared "the trouble of arguing with them internally."

I'll try to follow this. First, FPTP, not MMP, exacerbates divisiveness. Regional differences are over-emphasized, as parties try to shore up their votes in specific constituencies, knowing that a good showing evened up across all ridings may deny them even a single seat. Hence the Reform Party, voicing so-called "Western alienation." Hence the Bloc Qu
ébécois. Rather than promoting some kind of operating consensus among very different regions, the current system encourages the exaggeration of those differences as a political strategy.

The second point is virtually incomprehensible. I think Warren is suggesting that the broad-based parties will no longer have to sort out their internal differences, but can ignore the reasonable minority positions in their own ranks in favour of forming opportunistic alliances with fringe parties in coalitions. If I have this right, I have no idea how it would work. There is apparently a role for "intimidation and 'political correctness'" as well. I don't know how that would work either. At this point, some examples would have been appreciated.

6) MMP will "create unforeseeable constitutional and bureaucratic headaches." Accepting it will lead to further innovations.

The thing about the "unforeseeable" is that it's, well, unforeseeable. But, just as those who invoke the "silent majority" always seem to hear their own politics through the silence, so too Warren appears to be able to see the unforeseeable very well indeed.

However, I am happy to find, at last, a point of agreement with him. If MMP succeeds, people will no longer see "the system" in the same way. They will realize that they themselves have the power to change their governance. And, no doubt, that will encourage constructive public debate about other changes: should the Premier be chosen by a party and elected in a single riding? Should the Cabinet be appointed at the pleasure of the Premier? Can we do more to ensure accountability of governments between elections? When governance is not simply part of the natural order of things, but for the people to determine through active participation, we might indeed see further changes in a democratic direction. I for one welcome such future public debate.

Two final points: Warren's knowledge of civics is apparently deficient. MMP does not require a constitutional change, so his referring to it as a "quick constitutional fiddle" is politically illiterate. And if "changing public opinion" is the challenge to which we should all rise, as he claims, then I would respectfully suggest that MMP, unlike FPTP, at least offers us a level playing field, allowing the full political expression of public opinion by making all our votes count.


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