Thursday, October 04, 2007

Curmudgeonly fudge on MMP

I never quite know what to make of the Ottawa Citizen's cantankerous Randall Denley. I like the guy, in spite of myself. He's smart, and capable. He has the Ottawa City Hall beat, and delivers the goods with an obvious command of the facts. He's got a conservative sensibility--he has no time for progressive members of Ottawa City Council--but he supported Alex Munter for mayor in the last civic election. Given all of this, his rash anti-MMP column today was surprising and disappointing.

Normally it's party hacks who have been pushing the "No MMP" line. A bell-like sound of disingenuousness has filled the crisp Fall air, as known Liberals and Tories have been publicly wringing their hands about the alleged power that MMP would give to parties. You mean like parachuting candidates in over the wishes of the local riding associations? Party leaders hand-picking candidates? That's what happens now.

Do the parties that exist to take power suddenly think that power is a Bad Thing? Well, not exactly. Quite the opposite, in fact. Under first-past-the-post, parties can rule unimpeded when the majority, sometimes the vast majority, of voters didn't vote for them (e.g., Bob Rae's 1990 majority, based on 38% of the vote). And they don't even have to win the popular vote to form the government (e.g., the 2006 New Brunswick election).

So we can take their sudden public concern that MMP would give parties too much power with a very large grain of salt. If MMP did any such thing, those same Tories and Liberals would be leading the charge to get it implemented.

But Denley's main point is that self-same canard. MMP "will reduce the limited power voters have now." It will "create a two-tier political system." Party lists will fill 39 seats in a 129-seat legislature: we "will have no control at all over these people, who will have no constituency responsibilities," Denley claims. It's a job for life for people who please their parties, he says.

Like most of the "No MMP" folks, Denley ignores, or is perhaps simply unaware of, the experience of other countries with MMP. Germany has has this system in place for decades. List members do as much constituency work as any other MP. In fact, the average German elector perceives no difference between a list MP and a riding MP. The notion of a two-tier system, in other words, is a bogus one. And the major Ontario parties, sniffing the wind, have now all gone on record as supporting a democratic process for creating their lists.

But Denley's just warming up. Under MMP, voters will be able to vote for both a candidate in their riding and the party of their choice. He mocks this new freedom offered to voters, calling it a "boon for the indecisive," and then tosses away logic altogether: such improved voter power, he says, "evades the central question of any election: which party do we want to be the government?" Somehow, having the right to choose the party of your choice "evades the question" of which party we want. Someone will have to explain that one to me.

Then the difficulty of forming coalitions is raised: how would conflicting campaign platforms be reconciled? Good point: but that's what the hard business of political compromise is about. Remember that coalition-building is
really society-building in microcosm. If Ontario citizens are badly split over an issue, the job of the legislature is, or should be, to find ways of bringing the sides together. That doesn't happen when one minority "side" wins majority rule because of our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system. It can evade that split, rather than trying to heal it, for four years. A system that requires the parties to buckle down and look for solutions is far preferable: and that's what MMP does.

Certainly we all hope that our party will be able to carry out the platform that we have voted for. But there will be friends and neighbours who favour a different party and a different platform. Denley claims that MMP offers the parties an "easy out" for not delivering on promises; but the necessity of creating coalitions may work in the opposite direction. Would Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have been able to renege so easily on health-care premiums if they had been forced to look for political coalition partners with whom to form a government?

Denley concludes with the false statement, by now a political cliché, that MMP "would guarantee a future of backroom deals and unelected politicians." "Unelected?" The electors vote for both riding candidates and the party list candidates. "Backroom deals?" Political coalition-building is no more "backroom" than the current processes within parties; and the methods of assembling party lists under MMP will have to be revealed to Elections Ontario, which will publish the information widely. Any party stuffing its list with hacks and favourites will be a target of rival parties, who can be counted on to make an election issue out of it.

I find it difficult to challenge Denley's good faith or his intelligence. And that makes the appearance of this staggering collection of ill-thought-out claims about MMP all the more difficult to understand. He's absolutely right on one thing, though: there has been far too little electoral outreach on voting reform during the months leading up to the referendum. In fact, he has evidently escaped it himself. So at this point, thanks to insufficient engagement of citizens throughout the process of electoral change, it's columnists with their knee-jerk assumptions who may well decide the outcome.
But surely politics--and democracy--are too important to be left to the journalists.

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