Saturday, October 06, 2007

Government by journalist: MMP vs. the press

Randall Denley wasn't overjoyed with my recent post refuting his new-found "expertise" on Mixed-Member Proportional. "Every dog will have his blog," he grumbled to me. And now yet another from the Ottawa Citizen's stable of instant experts weighs in: Mark Sutcliffe, with "10 reasons to say no to MMP." So it's time for another bit of heel-nipping.

But first, a general frustrated word. There have been a few columnists and editorialists here and there who have actually endorsed the proposal for electoral change in Ontario. But the vast majority of the ink-stained wretches have retailed the same tired old arguments for the status quo, again and again and again, to the point that one almost begins to believe in cabals. If we were to have government by journalist, we would never change a thing. We could let them do all our thinking for us, dispensing their spontaneous expertise in every field, and never strain a brain cell.

Uh...wait a minute. That's what's happening right now.

Sutcliffe, in fact, makes this point admirably in his very first "reason." Ontarians, he says, aren't "clamouring for change." A lot of them don't seem to be paying attention to the referendum. Hence (he concludes) they don't have problems with the current system.

Now, that's a bit of a leap in logic. There has been little outreach, little public education, little grassroots organizing other than the usual well-worn tactics of holding a few meetings, sending letters to the editor and putting up signs. Most Ontarians have not been involved in the debates from the start, and they remain that way. Many of them will stay away from the polls on October 10 in any case, as they always do. It's not that they don't think the first-past-the-post system is fundamentally flawed. They're casualties of it. Their vote very often doesn't count; the government of the day invariably reflects minority opinion, which statistically isn't likely to be theirs. This sort of thing breeds cynicism. It breeds apathy. And so the journos jump into the breach, molding public opinion in their own image, which is to say, injecting more anesthetic into the body politic.

Sutcliffe likens elections to the hiring of an employee. You have three candidates for the job; you can't hire them all. But the analogy is a silly one. We aren't hiring candidates when we go to the polls. We are voting for a government. And we are not one employer, but many, with widely divergent opinions about the candidates before us. Why not elect a legislature that honestly reflects this division of opinion, so that everyone's vote matters? First-past-the-post doesn't do that. MMP does.

"We want local representation," Sutcliffe says, but "MMP would make the popular vote paramount." Has he even bothered to read the MMP proposal? MMP preserves local representation--in fact, such local representatives would fill two-thirds of the legislature. But the popular vote, last I heard, was what democracy is supposed to be based on.

"You shouldn't get two votes," he says, disapprovingly. Under MMP, you get a vote for your local representative, and another vote for your party of choice. "That's not a decision," he sniffs. Well, it's actually two decisions. But for some reason, electors should not be given new opportunities to exercise their freedom of political choice. Denley said that a few days ago; his colleague Sutcliffe is saying the same thing now. Why not? Personally, I'm a little leery of "authorities" telling us that we shouldn't have more political freedom.

The 3% threshold, he says, is too low. I actually agree with him on this point; I think it should be more like 5%. But that's just tinkering. Let's try the proposal as it stands, not toss the whole thing out because of a minor nuts-and-bolts issue that can be quickly fixed without another referendum if the proposed threshold needs to be raised.

The spectre of "more politicians" is raised once again. What convenient memories these people have! We had 130 MPPs in Ontario before 1996, when Mike Harris lowered the number with his Fewer Politicians Act. But this isn't about politicians--it's about the proper representation of our varying political views in Ontario. The list MPPs, he says, would be like senators, without constituencies, accountable only to their parties. But that's not how it works in Germany, which has had MMP for decades, and where list legislators do as much constituency work as any other legislator. List MMPs would be accountable to the people who voted them in. That's us.

MMP will promote division, Sutcliffe claims, forgetting perhaps that first-past-the -post encourages narrow regionalism as parties need to concentrate their votes in a few constituencies, knowing that even significant appeal across ridings can leave them with no seats. There will be more parties, he says, based on single issues. We'll have a series of minority governments. In other words, we can't have democracy--it's scary. We need majority government at all costs, even when a majority of electors vote the other way. Such arguments have been raised in the past to justify one-man rule. They're being raised now to justify the near-permanent rule of minorities, which is what first-past-the-post gets us. In both cases, democracy itself is rejected as inefficient and unstable.

Small parties will hold disproportionate power under MMP, he says. Well, no: their MPPs will hold the same power as any other MPPs. When it comes time to build coalitions, either before or after an election, no major party will want to make deals with extremists or fringe groups, which will cost them dearly in the next election; far more likely (and Germany is again an example) coalitions are made between larger, more mainstream parties. Parties campaign on platforms, and compromise will mean that those platforms are altered somewhat if coalitions are formed after an election. But when was the last time anyone saw a party implement its platform after an election? No tax increases, McGuinty said. No NAFTA, the Chrétien Liberals said. No wage and price controls, Trudeau said. These were priority campaign issues. Come on, Mark, pull the other one.

Sutcliffe's solution to the utterly inadequate and undemocratic first-past-the-post system is a runoff system. You get to mark a ballot with your first, second, etc., preferences. Names at the bottom of the ballot are eliminated until someone at the top has 50%. Liberals love this idea. If you aren't a Liberal, you're likely to consider them second-best no matter where you're located on the political spectrum. It's a great recipe for Liberal governments until the end of time. But it's not democracy. Democracy means that your first preference counts. And it's democracy that's up for grabs on October 10.

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