Another kick at the MMP cat

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David Graham has been at the "No MMP" thing for a while now, and he's decided to have a go at my "Ten Lies" piece. Let's see how well he does.

To help the reader, I'll use my original headings: he does as well. Here are the original misconceptions/ misapprehensions/lies once again.

1) MMP will create unstable coalition governments.

Graham doesn't stick to the question here, but takes a scattershot approach. He argues, or rather asserts, that an MMP system is "inappropriate to represent the diversity needed" in a population larger than that of PEI. He claims, after noting that we Canadians aren't European and have separate political traditions, that only four European countries have MMP--Scotland, Wales, a province in Serbia and Germany. (Alas, this is only the first of his factual inaccuracies: I shall correct them as we go along.) He notes the relatively low Ontario threshold (3%) required to obtain a list seat, and the lack of overhang provisions, in the current model. The internal caucus horsetrading that goes on now will be reduced under MMP, he asserts, because list MPPs will have no incentive to barter--they will just follow the party line. He suggests issue-by-issue agreement will be more likely than coalitions under MMP. Finally, Graham claims that had the 2003 Ontario election been run under MMP it would have resulted in the Liberals being only one seat shy of a majority.

I feel like the proverbial mosquito in a nudist camp, but here goes:
  • How does FPTP accommodate diversity as opposed to MMP?
  • How do our political traditions differ from the Westminster system from which they arose, and why does this make MMP inappropriate?
  • With respect to European MMP, is Graham forgetting about the forms of it to be found in Hungary, the Ukraine, Russia and Italy (which recently abandoned its chaotic pure PR system)? Other European countries use a variety of other forms of proportional representation. Indeed, the only European country that uses FPTP is Great Britain. Most of the other countries where it's still in force are former British colonies.
  • the Ontario threshold is relatively low--5% rather than 3% is more common. But that can be fixed if it proves to be a problem--it's hardly an argument against MMP as a whole. Ditto for the lack of overhang provisions (addition of extra seats after an election if required to preserve proportionality), which could indeed result in rare majority governments with minority support. Far from being rare, though, such false majorities have been the rule in Ontario under FPTP.
  • List MPPs will be unlikely to keep their heads down and toe the party line, for a variety of reasons. First, they will very likely have to run as MPPs at some point, if the German example is any guide. Secondly, that "party line" itself evolves within a party caucus, and they will have their say like anyone else: it doesn't just fall from above. Finally, they will have to debate the issues with riding MPPs, who outnumber them two to one.
  • Coalitions, like parties, are built around a constellation of political values. The notion of political governance based upon issue-by-issue agreement seems unlikely, based upon experience of MMP in other countries, none of whom have that hypothetical form of governance.
  • Finally, under MMP in 2003, the Ontario Liberals would have fallen five seats short of a majority, not one, according to Fair Vote Canada's analysis: I'd be interested in how Graham arrived at his result. Incidentally, with a mere 6% increase in the popular vote, the Liberals doubled their seats in the legislature.

2) MMP will allow small fringe parties to call the shots.

Graham simply argues that it's a hypothetical possibility, based upon his erroneous account of the 2003 Ontario election. Perhaps, however, we should actually look at how MMP functions in the real world. Would Graham provide us with examples, or is he counting upon us conflating MMP with the Israeli pure PR system where, indeed, his scenario has been frequently observed?

3) MMP will elect members who represent no one, and whom no one's ever heard of.

Here Graham first argues that list-formation will not be an electoral issue, because the media will only cover controversial choices. With respect, I think he's missing the point. It's not just who end up on the list, but how they do. Rival parties will not be slow to point out weaknesses--if, for example, Party A's list is stuffed with party insiders whom nobody in the electorate has ever heard of, a smart Party B strategist would take full advantage of yet another wedge issue for the campaign.

Graham goes on to display his fundamental misunderstanding of the MMP proposal by arguing that the 39 list MPPs will lighten the load in only 39 of the proposed 90 ridings, leaving 51 MPPs to do more work than their riding colleagues. But no one has claimed that a list MPP would be available only to the electors in a single riding. They could, and indeed are far more likely to, work in regions, not single constituencies.

Finally, having chided me for using European examples, Graham himself indulges in silly fear-mongering, pointing to Russia where some parties sell list positions to raise funds.There is "no reason this couldn't happen here," he says. To which I can only reply, citing examples closer to home, that there is no reason it would.

4) MMP is less efficient than Single Member Plurality (First-Past-The-Post)

Graham cites a frustrated Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand, who said in an interview, after trying to get her way on monetary policy, that it's hard to make tough decisions under MMP. This isn't an argument, but an anecdote. One would hope, in any case, that under a democratic system, tough decisions would be made with majority legislative approval.

He continues his response to this point by claiming that reducing the number of riding MPPs reduces the effectiveness of riding representation, blithely ignoring the fact that there will now be list MPPs in the regions to shoulder the load. (While I can agree that Ontario, and Canada, have diverse regions that require region-specific attention, the same cannot be said of ridings. As an urban Ottawa voter, for example, I would be hard-put to name differences of interests between, say, the electors of Ottawa-Centre and of Ottawa-South.)

5) MMP does not require parties to explain how their lists are put together

Here, once again, Graham claims that list-formation will be a non-issue. See my response under (3).

6) MMP will make contact with your representative more difficult

As noted originally, the German electorate make no distinctions between list and riding MPs: list MPs are accessible to citizens and do their share of constituency work. Graham insists that it is "brain-damaged" to claim that list MPPs in Ontario would represent voters; I would say that it's a little odd to argue otherwise, since voters' votes put them into the legislature.

He goes on to produce that oft-heard canard that riding MPs, once elected, represent everyone in the riding, not just those who elected them. In some rarified, theoretical sense (never mind Tom Wappel) he might be right: in practical terms, our elected representatives tend to support their respective party lines on legislative votes. On a constituency basis, of course, their offices are open to anyone, but as noted the same would be the case for list MPPs.

7) MMP is confusing.

The best Graham can do here is to point to a Scottish study that showed considerable confusion among the voters when MMP was introduced. True enough--which is why in future elections the single-ballot system proposed in Ontario will be used there as well. It is profoundly insulting to the electors, in any case, to assume that giving them both a vote for a riding candidate and a vote for a party will reduce them to sobbing incomprehension.

And, at the end of his article, Graham, without a hint of embarrassment, expresses his support for one of the most complex voting systems of all time--the Condorcet system. (See for yourself.)

8) MMP will produce two tiers of political representative

Graham merely reasserts this--and then segues into the Speaker's alleged difficulty in recognizing members who wish to address the legislature! Members are now recognized by their riding name, he points out--whatever will the poor Speaker do when there are list MPPs as well? How will he address them?

Good grief.

9) MMP is undemocratic

Graham continues to argue that lists are undemocratic, and hence continues to evade the point that the electors will have the final say--and that the party selection process will be under scrutiny (he claims it won't be, which I have already indicated is a fantastic assertion). He would prefer a preferential ballot, which would, whether he supports this outcome or not, inevitably put the Natural Governing Party in a majority position, since the Liberals are everybody's first or second choice. (Conservatives will prefer Liberals over NDPers; NDPers will, as Buzz Hargrove illustrated, choose Liberals over Conservatives.) I don't see this as serious electoral reform. Under MMP, on the other hand, NDPers will support their first-choice NDP, and Conservatives, their first-choice Conservative Party.

Graham argues that strategic voting will still occur. He is not entirely wrong on this, but it would be quite a different kind of strategic voting--apples and oranges. Currently, as I noted, strategic voting means voting for a party you don't want in order to keep out a party you want even less. Under MMP, strategic voting, if it occurs, would mean splitting your vote between your party of choice and a likely coalition partner. What's wrong with that?

10) MMP is divisive

Graham argues that MMP will do nothing about regionally-based parties, but he doesn't really come to grips with the issue. Currently, a party facing a national (or provincial party) with a national (or provincial) base of support is tempted to exacerbate regional differences, as I noted before. Under MMP, regional differences will not go away, but there is less incentive to blow them out of proportion, because a party can gain seats by appealing to a broader constituency rather than having to concentrate its support in a few regional ridings. Graham's counter-example uses a retired New Zealand police officer as an authority, and it doesn't bear upon the regional issue at all.

Concluding Note:

MMP, Graham asserts, will push us further away from such basic reforms as a legislatively elected Premier. It is not at all clear why this should be so. If the electors vote in MMP,
they will see for themselves that the existing system is not part of the natural order of things, like gravity, but a structure subject to change. The debate around other reforms will be likely to grow, not dissipate.

"MMP has no merit," Graham baldly concludes. I'm afraid that I have to say the same about his arguments. Readers--and, more important, Ontario electors--will of course decide for themselves. But I can only hope that they aren't swayed by such specious reasoning.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on August 14, 2007 5:55 PM.

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