Recently, Peter Woolstoncroft, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo, spoke out in defence of the First Past the Post system, advocating at the least, caution before choosing to switch to a system like Mixed Member Proportional. You can see his opinion piece here.
Doctor Woolstoncroft has more political experience in his pinky than I do in my entire body, but I must respectfully disagree with his points, and take issue with one in particular. Among the evils of MMP, he says, is a potential Balkanization of the Ontario parliament:
Our concern is mixed-member proportional — in such a diverse and large province as Ontario — creates an incentive for people to form new parties in order to advance their interests. Political entrepreneurs will see that they can win seats without making a heavy effort to appeal to many voters. A multi-party legislature means that small and single-issue parties will be more important than their voting strength would otherwise warrant. The minority governments of the future will be much different from the ones of the past.
This matches up with something similar said by Star columnist Ian Urquhart:
New Zealand is a relatively homogenous place compared to Ontario. Here, if MMP were adopted as our electoral system, one could easily envisage the emergence of parties based on ethnicity or on geography (a Toronto secessionist party, say, or a northern party).
Under the MMP model recommended by the citizens’ assembly in Ontario, these parties would need just 3 per cent of the popular vote — about 150,000 votes — to gain four seats in the Legislature.
One cannot help but notice the paternalism of these two arguments: if we give people the ability to gain a seat in the legislature by mobilizing 150,000 individuals to vote one way, people might actually set up political parties to achieve their democratic goals.
Oh, the horror.
Never mind the fact that four seats, while a voice in Queen’s Park, is not official party status. And never mind the fact that if fringe parties materialize, nothing stops the Liberals from working with the Conservatives in getting business done. What these individuals are implying is, essentially, how dare the people contemplate getting politically active and mobilizing voters. It’s like they want the government to work for them rather than sit back and accept the established parties that know what’s best for them!
But I have to point out to Woolstoncroft and Urquhart that, at the federal level, we have already seen two parties materialize within the last twenty years, based on geographic interest. The Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois rose to prominence in 1993 on platforms that expressly disavowed the national interest. It was what their voters wanted, so I won’t criticize them on that, but they were largely a product of the First Past the Post system. Even Reform Party candidate Reg Gosse acknowledged this and said it wasn’t fair. The Bloc Quebecois in particular became the official opposition despite taking less than 12% of the popular vote. If their seats had been assigned proportionally, even based upon the percentage of the popular vote in the province, they would have had less than 40 seats in the House of Commons instead of the 54 they were able to land. Most Quebeckers who voted chose parties other than the BQ, and yet the BQ took almost three-quarters of the province.
So it seems silly to worry about how MMP will allow 150,000 Torontonians to elect four Bloc Toronto party members to Queen’s Park when, those same voters, concentrated in a handful of ridings within the City of Toronto, could take as many, if not more, seats under FPTP.
MMP fits two key criteria for me that makes it, in my opinion, a good, representative democratic system. One: it maintains local representation throughout the province, and two: the final construction of parliament more-or-less matches the popular vote throughout the province. I firmly believe that, despite its flaws, the version of MMP that is being voted upon offers a substantial improvement on our democratic system as it now stands.
A variant of the Mixed Member Proportional system that was briefly considered but dropped by the Citizens Assembly is known as Regional Open. Like the Provincial Closed model, Regional Open reduces the number of ridings across the province from 107 to 90. Where Regional Open differs from Provincial Closed is that it then takes those 90 seats and groups them into a series of roughly equal “regions” conforming roughly to the distinct regions of the province. The 39 list seats are then apportioned to the various regions, maintaining a roughly equal amount of voters per seat.
Again, voters are presented with two ballots; one is local, but the other is regional rather than party-based. On the local ballot, you would vote for your local representative as per usual. The regional ballot would be larger, however, as it would contain every single local candidate running in all the ridings in the region, including independents, grouped by parties, and with each independent listed as their own party. You would then select the regional candidate you like the most, with the understanding that your vote would be counted for the party banner that your preferred regional candidate is running under.
The local elections proceed as normal, and the results are tallied against the party votes in each region. The “at large” regional seats are assigned to each party in such a manner as balances the final seat count more closely to the popular vote in that region, and the question of which party candidate gets the seats is determined by which losing local candidate receives the most regional votes.
It’s rather like sports teams winning the wildcard spots for the playoffs.
The biggest drawback of the Regional Open system is that it produces a bedsheet ballot that could be confusing for some voters, but I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The question of assigning seats to regional MPPs is taken entirely out of the hands of the party brass and put back into the hands of voters. It also leaves open the possibility, however slim, that independent candidates could be elected to represent voters at the regional level. And it ensures that enough list MPPs are assigned to each region to keep regional representation fair and equitable in Queen’s Park.
You may ask, if I believe that this system is so much better than the system now being voted upon, why do I support the system being voted upon? Well, for me, that speaks to the most important reason to vote in favour of change on October 10. The system being voted upon isn’t perfect, I agree, but that isn’t the question on the ballot. The question is, is the system being voted upon better than the system we have.
The perceived flaws of the provincial-closed variant of MMP have been exaggerated by naysayers in this election, and the advantages far outweigh the serious flaws that make the First Past the Post status quo a democratic joke. I fully intend to campaign to change the MMP system once it is approved, convincing Ontarians to adopt the Regional Open model, but the possibility that I can get the system I want increases if the vote to change the status quo passes on October 10.
If we wait for perfection, it will never arrive. The process of changing our system into something more democratic isn’t going to be achieved in a single step. It will take many steps, with the first step coming on October 10. If we fail to vote in favour of MMP on October 10, then our journey towards a truly democratic voting system might never begin. We’ve had to bully and cajole our politicians into opening up the door even this wide. If we fail to walk through, the door might never be opened again.
Let us take that first step. On October 10, vote for MMP.