Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Ontario Referendum

Ontarians on October 10th will make an important choice between the existing first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system and the proposed replacement, MMP (mixed -member proportional). It has been said that FPTP has problems. We are democratic reformers, but the proposed system is more flawed and will create even more problems.

How we cast votes and elect politicians are more than technicalities. Election rules reflect significant values and create incentives for politicians. Changing an electoral system requires us to think about what we value. What incentive system do we really want?

Ontario’s FPTP system appeals to those who desire stability, accountability, effectiveness, and simplicity. MMP appeals to those who seek proportionality and power-sharing.

Politics requires ideals. But good design is essential. When asked to change a fundamental institution such as our electoral system we must consider issues of both values and design.

With MMP, we will cast two votes. One, as now, will be for our local MPP (but with a total of 90 instead of the current 107). The other will be for our preferred party, leading, after complicated calculations, to the election of 39 “party list” parliamentarians. In theory, we will have a legislature reflecting the votes for parties (proportionality), and, it as assumed, more women and visibility minority MPPs.

Proportionality will mean the end of majority governments and create a legislature composed of many parties preoccupied with power-bargaining and gaining short-term advantage. Parties will find it hard to plan.

Consider the threshold for the election of party-list MPPs. A party needs three percent of the total vote to win a seat, a threshold at the low end of the range for MMP systems: most are at five percent. Our concern is MMP - 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.

In terms of promoting diversity, there are two fatal flaws in the party list idea. First, where people are placed on the list is crucial: placed first means election, last means defeat. So, having 30 women on the list is meaningless if the top nine are men.

Second, Ontario is one constituency for the party-list candidates; parties are not required to list people from Ontario’s various regions. It is entirely possible for most party-list MPPs to hail from one region. This is great news for people living in, say, the GTA, but bad news for rural residents or Northern Ontarians.
There should have been provision for regional party-list elections so no region is seriously under-represented in the legislature. As it is, the proposed MMP system may encourage the formation of regional parties.

The MMP proposal contains a new theory of representation. Instead of having MPPs in Queen’s Park who are locally-elected and expected to represent their district’s concerns there will be 39 MPPs who have no direct connection with or accountability to electors. This creates two classes of representatives, one known and responsible to their electors, the other answerable to party leaders who place people on the list and their ranking.

Party leaders are very powerful in our parliamentary system and it is unfortunate that the MMP designers did not require that party members (in regional conventions) choose the party list candidates. Citizens would have an incentive to join parties, thus invigorating an important part of our society.

What are the party-list parliamentarians doing? Political science literature suggests the following: Constituency MPPs will be busy with local issues and dealing with concerns of constituents; party-list MPPs will be preoccupied with the legislature, doing party work, and meeting with interest groups.

MMP’s new theory of representation will radically change politics in Ontario. Perhaps it is a good idea that Queen’s Park has one group of MPPs who are directly connected to constituencies and other MPPs passing laws and imposing taxes who do not have to worry about personal re-election or even being re-nominated by local party members. For our part, we oppose a system of “representation without location.”

Have we adequately debated the issue? We believe that the referendum process is flawed. The Citizens’ Assembly’s Report was released on May 15th. With two months lost during summer, we will make a monumental decision in too short a time, and when we are pre-occupied with the provincial election.

MMP advocates point to New Zealand as an example of a parliamentary system that has adopted MMP. They do not mention the lengthy decision-making process: a Royal Commission reported, followed by a referendum on electoral systems, then a second referendum on MMP. We should have had the same opportunity to learn, reflect, and decide.

We urge Ontarians to retain FPTP knowing that it has provided for stable, effective, and accountable government since before Confederation. The voting process is simple and the counting of votes is straightforward. And the electoral system is responsive to new issues, ideas, and parties, leading to governments being formed and being defeated.

Peter Woolstencroft, Department of Political Science,
University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Rob Leone, Department of Political
Science, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo

Mark Yaniszewski, Department of
Political Science, University of Western Ontario, London

Bill Longworth's comment

For what it's worth---my basic belief is that every member of governing institutions should be elected and accountable to voters who elect him/her. I don't believe we should have a second class of politicians (appointed like Senators) without any accountability whatsoever to voters. In the MMP system it is conceivable that the powers of government will be handed to non-elected party bosses leaving elected members to simply look after constituency concerns and hold up their voting hands when told to do so by the unaccountable and unelected party bosses. In a democracy, voters have to have the power to remove individual members from the governing institutions. In undemocratic nations, members of governing bodies are appointed and imposed on the people by the governing party and its leaders. We shouldn't go this route in Ontario!

As stated in the Toronto Star Editorial on Sept. 26, "This referendum is simply too important for people to cast their ballots without really knowing what it is all about."---It's too bad that Oshawa City Council did not heed this warning about the importance of public information when even Oshawa's Mayor stated that the city had no responsibility to inform the public about its own referendum.

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