Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Comparing like with like in Ontario

I'm not going to point to anyone in particular, but I've been noticing one major tendency among informed opponents to Ontario's proposed new Mixed-Member proportional electoral system (as opposed to the ill-informed ones like Ian Urquhart of the Toronto Star, who aren't even basing their arguments on accurate information): they all seem to be using a faulty thought process to reach their conclusions. Specifically, they seem to be looking at the possible negatives of the proposed system (coalition governments might be unstable, closed lists could end up meaning party hacks negotiating their way into the provincial parliament through backroom deals) and comparing those possibilities with the way the current system actually functions in practice. They then conclude that these possible downsides are too great a risk and decide to vote for the status quo.

Why is this thought process faulty? Because it's not comparing like with like. If Ontarians really want to make an informed decision about this, they have to either compare Mixed-Member Proportional's possible negatives with First Past the Post's possible negatives (whether or not it tends to work that way in practice), or compare the way First Past the Post currently works in practice in Ontario with the way Mixed-Member Proportional actually works in practice in jurisdictions like Germany where it is currently in place.

So, for example, one possible downside to the current way of electing MPPs in Ontario would be that the 905 region could produce a new party (let's call it the "905 party") that would exist for the sole purpose of demanding that the region be given a special status, extra government money, and additional clout. Given the way First Past the Post magnifies the vote of minor region-specific parties, this hypothetical 905 party could very easily take Ontario's provincial parliament by storm and seriously disrupt the regional balance of that body, sowing even more resentment among already disparate groups of MPPs and their constituents.

Does the current system actually work that way in practice? Well, no (although a glimpse at the Bloc Québécois' success on the federal level shows that it's not an entirely farfetched scenario). But Mixed-Member Proportional in Germany doesn't actually produce unstable coalition governments and party hacks negotiating their way into parliament through backroom deals, either.

Further information:

  • democraticSPACE brings us a very simple and elegant explanation of how the proposed system would work.
  • Columnist Andrew Coyne comes out against his own employer and argues cogently in favour of the reform.
  • While the Toronto Star itself has been rabidly anti-reform, when they asked their readers what they thought, apparently they couldn't find anyone to agree with them.
  • Sinister Greg points to a fascinating debate on the issues on a show called "The Agenda with Steve Paiken" (click on the 16th). It's well done, and includes a segment on "lessons from New Zealand," a country that underwent a switch a decade ago to a system very similar to the one proposed for Ontario.


robedger said...

Good point.

I wonder, what is your preferred system, if you got to choose?

You may have mentioned it in the past; I can't recall.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I've actually deliberately not laid out my ideal electoral system in this blog, however tempting it may have occasionally been (avoiding geekery is not my strong suit). Basically, since no one electoral system geek is ever likely to get everything they want in reform, I think it's not productive to geek about that stuff in public. Then people can point to it and say: "hey, but this electoral systems geek thinks THAT OTHER system would be better. why didn't they pick THAT OTHER system? Maybe if I vote No this time, then they'll do all this again with THAT OTHER system!" I'm willing to accept compromises as long as I'm convinced that the new proposed system would be an improvement over the old one, and I think other people should be, too.

But if we ever meet in person, ask me then, and I'll tell ya.

robedger said...

Fair enough. I actually don't really have a favourite, but suffice to say our system isn't it.

On a federal level, I would like it if we looked towards countries like Germany, as well as this recent effort in Ontario. Perhaps something could be constructed that is somewhat unique.

Like you, I would be open to compromise. I'm a Liberal for Pete's sake.

D.R.M. said...

Regionally popular parties gain too many seats is alread a problem federally. The BQ, with only 10 % of the vote, got almost 17% of the seats.