Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

MMP and me

It occurs to me that some of you may not realize that I wasn't born a statistics-spouting, FAQ-writing, electoral reform geek--I was made that way. This post is that story.

When I was a young, politically-oblivious American teenager, I went over to Germany as an exchange student. I learned a lot of German, of course (which was the point), but as it turned out, it was also the beginning of my political education. Over the course of that year, I figured out that Germany had not two viable political parties, but four. I also figured out that some of the parties had to work together in order for anything to get done, because that was the only way they could add up to over fifty percent. And I also learned that this working together thing actually seemed to work for them--it actually produced policies that most of the country agreed with. What a wonderful thing this 'parliamentary democracy' thing was.

I didn't fully understand what their voting process looked like until a little later, when I was living there again immediately following German unification and the government put together a "this is how you vote!" program for the benefit of the rapidly democratizing East Germans. Your ballot has two votes, the program explained. On one side of the ballot, you mark the person you want as your local representative. On the other side, you pick the political party you like best. The East German first-time voters understood it quickly, and so did I--in fact, it intuitively made sense to me. It meant that if I were German and I liked that nice Mr. Schmidt and wanted him to represent me in Parliament, but in my heart of hearts, I really wanted to give my vote to a different party, I could do both. What a truly wonderful thing this 'parliamentary democracy' thing was.

Now, by the mid-80s, I knew I didn't want to live in the U.S. for the rest of my life--and frankly, a lot of that had to do with my early exposure to a political system that was clearly superior to the one I'd grown up with. But by the early 90s, I knew Germany was always going to remain a flirtation for me as well. By then I spoke the language as if it were my own and had loads of wonderful friends, but there were certain bits of me that were just too North American to ever feel truly at home there. So when I ended up in Ottawa during the 1993 federal election, I was ripe for seduction--and boy, oh boy did this country seduce me. I loved its bilingualism, its multiculturalism, the diversity of its political landscape. And that election...oh. Pure heroin to any budding political junkie.

And then came the results. The Liberals ascendant, the Bloc Québécois and Reform as strong regional forces, the NDP holding on for dear life, and most fascinatingly, the ruling Progressive Conservatives reduced to two seats (or less than 1% of the 295 seats). Everyone was shocked, but I was dumbfounded. Even the most pessimistic polls over the last few days of the campaign had seen the Tories in the low twenties or high teens--how the hell could they have suddenly gotten less than 1% of the vote? Didn't Canada have that 'parliamentary democracy' thing--you know, that thing where you vote for your local representative separately and the party vote determines the seat percentages?

It took me weeks--after I'd long since returned to the U.S.--to figure it all out. I learned that while the Progressive Conservative vote had gone down by a lot, they'd actually still gotten a perfectly respectable 16%. Which put them only a couple of percentage points behind the Reform Party...but somehow, Reform had gotten 50 more seats than them. And more confusing still was the Bloc, which had somehow managed to form the Official Opposition with only 14% of the vote. It quickly became clear that this wasn't my nice familiar German parliamentary democracy; this was some bizarro parliamentary democracy in which 16% meant two seats, but 19% meant 52 and 14% meant 54. Um. Okay, then!

Finally, someone was able to explain to me that it was the voting system that had made the difference; that the way it worked in Canada was simply different from how they voted in Germany. But even after I'd had it explained to me, it continued to baffle me. The Canadians had a parliamentary democracy, which as far as I was concerned was the most sensible political system in the world. So why did they want to screw that up with this weird voting system that clearly could produce such skewed results? Why didn't they do it the way the Germans did--it would be so easy and so clear! And then the polls everybody talked about during their campaigns would actually mean something!

Despite the fact that the Canadian voting system freaked me the hell out, the bug I'd caught during that trip stuck with me anyway, and so when it came time to apply for a permanent position a couple years later, I went after one in Edmonton and got it. I came to love this place as my home. But every once in a while my new Canadian friends and I would talk about elections, and I'd explain to them how things worked in Germany. Every time, they would emerge from our discussion asking the same questions I'd been asking for years: why did Canadians use such a screwy system when a far more sensible alternative was available? I did a little reading, and learned that the system I liked was called mixed-member proportional or MMP, while the one I didn't like was called first-past-the-post. And eventually, I learned that there was an organization called Fair Vote Canada that was trying to change things for the better. I joined up, I started blogging, and here I am.

Which brings us to today, just a few weeks before October 10th. October 10th, when the people of Ontario have a chance to change the system from one in which 16% sometimes means two seats and 14% sometimes means 54, to the one that's impressed me since I was fifteen for its simple, clear, and fair results. To say that this is a historic opportunity is a huge understatement. It seems that when people are truly informed about the two choices and what they mean, they tend to prefer MMP--but I unfortunately don't have the ability to inject the hands-on political education I got by living first in Germany and then in Canada into every Ontarian's brain. So I'm asking you to trust me a little on this: MMP really does work. It doesn't produce perpetual unstable minority governments, it doesn't make political parties into super-sized patronage machines, and it's not at all hard to understand.

Yes, it's different from what people are used to, and yes, that's scary. But it's even scarier to the status-quo politicians who have benefited under the current system, and are completely panicked about the prospect of having to learn to do their jobs differently. Don't listen to them. They haven't lived under MMP and really seen how it works, and I have. I know about all of the frightening scenarios that they want you to believe--the ones that could, in some alternate universe, potentially produce some scary result like parties taking control and stacking parliament with people who owe them favours. But the thing is, they're talking about what's theoretically possible, and MMP really doesn't work that way in practice. And even if that alternate universe somehow came to pass, none of those scenarios are scarier than things that have already happened in Canada as a direct result of the system we already have.

It's long past time for a change. Make history, Ontario. Make me proud.


Anonymous said...

I do not mind thepart of electing an Mp , and prty after that I is the rest of this MMP I do not like. Couldn't some rinky dink of a party get in an tell evveryone what they want.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Not at all! The beauty of proportional representation, of which MMP is one variant, is that the parties get only as much power as the people give them. So for some rinky dink party to take control of everything, they would actually have to get 50% of the vote, which would kind of be impossible for a rinky dink party. The system you should really be afraid of is the one we have now, where a rinky dink party like mine (the NDP) actually did form a "majority" government in Ontario in 1990 with only 37% of the vote. MMP would prevent that from ever happening again.

If you want to read up for yourself, the FAQs on this page address those kinds of issues.

By the way, would you mind terribly giving yourself a pseudonym if you comment again, so that I can keep track of who's who? Thanks.

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

GRrrrr. This whole "fringe parties will rule the Province!" scare tactic just makes me SO CRAZY.

First off, let's just set aside the fact that no party outside of the main three has EVER won enough of the vote to get a seat under MMP (3%), not even the Green Party (who just once got 2.8% of the vote). And we'll similarly ignore that every other party besides the Greens would have to MORE THAN QUADRUPLE their vote to get representation in the Legislature under MMP. I'll grant that people may vote differently if they are given a different electoral system, so as crazy as it seems a few of the smaller parties may actually be able to get some small bit of representation under MMP.

Given that, my first question is "What's so terrible about a party that gets 3% of the votes getting 3% of the power?" or, a party that gets 10% of the vote getting 10% of the power? Why is that so weird and scary? Isn't that the whole point of representative democracy?

Secondly, anonymous seems to be assuming that MMP means that parties MUST incorporate smaller parties into the government. That's not remotely true. Let's say (and this will never happen, but let's use an extreme to disprove anonymous's fear) that the Liberals got 37% of the vote, the Tories 30% of the vote, the NDP 15% of the vote the Greens 10% of the vote, the Family Coalition 5% of the vote (yeah right, but whatever) and the "We're just crazy people" Party got 3% of the vote. In this scenario, there is NOTHING forcing the Liberals (who would be first asked to form a government) to work with any of the parties that got under 15% of the vote. They could align with the Tories (and in this current election there's precious little difference between McGuinty's party and Tory's, so it could easily happen), and govern with a comfortable 67% majority. Or they could align with the NDP and govern with a less comfortable (and therefore more conciliatory and consultative) 52% majority. Maybe they'll have a Liberal-NDP-Green coalition and govern with 62% of the power. Maybe, they can find a narrow slice of common ground between themselves and the Greens and the Family Coalition, and they'll form a Coalition with 52% of the vote. Maybe the Liberals will form alliances one way on issue X, and another on issue Y. In any scenario, the Liberals still have 37% of the power, the Tories still have 30% of the power, the NDP 15% the Greens 10% and the Family Coalition 5%. Because that's what the citizens voted for!

Now, will the Liberal-led government need to compromise with it's partners to get things done? Of course. However, that's the WHOLE POINT. The Liberals will have to wield their 37% of the power in such a way that laws are made that represent not just the views of Liberal supporters, but a compromise view that takes into account the wishes of a MAJORITY of voters. Maybe we'll love what the Liberal-Green-Family coalition does, and they'll receive an increased mandate in the next election. Maybe we'll hate what they do, and they'll get clobbered next time out. Maybe we'll like what the Greens pushed for, but not what the Family Coalition pushed for, so the Green vote will go up, the Family vote will go down, and the Family Coalition can be removed from the government. Maybe the opposite will happen. The point is the decision is up to US. The other point is, no single party gets to implement their agenda without compromise based upon receiving less than a majority of the vote. Under FPTP ("winner take all") the Liberals don't have to compromise with anyone. At all. They get "majority power" with their 37% of the vote. The 37% of the people who voted Liberal get EXACTLY what they voted for, it's true. What's more important though is that the other 63% of voters can be ignored entirely.

Throw all the scary hypotheticals you want out there and I can still point to real world examples like Bob Rae's 37% "majority", or the 1987 New Brunswick election where 40% of voters elected not a single MPP (and the government had not a single member of the opposition, from ANY party, to deal with) or the half dozen or more Canadian elections under FPTP where the second place party formed a "majority" government, while the party that won the most votes was relegated to the opposition.

Is MMP perfect? No. No system is. However, there are hardly any worse than our current "Winner Takes All" system, to which in my mind MMP is CLEARLY superior.

West End Bob said...

Thanks for the history - both yours and MMP. As we get closer to PR status, "drf" and I need all the help we can get understanding the Canadian Parliamentary system. This post will go into our "How to be Canadian" folder.

Now, as for this:

If you want to read up for yourself, the FAQs on this page address those kinds of issues.

You just can't help yourself, can you? :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Man, I love your rants.

west end bound,

Well, if you end up in Vancouver as planned, it'll be a different kind of proportional representation on the table than the one I describe here. I'll be happy to explain that one to you, too, though. :-)

Anonymous said...

Nice work over at Calgary Grit, IP. Keep speaking the truth. I respect CG too, but I was surprised at the fallacies and fear in his post on MMP.

JG said...

Bravo, IP. Now, if only we could finally expunge all the various canards floating around about MMP and electoral reform in general. I find it hard to believe that a Liberal (!!!!) in Calgary, no less, could write such an apology for the virtues of "stable" single-party majority government.