Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why the status quo is REALLY scared of MMP

In the last couple of days, various pro-voting-reform forces have issued challenges to the leaders of the two biggest Ontario political parties. Liberals for MMP has demanded that Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal leader and current premier, make clear his position on MMP. At the same time, voteformmp.ca has called upon John Tory, the Conservative leader, to state that he would find a democratic process for electing "at-large" or "list" candidates if MMP were to pass. So far, neither leader has responded.

Common wisdom says that these two leaders are staying silent because they're scared they could lose seats under MMP, and therefore don't want to draw attention to the referendum at all because they're hoping it will fail. I don't buy that. Don't get me wrong--I agree that they're both hoping it will fail, and I agree that it's because they're scared. But they're scared of something much, much bigger than the possibility of losing a couple of seats. What they're really scared of is having to relearn everything they know about how to do their jobs.

See, in Canada we're used to single-party governments. Majority or minority, it doesn't matter--you've still only got one party in the driver's seat, one party that gets to put through their own ideas without any input from anybody else. This is a hugely powerful position to be in, and it promotes a mindless antagonism that you don't see in most other countries' politics. The party in government has to spend all its time trying to make the other guys look so bad that people won't vote for them next time, and the opposition has to spend all its time trying to do the same thing with the governing party so they can actually do more than dream of absolute power. The whole culture is set up this way: entire political careers are built on how best to rant and roar in ways that will make the other guys look bad (even if what they're doing is really not all that different from what your guys are doing), and if one of the other parties has a good idea, you've got to find some way--any way--to twist it enough to make it look like a bad one.

In places that have MMP, though, the norm isn't single-party governments at all. Instead, those places tend to have multi-party majority coalition governments. This means that the party that gets the most seats chooses a coalition partner to form a government with, allowing the two parties together to add up to more than 50% of the seats. After this happens, the parties reconcile their party platforms through compromise and work together as a single government to put their ideas into practice. This isn't some crazy concept that's only used by a few countries, either--this is the way government works in nearly all of the world's parliamentary democracies.

The result of this process is not only a stable governing body that was chosen by a majority of the voters, but a creative governing body that by necessity has to take ideas from a number of different viewpoints instead of refusing to look outside of their narrow box. This produces a radically different political culture from what we have in Canada: for example, if the winning party likes some of the ideas from another party's toolchest, they don't have to pretend they hate them--they can invite that other party to form government with them and put those ideas into practice together. And as far as the opposition parties are concerned, they still spend a lot of time criticizing the governing parties under this system--but suddenly it's actually about the actual places they disagree on policy, rather than just about trying to bolster their own fortunes.

If Ontario were to switch to MMP, the current antagonistic political culture would change. This means that all those political strategists whose careers have been built on things working the way they currently work would have to suddenly learn brand-new skills of negotiation and of compromise. Political leaders would have to start concentrating more on policy rather than simply on good rhetoric and showmanship. As you might expect, this scares the status quo to death. And I'm not just talking about the Liberals and the Tories, either--the NDP is just as much a part of that rigid, antagonistic status quo, and you can bet that they're scared too (they just think that the new system might give them a few extra seats, and that's worth the risk to them). All three of the entrenched parties would be facing a steep learning curve if this referendum were to pass, and they know it. And you better believe it's keeping them up nights.

But while this change would be scary as all get-out to the politicians who would have to relearn their jobs, just think of what a breath of fresh air it would be to the voters. Just think about it.

I have always said that the best and most important reason to switch to proportional systems like MMP is simple logic: a voting system that makes every vote count in a fair and straightforward way simply makes more sense than the one we have right now. All the other stuff like better representation for women and minorities, a possible increase in voter turnout, a decrease in the need for strategic voting, and a shift in our political culture--all those things are just bonuses. But what a bonus that last one would be, eh?

13 comments:

Scott Tribe said...

Actually, John Tory has responded today... as I said, it's a start.

Jim said...

Scott beat me to it, but I wanted a plug too. :D

John Tory : Comments on Developing List Candidates

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Thanks for the correction! It's not really an answer to the question, though I suppose it does deprive him of that talking point.

Kevin Brennan, VP BOK said...

To be honest, my main motivation for wanting it to pass is the hope that it will percolate up to the federal level. I'm not persuaded that MMP (or any other PR system) is ideal, but it would help to reduce the corrosive regional blocs that are a blight on Canadian politics. Right now, our political system is actively contributing to the possible breakup of our country and that needs to stop.

Mark Greenan said...

Great post, IP. You should cross-post this to the Vote for MMP site, we need posts to slide the No MMP trolls' posts down the blogroll on the front page.

And on Tory, I only hope the media will give the same play to his latest comments as they had to his previous ones about "appointed" list members.

Erik Abbink said...

Excellent post! Here are my favourites:

"The party in government has to spend all its time trying to make the other guys look so bad"

Indeed, that's the ONLY kind of politics most Canadians know. If Canadians knew the possibilities of a cooperative type of government (multi-party), I'm convinced that most people would vote for this improvement without hesitating.

"The result of this process is not only a stable governing body that was chosen by a majority of the voters, but a creative governing body that by necessity has to take ideas from a number of different viewpoints instead of refusing to look outside of their narrow box."

Precisely, necessity is the mother of invention.

"If Ontario were to switch to MMP, [...] then political leaders would have to start concentrating more on policy rather than simply on good rhetoric and showmanship."

You're right again. I start to see why the upper echelons of the major parties are keeping so quiet on the issue; they've probably been told to do so by the same, paid, "political strategists".

"I have always said that [.. ]a voting system that makes every vote count in a fair and straightforward way simply makes more sense than the one we have right now."

Bravo!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Mark,

Okay, I'll have a look over there and figure out how to do it. Do you have any other suggestions for posts you'd like me to crosspost over there?

Erik,

I start to see why the upper echelons of the major parties are keeping so quiet on the issue; they've probably been told to do so by the same, paid, "political strategists".

Oh, I think they're plenty scared enough on their own. Their jobs probably wouldn't change quite as much as the jobs of the backroom people, but if Ontario had MMP, the system would reward and punish different kinds of rhetoric, and different kinds of people skills. I actually feel for them--it's not often that someone's entire job could get changed out from under them overnight, and they have almost no input into whether or not it happens.

Red Jenny said...

Excellent post. I think they fear this more than anything. The scare tactics about extremists, and minority governments, and too many elections and blahdditty blah revolve around this fear of having to (gulp) cooperate. Perhaps the politicians could be sent to remedial kindergarten?

Matthew said...

I'm pretty tired of supporters of MMP trying to argue that under the current voting system votes for a losing party are "wasted" or "worthless" or some variation.

Every vote gets counted just the same. Everyone gets one vote. Every vote is equal to every other vote. Any candidate is electable if he/she convinces enough voters to vote for him/her.

Just because in any given riding the 150 Green votes are drowned out by 15,000 Liberal or Conservative votes doesn't make the Green votes worthless - it just indicates the opinions of the Green voters are unpopular. If the Conservative candidate can convince 15,000 people to voter for her, why can't the Green candidate?

Let me clear. I'm not a member of any party and I don't fear giving the Greens or anyone else they're two or three pity seats.

What I don't like about MMP and any proportional representation system is the emphasis on voting for a party rather than an individual.

Our system is designed for individual citizens to elect individual representatives not party monkeys. The problem with FPTP is that MPP go to the legislature and are beholden to their parties. MMP is only going to exacerbate this problem.

The reform that is needed is reform in the culture of the legislature to give the individual MPP more power and individual freedom, regardless of the party they are elected from. Voting for MMP is a move toward further voting on the basis of party rather than for an individual.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Matthew,

I usually ignore comments that have little to nothing to do with my post, but I'm going to make an exception for this one.

First, your statement that under MMP, "the emphasis on voting for a party rather than an individual." I don't really understand why you'd see it that way, honestly. The fact is that every political science study I've looked at about this suggests that Canadians currently cast their single available vote almost exclusively based on party. This is unfortunate, but the current system forces it on us. MMP, on the other hand, teases apart the duelling forces of voting for a local representative and voting for a party, and allows us to do both. This by no means moves us closer to voting only for a party--in fact, it would do the opposite by forcing us to think NOT just about the party (as the studies indicate that we currently tend to do), but also and separately about the individual. This, frankly, is the main reason why I like some variant of MMP better than even the other proportional options--it not only makes the result proportional, it simply reflects the way Canadians think about their vote better than either the current system or STV.

And second, I don't quite get your comment on how votes aren't "wasted" under FPTP, either. Fine, you don't like that word; don't use it. But all it really means is that the votes of most people in most ridings don't have their votes count toward electing anyone. Unless you're voting for the winner in your riding, it doesn't matter to the outcome whether you stay at home or go to vote. In the last federal election in my riding, for example, almost 60% of the votes didn't count. Now, you can call that what you want, but I don't think calling those votes "wasted" is too farfetched. And I would prefer a system like MMP in which almost all votes count toward electing someone.

L-girl said...

Thanks for this! Great stuff. I will link to it tomorrow.

MSS said...

This is a very fine post. Wish I could vote in your referendum! (I plan to put up one or more posts on Ontario at Fruits & Votes later.)

One small addendum: Most governments in New Zealand since MMP have been minority coalition governments, not majority coalitions. And they have actually been far more stable than the majority coalition that was in power after the first MMP election.

There is a very important difference between minority governments in NZ under MMP and most minority governments in Canada (including the current federal government): The largest party and its various "support parties" in parliament have formal, public, written agreements, spelling out what they agree on and what they "agree to disagree" on.

Such agreements make things a lot clearer for voters than the situation you have in Canada, where Harper (or before him, Martin) makes ad-hoc deals throughout the parliamentary term with smaller parties or independents to try to stay in power, but has no ongoing commitments to keep the PM accountable.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

MSS,

I wish I could vote today, too! Alas, I'm in Edmonton--about as close to them as I am to you.

Thanks for the corrections, by the way. They are always welcome!