Tuesday, October 2, 2007

All Candidates Meeting

We went to the local All-Candidates meeting for the upcoming Ontario election tonight. The candidates' bit was pretty typical boring blah-blah -- they (Lib, PC, NDP, Green) all agreed on motherhood issues like closing the Carp Road dump, better funding for health and education (though a bit vague on where to get the money), etc. The local PC incumbent (Norm Sterling) and Liberal (governing party for the last four years) opponent predictably blamed each other's parties for The Mess We're In. I was actually hoping for the local Family Coalition candidate to be there to provide comic relief, but no such luck.

It was the first half of the meeting that was interesting: a presentation and discussion on MMP. Some guy from Elections Ontario did a mediocre job of explaining the proposed system -- you could tell from the questions that a lot of people didn't really "get it". At all. Then we got a "pro" speaker and a "con" speaker (whose names I didn't write down).

The "pro" speaker made points I'd heard before (and some I've made myself). Then the "con" speaker got up. The acoustics were not great, so I didn't catch his name, but it was something like "Charles Fearmonger", which is close enough because that's mostly what he did. He started by making the reasonable point that the proposed MMP system strengthens the power of the parties (which strictly speaking are not a fundamental aspect of the historical Westminster system) by giving them an explicit presence on the ballot. A couple of points:
  • The choice of list candidates is done at the party level, a process which is remote from the local riding association who nominate the local candidate.
  • MPPs might be more likely to toe the party line (as opposed to representing their constituents) if it affects their chances of getting on the list next election.
However, he hasn't shown that either of these are true: the proposed system does not specify how the list candidates are to be chosen. A party could, for example, nominate them by popular vote of the whole party membership. So this particular scenario, while it could happen, is hardly inevitable.

After making this semi-valid point, Mr. Fearmonger went downhill into borderline crankery. He claimed it was impossible to find the details of the mysterious Hare Formula by which the list seats are assigned. Huh? I found it -- it wasn't dead easy, but if a software engineer can find something on a website while sitting in his easy chair with a laptop, paying half-attention to Stephen Colbert, surely so could he. Anyways, afterwards I overheard him out in the hallway explaining the fractional-seat resolution scheme to someone -- so he must have found the same information I did! So what the hell was he on about?

Next he presented some truly alarming election scenarios, presumably to show that MMP doesn't deliver what it promises. His scenarios:
  • Party X creates a "shadow" party (call it Y -- or maybe they make a deal with an already existing party). Party X only runs candidates in the riding races. Y only runs list candidates. Assuming they both do moderately well, between them they have a healthy majority, out of which they form a "coalition" government. Apparently, Mr. Fearmonger thinks we are all to stupid to see through such a transparent dirty trick, or too docile to send Party X to electoral Coventry over it.
  • His final scenario was even stupider: Every riding elects an independent candidate AND all of us (except one) decide not to vote on the party side of the ballot. That one voter votes for Party X. Thus X gets 100% of the party vote, therefore all 39 list seats -- and presumably the government. Do I really need to point out how wildly unrealistic this outcome is? All electoral systems can be mathematically shown to produce absurd results in some extreme situation -- but we don't live in the ideal world of mathematics, we live in the real world.
I will grant Mr. Fearmonger that there are probably other, less obvious ways parties could game the system -- but there always are. It requires vigilance on the part of we the electorate to punish parties that try to play tricks -- but again, this is always true. For good or ill, we get the government we deserve. MMP will not change that, but it will allow us more choice over the makeup of our legislature.


AJ Milne said...

I've come to the same cautious conclusion, and will be voting for MMP. My father's been an advocate for electoral reform for a few years now, had generally put it on my agenda a while back (and he's one of the guys running around now with pamphlets for MMP, I understand), so I had been paying attention a while now. And it looks to me like what's proposed here is a reasonable approach.

The general reality is: local representation isn't by any means the whole story of government. The overall policy thrust you want your government to pursue is (very) significant, too, and the existing system, by its nature, rather distorts the will of the electorate with regards to representing the latter in the makeup of the legislature. MMP looks like it should allow you to say something about both with your vote, and to expect your vote to be counted toward both. As has been noted: yes, parties could game the system, but I also note I've yet to hear anyone point out specific examples of parties actually doing this in jurisdictions actually using varints of proportional representation. I also can't say I put much stock in the 'horror stories' of unstability following proporational representation. Plenty of stable, modern democracies use variants of proportional. Let's see: Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, to name a few. Yes, some of them do seem to have to make do with coalitions a lot, but it doesn't seem to be hurting them any. Looks like a sensible way to go.

Bloggers for MMP said...

Here's my favour FPTP scenario:

3 parties - results for each of 107 ridings
Party A - 33%
Party B - 33%
Party C - 34%

Party C wins all 107 seats. 66% of voters have no representation at all.