Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lessons from New Zealand's experience with MMP

With 17 days left to the Oct. 10 election and referendum, the polling numbers indicate that the Green Party is the only party increasing in popularity.

Last week's polls showed the Liberals hovering just above 40%, the PC's just above 30%, the NDP in the mid-teens and the Green Party around 10%.

Though these figures ought to result in a minority Liberal government, the fact is that under our current system, the Liberals may again wind up with a majority. As blogger Greg Morrow noted on the Democratic Space website (, the final outcome of this election will likely be determined by a mere 1.5% of "swing" voters in the 30 closest contests around the province.

The situation is even more exaggerated at the federal level, where federal election outcomes in recent years have revolved around a dozen swing ridings in Western Quebec.

Once more than two parties become serious contestants, the first-past-the-post system becomes increasingly less democratic, often focusing vast amounts of decision-making power into the hands of a few thousand voters who may not even realize that their votes have the potential to grant one party 100% of the governing power.

The mixed-member proportional system (MMP), which has been recommended for Ontario by a democratically-selected citizens' committee, has been designed to eliminate such anomalous distributions of power. However, it is important to note that although MMP will guarantee that the makeup of the Legislature is proportional, it won't guarantee that the distribution of power within the Legislature is proportional.

One of the principal features of proportional representation systems is that they usually result in coalition governments comprised of the the party with the greatest percentage of the popular vote and whatever combination of the less-popular parties they can get on board to bring their seat total up to 50%. This sometimes means that a party with only a few seats may hold what is known as "the balance of power" in the process of forming such coalitions.

At the federal level, neither Paul Martin nor Stephen Harper felt that they could acceptably strike up a coalition with any other party to achieve a stable majority, and chose to carry on seeking support on an ad hoc, bill-by-bill basis from whichever party they felt they could appeal to at the time. Martin narrowly avoided defeat in the spring of 2005 by luring Belinda Stronach over from the Conservatives and winning the support of the independent Chuck Cadman. Harper managed to buy time in 2007 by throwing money at Quebec to secure the support of the Bloc Quebecois.

With a proportional system, however, coalitions become much more attractive because there really isn't much hope of winning a majority in the next election. This means that any party which aims to govern must be prepared to enter into a serious set of negotiations and compromises with another party, usually much smaller, in order to gain the majority needed. This can put a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of parties with minimal amounts of voter support.

The example of New Zealand is well-worth studying for anyone interested in promoting MMP for Canadian jurisdictions. In the 1996 general election, the first election following the adoption of MMP, a three-year-old party called New Zealand First, led by the charistmatic and controversial Winston Peters, a former National Party MP who had been dismissed from his caucus, managed to pull votes from both conservative white voters and younger Maori and end up with 14% of the seats. With the National Party at 36%, Labour at 30% and the left-wing Alliance at 10%, a number of coalitions were possible - but all of the likely ones depended on New Zealand First. After months of negotiation, Peters chose to side with National - a choice which immediately disenchanted many of those who had voted for NZF imagining that they would side with Labour.

The coalition proved no more popular among the National Party caucus, many of whose members resented having to deal with radically-minded Maori MPs and Peters himself, who they had earlier dismissed from their caucus. The reaction of the general public was to blame MMP for the unpopular and volatile situation, and polls indicated that whereas 54% had voted in favour of MMP in a 1993 referendum, by 1997 support had dropped to 33%, and some National Party members began lobbying for a return to the old system.

However, the democratic process quickly repaid the ill-advised opportunism of the NZF and National Party, as the uncomfortable coalition fell apart, and in the 1999 election support for both parties fell. The Labour Party under Helen Clark formed a coalition with the Alliance which proved to be a more stable combination. The Alliance itself had been composed of a number of smaller parties, including the Green Party. In the 2002 election, the Alliance had fallen apart, and when Labour again won a plurality but not a majority, they turned to its dispersed remnants in the newly-formed Progressive Party and United Future Party.

Proportional representation systems, proponents argue, encourage consensus decision-making in the legislature rather than confrontation and grandstanding. New Zealand's example shows us that consensus isn't easy to achieve - even among coalition partners.

Up until the early 1990s, New Zealand's political system was dominated by the conservative National Party and the center-left Labour Party - not unlike its parent country, Great Britain. By 2005, there were seven parties with seats in the national assembly - National, Labour, New Zealand First, ACT, United Future, Green and the Progressive Coalition. A new party, the Maori Party, was formed to contest that election, bringing the current number to eight.

Proponents of proportional systems, like myself, argue that this is the way democracy should work. With a wide array of interests and perspectives among voters, it only makes sense that there should be a wide range of parties to represent those interests. To small-"c" conservative voters in Ontario, however, such a diverse complicated system can seem intimidating, and to give too much power to what are peceived as minority groups.

The New Zealand example shows clearly that in fact both Maori and women voters have experienced a significant increase in representation in the Parliament since MMP came in. Maori, who comprise about 14% of New Zealand's population, historically had only 4 seats in the Parliament, special seats which had been created for Maori only in an early attempt to guarantee some representation but not enough to impact Parliamentary decisions. Today Maori-born MPs comprise all the Maori Party and a significant portion of New Zealand First members and some Labour MPs.

Women have come to positions of prominence in New Zealand since MMP as well. In the late 1990s, both National and Labour were led by women - Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark, respectively. For a period during 2005-06, all the highest offices in the country were held by women - including the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice and Governor-General. The Maori party currently has male and female co-leaders. However, the overall number of female MPs remains far lower than the number of male MPs.

While Ontario bears some resemblance to New Zealand in terms of its population size, colonial history, land area and political conservatism, Ontario's current ethnic makeup is quite different. Whereas the Maori comprise a significant voting bloc in New Zealand, Ontario's First Nations make up only 2% of the total population. While those who trace their ancestry to the British Isles remain a majority in Ontario, it is now a slim one. Waves of immigration from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, India, China and the Ukraine have changed Ontario's ethnic makeup dramatically since the Second World War. French Canadians continue to make up a sizable percentage of Ontario as well, and new waves of immigration from Africa are now occuring. It is much less likely that an MMP system in Ontario would foster parties split along ethnic lines. It is more likely that the existing smaller parties would find themselves in positions of greater power, and thus find themselves mutating to meet these new demands.

However, there is a limit as to how small a party can be and still be represented in the Legislature. In New Zealand the limit is 5% of the popular vote, or of course a single representative elected in a riding.

New Zealand currently serves about 5 million people with 120 Members of Parliament. Ontario, with twice the population, has only 107 seats in Queen's Park. In moving to an MMP system, New Zealand did what the MMP proposal for Ontario aims to do: reduce the number of ridings, and increase their size so that when proportional seats were added, the number of seats wouldn't simply double. However, New Zealand, in opting for the German-style MMP with 50% of seats for ridings and 50% for parties, was obliged to drastically reduce the number of ridings and redraw riding boundaries virtually from scratch.

Ontario's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform has actually proposed a better system, which requires much less disruption to the current ridings. The Citizens' Assembly astutely noted that there is no need for 50% of the seats to be proportionally-assigned to create a proportional Legislature. In fact, 30% will do the job nicely in every possible situation. This is the rationale behind the proposal for Ontario - to reduce the number of ridings from 107 to 90, and to add 39 proportional seats - which is 30% of the total of 129.

It is also worth noting how long it took for New Zealand to actually bring in MMP. It was 10 years from the time their Royal Commission on electoral reform recommended a switch to proportional representation to the 1996 election where it actually went into effect.

A first referendum was held in the early 1990s, in which the public was asked if they favoured a referendum on electoral reform at all, and to indicate which of several possible new systems they would want on the ballot. Both the National Party and the Labour Party, who had enjoyed a duopoly on power in New Zealand for most of its history, opposed the reform, as they knew it would destroy their cozy system of alternating governments.

A series of unpopular majority governments, elected with less than 50% of the vote, throughout the late 80s and early 90s increased voter dissatisfaction with the existing system and fuelled the calls for an MMP system. An analagous situation occured in Ontario with the Rae and Harris governments - but McGuinty's Liberals have succeeded in doing what Liberal governments always do - sit on the fence and make as few changes as possible. This policy may have the effect of chilling voter interest in reform.

McGuinty's government has also put an artificially high 60% threshold for the referendum to become legally binding. This was also the tactic used by the Liberal government in British Columbia several years ago when they held a referendum on electoral reform. The BC referendum actually saw a higher percentage of voters in favour of change than did New Zealand - but due to the imposition of the 60% threshold, BC continues with business as usual. Had the New Zealand government of the day imposed a similar threshold, MMP would never have come in.

Like the necessary economic reforms being put forward by the Green Party, systems of proportional representation will eventually be adopted in Canada. It is only a matter of time. We will very shortly find ourselves unable to negotiate the realities of the 21st century with an obsolete set of 19th century legislative principles holding us back.

If the referendum on MMP does not pass this time, it will most likely pass next time. Other provinces will also be holding referendums in the coming years. It will likely be a province with a high degree of voter dissatisfaction with inept false-majority governments that takes the plunge first. Once one province takes the first step and navigates the transition successfully, timid Canadians across the country will be empowered to join the rest of the democratic world and bring proportional representation to their own provinces.


Janet said...

To small-"c" conservative voters in Ontario, however, such a diverse complicated system can seem intimidating, and to give too much power to what are peceived as minority groups.

What condescending drivel! I came to this blog with an open mind, looking for some solid information to help me make up my mind on this issue. There is some solid information here, but when you lace it with that kind of nonsense, your credibility takes a nose-dive. I am now going to re-read your post with wary skepticism, watching carefully for the spin. I suppose that's not a bad thing, but it would have been nice if you'd presented your case in a factual and rational manner instead of indulging in cheap shots. Contrary to your faded stereotypes, this small-c conservative does not examine issues to see where they fall on a left-right spectrum, is not so simple-minded as to feel threatened by change or by minority groups.

A word to the wise: talking down your nose at people is generally a very bad strategy for winning them over.

the rev. said...

A word to the wise Janet, look before you leap. The two main complaints about MMP made by conservative pundits and campaigners have been that the system is too complicated and that it gives a disproportionate amount of power to small minorities. Resistance to change and an affinity for the traditional "tried and true" is very nearly the dictionary definition of conservative, isn't it? I don't think Brent was being condescending, I think he was just trying to argue that the objections to the MMP system are spurious.

the rev. said...

I would disagree with Brent on the notion that the 60% threshold is artificially high. It is not uncommon for such a significant change to require a broader consensus (dang, there's that word again) than a simple majority. As a supporter of MMP I may not, for tactical reasons, like it that the bar has been set that high, but I can understand why it makes sense to do so. This is a fundemental change in the structure of our government and I think it makes sense that it needs to be supported by a significant majority rather than 50% plus one. After all that is one of the complaints with the first-past-the-post system isn't it?