Thursday, September 20, 2007

Moving Ahead With MMP

Tonight's televised leaders' debate will be most notable for one thing: the absence of Green Party of Ontario leader Frank de Jong.

Even with CTV and Decima Research polls showing the GPO solidly in double-digit figures, only a few percentage points behind the NDP, and with the party running a full slate of candidates across Ontario, the organizers of the televised debate have decided to maintain the status quo and feature only the NDP, PC, and Liberal leaders.

In the world of mainstream television, it's always better to play it safe than risk being relevant.

Let's hope Ontario citizens don't feel the same way about MMP - the mixed-member proportional electoral system which is the subject of a referendum in conjunction with the Oct. 10 election.

An MMP system would attempt to match the number of seats a party holds in the Legislature to its actual vote total. With 129 proposed seats in the Legislature, if the Greens continued to poll at 10%, we would see 13 Green MPP's at Queen's Park - which is 13 more than they have now with the exact same level of voter support.

A democratically-selected group of Ontario citizens, one from each riding, called the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, recommended the MMP system for Ontario almost unanimously after a year of research and consultation. Their plan consists of reducing the number of geographical ridings to 90 from the current 107, while simultaneously increasing the number of seats in the Legislature to 129 - about the number we used to have before the Harris PC government "downsized" it in the 1990s.

The extra 39 seats would be "proportional" seats, allocated to parties such that the overall makeup of the legislature closely reflects the popular vote.

Let's play out an imaginary scenario for the following general election in Ontario, assuming that the referendum were to pass.

The Green Party, if it were to maintain its current share of 10% of the popular vote yet elect no MPPs directly, would be assigned 13 proportional seats. Let's say the NDP achieved 15% of the popular vote, and elected 15 MPPs in the riding seats. They'd be entitled to 15% of the total of 129, or 19 seats in all - so they'd be assigned 4 of the proportional seats in addition to the 15 they'd won outright.

Were the Liberals to achieve, say, 40% of the popular vote and elect members in 45 ridings, they'd be assigned 6 proportional seats to bring their total to 40% of 129, or 51. Finally, to complete our speculative example, let's imagine the PCs won the remaining 30 of the 90 riding seats with 35% of the popular vote. They'd be assigned 16 proportional seats for a total of 46.

How would we determine who would actually occupy these proportionally-determined seats as MPPs? Each party would submit a ranked-order list of potential MPPs for public viewing. There would be no secrets - just as riding candidates today make their name, face, educational and vocational backgrounds, and positions on various issues public, so would the "list" candidates. Voters would be free to evaluate what kind of people each party was putting forth, and let that help determine their vote.

The other new twist the MMP system would bring is that there would be two choices made at the polling station, not just one. One choice would be for the local representative to fill the local seat, as today. The other choice would be for the party whose policies the voter prefers. The party might be the one that the voter's favoured local representative belongs to - or it might not. Either way, the party preference vote is the one that is counted towards determining the overall distribution of the seats at Queen's Park.

This system allows voters the best of both worlds. We would be able to vote for the individual candidate we think is the best representative for our riding without throwing our policy preferences out the window.

Under the MMP system, coalition governments would become the norm. Politicians of the various parties would be obliged to work with one another instead of automatically gainsaying every statement or decision made by their rivals. The quality of debate at Queen's Park and the behaviour of the MPPs would improve immensely. Progressive ideas would no longer be swept under the carpet by parties desperately trying to hold on to their false majorities.

If we'd brought in the MMP system 20 years ago, Bob Rae's NDP would never have been given a majority government with 38% of the popular vote and a raft of rookie ministers unprepared to handle such unearned power. Without the public backlash against the Rae government's policies, the Harris PCs would probably never have to come to power, and we wouldn't have an education system still trying to recover from the Harris slash-and-burn management style. We wouldn't have the McGuinty Liberals pushing a $46 nuclear expansion project through behind closed doors.

As the current beneficiaries of disproportional representation, McGuinty's Liberal government has been doing everything it can to keep the referendum from passing without actually appearing to be against it.

There most successful weapon in keeping the public ill-informed so far has been to severely limit Elections Ontario's ability to educate the public on the referendum and the proposed reform. This was accomplished by giving Elections Ontario vague legislation to deal with, so that time would be eaten up in forming the final referendum game plan. To make sure that the public wouldn't know much about it before the election period, they also made sure Elections Ontario had only enough money to promote the referendum during the campaign period, rather than educating the public well beforehand.

Given that we haven't had a referendum in Ontario in 70 years, and that hardly any of us have a solid understanding of the way the electoral system works currently, let alone what the alternatives are that exist around the world, one month is hardly enough for the public to be able to make an intelligent decision - especially when that month's news is totally consumed with the usual political soap opera stories. The public should have had a full calendar year to process the potential changes before being asked to vote on them - not a single month during which the referendum would be dwarfed by the campaigns of the political parties.

As always, the Liberal party's policy is to preserve the status quo at all costs, and avoid the risks associated with venturing any kind of substantial change - not unlike the television executives who continue to shut the Green Party out of the leaders' debates.

If we weren't saddled with the 19th century baggage of disproportional representation, the Mining Act, and the Ontario Municipal Board, if we weren't choking ourselves to death on auto-fumes and ticking away the days before global climate change destabilizes our ecology permanently, maybe this wouldn't be such a bad thing.

We can only ignore reality so long before it hits us in the face. Let's hope that Ontario citizens have more guts than do McGuinty's advisors and TV executives.

Next week I'll discuss the story behind New Zealand's switch to MMP in the 1990s, and how it has led to that country taking an international leadership role on climate change and ecological health.

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