The pros and cons of a proportional vote

By  Guest Contributors
  • September 25, 2007

{mosimage}Editor's note: Ontario voters face a historic election Oct. 10, but not because of the candidates before them. This year, voters will be asked in a referendum if they wish to make the most dramatic change since Confederation in how they choose provincial governments. They will be asked whether they want to retain the current system (known as the “first-past-the-post” method) or accept a form of proportional representation called the Mixed Member Proportional vote. Below we offer pro and con opinions on MMP by two Catholics with extensive experience in political activity. For more information on the referendum, access the web site www.citizensassembly.gov.on.ca.

Why I'm for...

Why I'm against...

By Joe Mihevc, Catholic Register Special

I believe that Ontarians owe it to themselves to become informed about the historic referendum question that we will be voting on in the upcoming provincial election. I certainly will be voting “yes” to the electoral system proposed by the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly — a Mixed Member Proportional System (MMP). I believe that a more representative electoral system will go a long way to address voter apathy and cynicism, and have the possibility of renewing our democracy.

The citizens of our province and country are yearning for a renewed political culture which returns to the notion of government serving the common good. The concept of citizenship has been maligned by voter apathy and a feeling of being disenfranchised. Politicians are disciplined to work for a marginal victory (often winning majorities with far less than 50 per cent) which affords them virtually total power for their term in office. In our current system, opposition parties have little influence on legislation except in a minority government. This means that the party without an actual majority of votes gets to pass legislation without it actually representing the majority of people in the province. This is basically unfair and ultimately anti-democratic.

What if the concept of power were more closely tied to identifying shared interests? When the balance of power is shared by an accurate representation of voter choice, there is a greater incentive for political culture to begin to value co-operation in the interests of all voters. I realize that this notion is foreign to our experience of winner-take-all politics.

Perhaps that is why the proposed electoral system (MMP) has evoked such extreme reactions such as the fear that feminist special interest groups would come to dominate positions of influence. What I find troublesome is the suggestion that certain groups shouldn’t have access to political representation. Why shouldn’t the Green Party have seats in Parliament if it reaches a certain threshold of voters across the province? Similarly would not a Family Coalition Party have the same right?

If we truly value democracy, the power of regular people should prevail. Our electoral system needs to reflect voter choices, not approximate or distorted voter choices. For instance, in New Brunswick (2006), Quebec (1998) and British Columbia (1996), one party achieved the most votes and a completely different party gained a majority of seats in the legislature. There must be fairness between voters. If the NDP could win a majority with 37 per cent in 1990 in Ontario, were not the remaining 66 per cent of votes wasted?

The fear mongering about special interest groups flies in the face of our core democratic principles such as individual freedoms, collective rights, tolerance, inclusion and also the Catholic notion of the common good. When we as a society enhance opportunities for citizenship, we strengthen our ability to ward off interests which run counter to our democratic values. An electoral system that makes room for divergent ideas and opinions will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the civic life of our society. When citizens see that they are truly represented, then participation in politics becomes more accessible and inclusive, and dissenting voices need not be feared.

Detractors of proportional systems of representative government raise red flags about the problem with coalition governments. The experience of MMP systems in Germany, Scotland, Wales and New Zealand tells us that MMP has produced very stable governments and has allowed parties with a history of mutual distrust and even enmity to work together for the common good. Furthermore, the gender balance in these systems approaches 50-50 while first-past-the-post legislatures here and elsewhere are 80-20 in favour of men. Ethnic diversity also has a much better chance in an MMP system.

The proposed electoral system holds not only the promise of a much improved, fair and representative system for the voter, but also an infusion of a new way of doing politics. Already we can see that this issue has brought together unlikely coalitions. Progressive Conservative Senator Hugh Segal and New Democrat Ed Broadbent will both be voting for MMP and call the proposal “long overdue.” In my own riding of St. Paul’s in Toronto, Ontario Liberal Attorney-General Michael Bryant and federal MP Carolyn Bennett also support the MMP proposal.

As a municipal politician, I see first hand how an MMP approach could promote inclusion, representation and new style of politics. Cross-party agreements and working relationships on specific issues are regular feature of life within city councils across the province. The MMP system has shown around the world to be more co-operative, less confrontational, more able to listen to dissenting voices, and more able to build bridges.

Our antiquated and unfair electoral system should not be a default position for the status quo. The no side to MMP is protecting the legitimacy of phony majorities and this is indefensible.

The greatest obstacle facing the success of MMP in Ontario is the lack of voter awareness of the issue. When voters become aware of what is being proposed, most endorse MMP as a more fair and equitable form of representation. Find out about why MMP holds the promise of a revitalized political culture.

(Mihevc is a Toronto city councillor for St. Paul’s West ward. He holds a doctorate in theology and social ethics.)

By C. Gwendolyn Landolt, Catholic Register Special

On election day, Oct. 10, there will be two ballots handed to Ontario’s voters. One will be to choose a candidate for the riding. The other ballot will be to ask the voter to respond to a referendum question on a new voting method proposed for the province.

As important as the election is to determine who will represent the riding for the next four years, perhaps the referendum question is of even greater importance because of its lasting impact on democracy.

The referendum question will ask: Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?

  • The existing electoral system (first past the post), i.e. the party, which receives a simple majority, forms the government, or;
  • An alternative electoral system, called the Mixed Member Proportional Vote (MMP).

The latter voting system is used, for example, in Germany and New Zealand.

The proposed MMP procedure raises concerns because, if implemented, it will undermine our democratic system of government.

This voting system will produce two classes of politicians: those elected by the voters (90 MPPs) and those appointed by the political parties (39 MPPs). That is, the 129 seats in the Ontario legislature will be divided between those elected by the 90 individual ridings, and 39 seats chosen by the political parties themselves, according to the percentage of votes each party obtains in the election.

Those appointed by the parties will obviously adhere to the party’s ideology because their appointment will be dependent on it. Consequently, these MPPs will not be interested in the views of the public or any of the public’s lobbying efforts. Such concerns will be irrelevant to them as their role will be to support their party’s policies only.

The political parties’ lists are expected to alternate male and female candidates and provide a “balance” based on such attributes as gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. As a result, despite the fact that there may be a superficial diversity among the appointed candidates, i.e. gender or colour, etc., there will be absolutely no diversity in regard to their political views, since they will identify and promote only the policies of the party which appointed them as provincial members of the legislature.

The MMP system is the dream of the small parties, which is why the NDP and Green parties are pushing it. Any party with three per cent of the popular vote will get a chance to be part of a coalition with the larger parties. Not surprisingly, the MMP system usually leads to more political parties. For example, before MMP was introduced in New Zealand in 1993, it had two political parties. Now it has six different political parties.

In the MMP system, elections are usually followed by weeks of closed-door deal making among parties to form a government — exactly the reverse of what happens after the first past the post elections, where the results are immediately announced.

This secret deal making creates unstable coalitions in order to form a minority government, often with a brief shelf life. It’s inevitable with this voting system. The latter is one of the reasons why Italy, which has used a form of the MMP system since the Second World War, has just experienced its 62nd government and is now looking at ways to return to the more stable first-past-the-post voting system.

The greatest beneficiaries of the MMP system, apart from the small parties, will be those from special interest groups, such as feminists, as the major parties will certainly place them at the top of their list for appointments. This is because feminist activists have constantly bemoaned the lack of “women” in the legislature, despite the fact that women are all different and have no commonality of experience.

It is significant that it is not the gender of a candidate that matters to the male or female voters, but rather, his/her values and perspective on issues. Feminists, as part of a special interest group, have worked long and hard for the introduction of the MMP voting system, knowing that it will strengthen their special interest voice in government, since they often have difficulty getting nominated and elected on their own. With the MMP system, feminist activists will be assured of appointments to the legislature by the major parties, but they will not represent “women” at all — only their own feminist perspective and that of their party. That is, the MMP system neatly bypasses the inconvenient fact that voters base their votes on the candidate’s views and platform, rather than on gender. This voting preference also applies to women voters who, as do men, vote according to their social, economic, cultural, educational and religious backgrounds, not gender.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has stated that in order for the referendum to pass, it must have 60 per cent approval from the votes cast. Hopefully, this troublesome referendum to change our voting system will not succeed.

(Landolt is national vice-president of REAL Women of Canada.)

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