In today’s edition of the Toronto Star, Ian Urquhart – somewhat of an electoral reform reactionary – reported that the Ontario Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform is overwealmingly in support of the electoral system known as Mixed-Member Proportional (or MMP for short).
For those of you who don’t know what MMP is, you can follow the link I’ve pointed out, but simply put, it’s a system whereby you have two types of representatives: One type are elected exactly as we currently elect our MPs – most votes wins, doesn’t matter if you don’t have a majority of the vote, but so long as you have the most votes. The second type are elected en masse based on how everyone else voted so that parties that get screwed in the first type of MPs are rewarded with MPs in this second type, the idea being that in the end, we still have geographic MPs while having a legislature which still represents how the public actually voted. For specifics, again, see above.
Now I have been an opponent of MMP for several reasons. None of these, mind you, are because I’m opposed to electoral reform, in fact on the contrary – I’m strongly in favour of another type of electoral system called Single-Transferrable Vote or (STV). But, I disagree with MMP on the following grounds:
While MMP is proportional, it still clings to this archaic notion that the lifeblood of representation and our interests are more or less defined by where we live. Yes, 200 years ago when Catholics settled in town A and Protestants settled in town B and nobody moved and everybody was born, lived, and died in town A or B, geography was a hugely important feature of who you were. As I wrote on Greg’s blog a while back:
“The fact that I happen to live just south of the Ottawa-South/Ottawa-Centre riding boundary has much much less to do with the aspects of my person I would like represented than, for instance, my age, gender, education, economic class etc… In my submission to the Citizen’s assembly I quoted polling data which showed that people’s attachment to their community has steadily decreased over the past 20 years. In short, the constituencies people belong to now are socio-cultural and span geography.”
So to me the central feature of MMP is it’s attempt to fuse a desirable proportional aspect into our absolutely outdated notion that we need to have one MP paternalistically look after and somehow be accountable to a small geographic area.
Ah – the supporters of either our current system or MMP will retort – but without a direct linkage between one (and only one) MP and constituency, there would no accountability. But this is specious logic.
First of all: with the vast majority of ridings being safe ridings in this country (which wouldn’t change under MMP), most MPs could hold puppy-kicking competitions on the first wednesday of every month and would still get elected! Is that accountability?
Second of all: with the vast majority of MPs being elected under either our current system or under MMP are elected without majority of support. In other words, most of their constituents, who they claim to represent, are people who voted against that MP. Is that accountability?
Third of all: As I mentioned above, the vast majority of our character is not defined by where we live but rather by pan-geographic constituencies. Slicing the country up into these one-MP-ridings merely ensures that weaker minority groups never form a critical mass to get into the legislature unless they’re geographically or regionally concentrated… which as we’ve seen in Canada, leads to a whole other set of problems.
Fourth of all: Okay, let’s assume that you’re lucky enough to have your MP respond to your request to meet with him/her in order to press an issue that’s of importance to you. Let’s assume that you’ll get more than 10 minutes with said MP. Let’s even assume that you voted for said MP. What if your MP is a right-wing Liberal who opposes gay marriage and your concern is that you can’t find any local services which will marry you and your gay partner? Do you think that your MP really cares about representing your interests on this front? If they basically tell you to go F&^% yourself, what can you do?
Now MMP supporters will respond to the last question that if your MP politely tells you to go and, er, ‘procreate yourself’, that you can rely on one of the regional/provincial MPs. I agree fully. I just take the argument one step further and say, why not just do away with the one-MP-per-constituency formula altogether? To which the MMP crowd usually responds with some bland comment about either accountability (see above) or community being important (also, see above). Moreover, as an aside, this last point about MMP respecting the importance of community is irrelevant because even under my desired system, community is still important and is treated as such.
MMP by its very necessity creates two classes of MPs. So we have the regular constituency MPs who have to handle work in their constituency and have to travel back and glad-handle sycophants who probably didn’t vote for them but nonetheless like to adorn their offices with pictures of people more famous than they are. But we also have this second class of MP who don’t have a given territorially-rigid constituency and who don’t have to do as much of this kind of work.
Why is this a problem? Well Hilary Pearse wrote an absolutely fantastic academic article on this topic entitled Geographic Representation and Electoral Reform where she discusses this. I strongly recommend it to anybody who’s interested in these topics. Anyway, Pearse notes that one of the side-effects of MMP in New Zealand and Germany has been that the second type of MPs are treated as “second-class MPs” and are somehow illegitimate because they don’t have a geographic constituency. This problem stems from the fact that MMP is still based on geography – as I discussed above – and as such, Pearse describes these so-called list-MPs as merely “MPs in search of a constituency”.
Now, having considered all that, I feel STV is elegant and that it achieves what I consider to be an appropriate balance between geographical and non-geographical representation without going so far as the Israeli electoral system which takes no account of geography at all. But above all else, STV provides for honest accountability – even in heavily Liberal or Conservative areas, MPs must compete against other MPs from even their own party to continue to enjoy the privilage of representing you. This last point expliains why élites hate STV and, in my opinion, what élites hate - the populace should love.
But the point of this post isn’t to sell you on STV (although I wouldn’t be upset if that was a consequence of this post). The fact of the matter is that STV lost and MMP won in the Citizen’s Assembly. What are STV supporters to do now?
While it may not be perfect, I for one will nonetheless support this fundamentally flawed, inconsistent, ugly and inelegant system I’ve just spent over an hour bashing and I call on all other STV supporters to do the same.
Because it’s still a hell of a lot better than the god-awful system we’ve got now.