October 3rd, 2007

UW Debate

I attended the Kitchener-Waterloo debate at the University of Waterloo yesterday afternoon. Unless Fair Vote campaigning forces me to, I don't intend to attend any others; they are getting repetitive and (unlike the municipal debates, where people actually needed to learn about the candidates running) nobody appears to be googling to find out more information about candidates. (What's that fairy tale, NoMMPers? Oh! Right! Parties are a fiction and we vote for the best candidate independent of party!)

In attendance were the usual suspects: Louise Ervin (Liberal), Judy Greenwood-Speers (Green), Catherine Fife (NDP), and Elizabeth Witmer (PC). Once again absent was Lou Reitzel, whom I have never seen at a debate (and he ran in 2003 as well). I confirmed that Reitzel had been invited to the UW debate (twice, in fact), so I conclude he is not serious about running and therefore does not deserve anybody's vote.

The format of the debate was interesting: the Feds people had been collecting questions for the debate all week, and they used a selection of those questions for the "prepared" part. Most questions were directed at a single candidate, who had 60 seconds to respond. The other candidates then got 30 seconds to rebut. Thankfully, the timekeeper was pretty good at his job, so the debate covered quite a bit of ground.

As usual in university debates, most of the candidates emphasized the importance of education: accessibility and tuition and funding and so on. Fife said the NDP will freeze tuition; Greenwood-Speers said the Greenies will cap university tuition at $3000 and college education at $700; Ervin veered all over the place, mostly crowing about how much the Liberals have spent on universities, but promising a tuition freeze by the end of the debate; Witmer criticized "ad-hoc" freezes and promised some kind of stable accessible funding so all qualified students could attend university. Yawn. Only Greenwood-Speers broke out of the education mold in her opening statements, leading off with doom and gloom stories about the environment and climate change.

In the open Q&A one person asked each candidate directly how they would vote in the referendum. Fife and Greenwood-Speers repeated their answers from the Record debate. Ervin's handlers must have been at work; she scrupulously avoided talking about system details. She praised a citizens' group for coming up for a recommendation, said the Liberals would abide by the referendum results, and then complained about appointed MPPs, which goes to show how much she values the judgement of that citizens' group. Witmer gave the most interesting answer because -- once again -- she blatantly refused to answer the question. Instead she complained about the education campaign and said that the end results would not reflect the actual wishes of voters. I find her fence-sitting fascinating; I'm wondering if she actually supports MMP and is afraid of saying so.

Another person re-asked the "If you could keep one broken promise what would it be" question, and again Ervin ducked the question entirely, blaming the deficit instead. Does she not realize that she loses credibility by not tackling the question head on, and that she gains credibility by giving some answer, however spun?

The biggest gaffe of the afternoon was courtesy of Ervin and Witmer. One of the prepared questions asked about encouraging campus sustainability, and how the Liberals dropped this commitment in their latest book of promises. Ervin either misunderstood or ducked the question, talking about tuition and university operating costs. Witmer followed suit. Then Greenwood-Speers called them on it, reminding them that the question was about environmental sustainability. To her credit, at the end of the question Ervin pulled out of the tailspin by linking financial stability to campus sustainability (if universities are not funded, they won't build green buildings) but she had been looking rather foolish for a while.

I sound as if I am beating up on Ervin a lot, so let's talk about Elizabeth Witmer. I continue to be flabbergasted at the way she campaigns. She does sometimes spin issues in a PC way (talking about tax incentives rather than handouts, for example) but she goes on an on about issues that she had the ability to deal with when she was in cabinet. Most infuriatingly, she trotted out the old donkey of recognizing foreign credentials faster, saying that (somehow! some way!) she would work to get foreign doctors recognised. She talked about reducing poverty through affordable housing, improved education, community access centres -- when her government did its best to cut funding for all of these initiatives. She talked about making schools community hubs, when her government cut extra-curricular funding and antagonized teachers. It would be one thing if Witmer was some anonymous backbencher. But she was a high ranking cabinet minister who had the portfolios of the environment, of health and of education. She had a lot of power and she did not use it for much (although she did take credit for shutting down the Lakeview coal-powered generation station). Now that John Tory has taken the party in a more moderate direction, she's totally changed her tune (or maybe she hasn't -- I could easily believe that she has always campaigned from the left).

Here's my question: where's the local accountability? A steady stream of Young Conservatives smugly asked me how list members in MMP would be directly accountable by name to a group of voters. Of course, when framed in that sense MMP looks bad, because there is no local accountability by name -- only accountability by party. But these young PCs don't want their MPPs to be personally accountable to voters. They want me to choose between the Liberals and Conservatives. Riddle me this: if I am unhappy with both my Liberal and Conservative candidates, how can I express my dissatisfaction with both under FPTP? I can waste my vote by selecting a candidate who is not going to win (sorry Catherine Fife. Sorry Judy Greenwood-Speers), or I can decline my ballot and have those numbers ignored, or I can hold my nose and vote for one of the big parties hoping to punish the other one. What kind of accountability is that?

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: this is exactly the decision mainstream Kitchener-Waterloo voters faced in 2003. They had to decide between kicking Witmer out or punishing Sean Strickland (who was fleeing Waterloo City Council in the wake of the RIM Park scandal). I am certain that voters wanted to hold both of these candidates accountable, but they couldn't, so they swept away Strickland along with the rest of city council. That in itself was unusual (and perhaps I shouldn't even bring it up) because it was evidence of voters selecting candidates rather than parties, but you can be certain that Witmer would have had a much harder time keeping her job in 2003 if she had been running against somebody else (even Louise Ervin). Our candidates have little personal accountability to us because we tend to vote for parties rather than candidates, and on the odd occasion when personal accountability does come up, our options are incredibly limited. This is the utopia that FPTP defenders want us to live in for the next 20 years. MMP does not fix this problem on a local level, but at least I would have the option of expressing my dissatisfaction on a party level in some meaningful way.

MMP 102: Things that will annoy you

Although overall I think we would probably be better off with an MMP system than to keep FPTP, it is foolish to hope that life under MMP will be kittens and fuzzy bunnies. I expect that MMP will have some consequences that annoy us greatly. Here are some (mostly unjustified) predictions:

Wrong Coalitions

One of the reasons MMP got off to such a poor start in New Zealand was that voters despised the initial coalition that was formed. According to the literature people were ticked off that the elections of 1996 resulted in a coalition between National and New Zealand First. Most people had expected New Zealand First to pair up with Labour, and it didn't. In the next election, voters did punish Winston Peters and New Zealand First (they went from 13% of the vote to 4%) but by that time voters had already lived through three long years of an unpopular government. (Karp Bowler 2001, p. 61)

In MMP (and really any other system where you cannot expect single party majority governments) your vote helps determine how much power each party gets. It does not determine which parties form the governing coalition. I predict that occasionally unnatural bedfellows will share a pillow, forming governments that surprise and displease voters.

The other aspect that could frustrate voters is if the same political parties get into coalition term after term after term. Supporters of the National Party in New Zealand are likely feeling that frustration now, partially because Labour leader Helen Clark has proven more adept at building coalitions than her National competition. Similarly, Conservative voters will feel alienated if we were to end up with endless NDP-Liberal coalitions in Ontario. I continue to believe this scare story is exaggerated (lately I think it is more likely we will get a Red Tory party that sits in the middle of the Liberals and Conservatives), although we will certainly get Liberal-NDP coalitions sometimes if the NDP doesn't implode.

Slow Coalition Formation

Another unsavoury aspect of life under proportional representation is that we won't necessarily know the composition of our governments until after the election, because parties will have to negotiate with each other to form coalition agreements.

Sometimes coalition building will be easy: parties will declare their intended coalition partners during the election campaign, and the winning coalition will earn a majority of seats in legislature.

Sometimes coalition building won't be so easy: voters will punish both big parties, making smaller parties stronger. In this case negotiations can take a long time: first the big parties have to find partners that will support their government, and then they have to negotiate agreements, often from a weaker position than they would normally have.

Slow coalition-forming has happened a few times in New Zealand. In the first MMP election of 1996, it took almost two months -- from October 10 to December 12 -- for the ruling coalition to be announced, and in 2005 it took exactly a month -- from September 17 to October 17. (NZ Herald 2006-10-11) (zBerry 2005-10-22)

Despite their engineering prowess and long experience with MMP, the Germans also occasionally deal with prolonged coalition-building exercises when voters do not give political parties the results they want. A notable example of this was in 2005, when neither large party (the SPD on the left, CDU/CSU on the right) managed to win enough seats to form a stable coalition with its usual coalition partner. It took three weeks for the big parties to work out a solution -- rather than risking a three-party coalition, they agreed to form a "grand coalition" with each other. That coalition has not been able to pass highly controversial legislation (especially with respect to business protection) but is making progress in other areas such as climate change. (Dempsey 2007-08-23)

I am pretty sure that prolonged coalition negotiations would sometimes occur in Ontario under MMP, and that the "news" media will howl about the inefficiency of coalition government the entire time. However, I don't feel as negatively about coalition negotiations as others do. Although somewhat perverse, long coalition agreements demonstrate the degree to which voters control which parties get power. Under MMP voters can leave parties in situations they don't expect, and then it is the jobs of the parties to figure out how to organize themselves into a coherent government.

The other aspect to remember about coalition formation is that these negotiations represent one of the primary ways smaller parties can influence government policy. Ideally, the policy concessions negotiated by the smaller coalition partners represent the interests of the voters that elected them -- interests that presumably differ from the mainstream. Coalition negotiations represent the willingness of mainstream to incorporate new and different ideas into their governing structure and priorities. In this light, it should not be too surprising that this process can take a while. In the meantime you'll be growling and gritting your teeth.

Of course, life is not always ideal, and nothing guarantees that little parties really will negotiate strictly on behalf of their voters. They will certainly negotiate more sugar for themselves. But even these perks usually have something to do with party platforms. Winston Peters may have held out for a senior portfolio in 2005 because he wanted power, but his desire for the Foreign Affairs portfolio has a lot to do with New Zealand First's anti-immigration stance.

Incompetent Politicians

I am quite certain that under MMP you would see some new names and fresh faces get elected to legislature. Many of these new people will have had no prior experience in elected office -- particularly among smaller parties that elect their members via party lists. These new people will make more mistakes than their experienced counterparts, and you can be sure that the "news" media will enthusiastically report each misstep and scandal. Being a responsible citizen, you will follow the "news" media and correspondingly lower your opinion of list MPPs and the benefits of smaller parties in legislature. Meanwhile, the "news" media will enthusiastically ignore the quiet ways in which list MPPs and small parties improve legislature, because such stories are not newsworthy.

Tarnished Party Images

It's easy to root for small parties until they earn power and have to deal with the compromises involved when governing (Hello Bob Rae!) I have a feeling that once some of these smaller parties earn political power, they will lose some of their ideological purity, which will frustrate you and stomp out whatever remaining hope you had in politics (Hello Green Party!).

The real question in my mind is whether we can expect parties to maintain some principles and focus, or whether they will adopt any position to hold onto power. My feeling is that under MMP there exists a niche for smaller principled parties; any small party that tries to compete with a big-tent party in terms of "flexibility" will get squashed like a runty piglet at the feeding trough. As Prime Minister Helen Clark wrote for the New Zealand Herald: "For the smaller parties working with Government, brand differentiation and policy delivery is critical to avoid being swamped by the larger party's brand and presence." (Clark 2006) The Maori, Green and New Zealand First parties have done this; other parties have not.

Compromises and Broken Promises

Related to the above point, coalitions involve compromise, which gives parties yet more excuses to avoid carrying out the promises they make in elections. Under FPTP, the usual trick is for the opposition to make grandiose promises, get elected on the basis of those promises, take a look at the books and exclaim "Oh no! That previous government left us with a much bigger deficit than we expected! We're sorry, voters. We can't afford to keep the grandiose promises we made!" It's a tired trick, but one that voters fall for time and time again. (In a recent debate Louise Ervin claimed that the McGuinty government has closed this loophole by forcing audits six months before elections. I will believe it when I see it.)

Under MMP, transitions between governments tends to be smoother, so the trick switches from "we can't afford our promises" to "those nasty coalition partners won't let us implement our promises!" Either way, parties will make promises they know they cannot keep. (Then they will wonder why our faith in democracy has decreased.)

Boston et al (Boston Church Bale 2003, p. 19) claim that the situation is not as bad as I would have you believe. Under MMP in New Zealand, political promises have apparently become more statements of policy direction and less statements of specific actions. If this is true, then it would mean that parties could have a harder time avoiding their political promises: if all parties in a coalition promise similar directions in policy, then the resulting government had better keep to that path.

Nonetheless, I suspect parties will pull out the "incompatible coalitions" excuse quite frequently, and that we will fall for the excuse and blame MMP accordingly. Meanwhile, you won't know which party to blame in particular, because all parties will be pointing fingers at each other.

Slowness in Passing Legislation

One of the great hopes I have for MMP is that it will reduce the authoritarian power that the premier and cabinet have over legislation. In New Zealand it appears that MMP has strengthened the role of committees in drafting and examining legislation (McLeay 2000), Boston Church Bale 2003, p. 13). Germany also has a strong committee system (Stratmann Baur, p. 6). If this pattern holds true in Ontario, then we might see legislation drafted with more consultation and review than what happens now.

Unfortunately, consultations take time, which means legislation would take longer to pass than it currently does. In some cases this is okay, but in others it is an excuse for procrastination: if the government is reluctant to deal with some troublesome issue, it can initiate the legislative process late in its mandate and conveniently let the proposed bill die on the table come election time. If some legislation you care about meets this sad fate, you would likely get annoyed and blame the increased delays on weak coalition governments and their compromises.

Difficulty in Punishing Parties/Individuals

One of the bigger conceptual hurdles to leap when talking about MMP is that you almost always vote for somebody, rather than vote to keep somebody else out of power. In FPTP, you have a limited set of candidates in your riding, and you know only one of them will win. So if you don't like candidate X, you might vote for candidate Y instead in the hopes of keeping candidate X out of power. You might like neither candidate X nor candidate Y very much, but cast a ballot for the "lesser of two evils".

Things work differently under MMP, largely because of the party vote. The party vote is counted proportionally, which means that casting a vote for party A doesn't really "cancel out" your friend's vote for party B. Rather, you and your friend strengthened the positions of both party B and party A at the expense of other parties. This means it is difficult to engineer results like the 1993 federal election, which wiped out the Progressive Conservatives federally. Under an MMP system the 16% of people who voted PC would help get Conservatives elected no matter how much everybody else hates the party. I expect that this alone will frustrate voters, but the frustration will be compounded if approximately the same number of people vote for the same parties election after election, resulting in the same coalitions and the same government.

The party vote has another effect which will likely annoy you. Thanks to the party vote, most parties will get at least a few seats from the list. In some places "vulnerable" incumbents who end up in close races often receive high positions on party lists. (Pekkanen Nyblade Krauss 2006) (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) One of those vulnerable members might be an unpopular local politician running in your riding. If you and all your friends cast your candidate vote against this person, he or she still might win a list seat even after losing the riding. And once again, the "news" media will jump all over the story, crowing about how the unpopular election was "appointed" against the wishes of local voters. In fact, that politician was elected by virtue of party vote -- if few enough people voted for the party in question, the politician would not have received a list seat.

There's more to the story: under MMP list seats are not very safe; if the unpopular politician remains unpopular he or she might face demotion in the following election. Furthermore, in New Zealand it appears that turnover of politicians on the list is pretty high. (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) But most people will be unaware of these things, and they offer cold comfort to a populace which has to deal with the unpopular politician for another four years.

Lack of Review

We can already predict some of the weaknesses the OCA proposal suffers from. If we have the courage to vote MMP in, then other weaknesses will no doubt make themselves apparent.

Unfortunately, as far as I know there is no scheduled review period after MMP is implemented. It is not clear to me whether the OCA would have had the mandate to dictate the timeframe for review, but I think people would feel better about MMP if they knew we would revisit the system after a few elections. Certainly, if there is no review than the annoyances of the system are going to become more and more acute until people start demanding that we scrap the system entirely.

In New Zealand, a Royal Commission held a review of MMP in 2001, five years after the first election. (MMP Review Committee 2001) They noted a number of problems with the system, but recommended few changes. Now ten years have passed, and some people (many of whom don't like MMP) want to see the system reviewed again. Unfortunately, there appears to be no mandate for doing so. (Nicholle 2006). Given the outcry over the one-seat threshold for electing list members (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006), it might be wise for New Zealand to put the system up for review again, lest it lose MMP entirely.

Conclusion

Let's face it: we like to complain, and MMP will definitely give us some things to complain about. If we do adopt MMP, you can be sure the system will be put under the microscope, and you can be sure that we will find flaws.

And if the referendum fails? It is possible that the referendum will spark a lasting discussion of voting systems, which might draw attention to the many deficiencies of first past the post. But thus far we in Ontario have been largely oblivious to the effects of our voting system, and if the referendum fails by a wide margin there will be few incentives for the mainstream media to revisit the topic. FPTP will continue to rob us of our democratic voice, but it is quite possible we won't notice.

References

(Boston Church Bale 2003) Jonathan Boston, Stephen Church, Tim Bale. "The Impact of Proportional Representation on Government Effectiveness: The New Zealand Experience", Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol 62 no 4, December 2006, p. 7-22.

(Clark 2006) Helen Clark. "Helen Clark: Reasonable way to govern", New Zealand Herald, October 12 2006.

(Dempsey 2007-08-23) Judy Dempsey. "Merkel's coalition puts stability before change", International Herald Tribune, August 23 2007.

(McLeay 2000) Elizabeth McLeay. "Parliamentary Committees in New Zealand: A House Continuously Reforming Itself?" In ASPG Parliament 2000 -- Towards a Modern Committee System 2001. Published for the Australasian Study of Parliament Group conference in Brisbane, 2000. Available from http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/aspg/conferences.htm.

(MMP Review Committee 2001) Rt. Hon Jonathan Hunt, chair. Inquiry into the Review of MMP: Report of the MMP Review Committee, New Zealand House of Representatives, August 2001.

(Nicholle 2006) Brian Nicholle. "Brian Nicholle: Put MMP to the vote", New Zealand Herald, October 12 2006.

(NZ Herald 2006-10-11) "A decade of MMP: 1996 election left country hanging", New Zealand Herald, October 11 2006.

(Pekkanen Nyblade Krauss 2006): Robert Pekkanen, Benjamin Nyblade, Ellis S. Krauss. "Electoral Incentives in Mixed-Member Systems: Party, Posts, and Zombie Politicians in Japan", Amercian Political Science Review, vol 100, no 2, May 2006, pp. 183-194.

(Stratmann Baur 2002) Thomas Stratmann, Martin Baur. "Plurality Rule, Proportional Representation, and the German Bundestag." Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute for Economic Research, Working Paper Number 650 (2). January 2002.

(Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) Jack Vowles, Susan A. Banducci, Jefferey A. Karp. "Forecasting and Evaluating the Consequences of Electoral Change in New Zealand", Acta Politica, vol 41, 2006, pp. 267-284.

(zBerry 2005-10-22) Ruth zBerry. "Voters give MMP the thumbs down", New Zealand Herald, October 22 2005.