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MMP 102: Contradictory Arguments

To my relief, the blogosphere has finally started picking up on the topic of the Ontario referendum. Although I firmly disbelieve that the blogosphere reflects popular opinion to any significant degree, I am hopeful that these online conversations will prompt some offline discussion and debate over electoral reform.

Of course, Sturgeon's Law applies to the Internet as much as to anything else, so many of the arguments online (including, no doubt, many of mine) have been nonsense: unfounded opinions, parrotted talking points, screeds for or against proportional representation that reflect deep misunderstandings about the basic mechanics of the two voting systems at stake. To some extent this wrongness is both predictable and good: electoral reform takes a while for people to digest, and publically displaying your ignorance to the entire Internet is a fine way to work through the issues. At the same time, some of this argumentation has been bugging me, so in this entry I'll publish my own ignorance by attempting to point out some of the sillier arguments.

My goal in this entry is to focus on contradictions: statements that have some merit individually but which make little sense when taken together. At the risk of academic dishonesty I will (sometimes) refrain from naming names; many of these talking points are made several times in the echo chamber that is the Internet, and I deliberately paraphrase many of the arguments I hear.

Also keep in mind that my readings have been focussing on blog posts against MMP, and thus many of my criticisms will sound like MMP defences.

Now that everybody's good and bored, let's dive in:

Open and Closed Lists

"This argument that closed lists are transparent is hollow. How can we trust the media to examine these lists and point out deficiencies in gender, geographic and ethnic representation? We should use open lists instead so that voters -- not parties -- get the final say in representation."

On the one hand, you claim that the media will be too lazy to examine the closed lists parties publish before the election, but on the other hand you expect every single voter to understand list compositions well enough to rank candidates for their chosen party?

I don't trust the media that much, but I do know that it is easier for the media to make list compositions an election issue than it is to expect the average voter to do a lot of research into candidates before voting. I also know that there are many possible eyes that could be examining these closed lists; if nothing else there are tonnes of bloggers around who have nothing better to do than pore over party lists and blog six times a day about them.

Cross-Country Comparisons

"Ontario is not Europe or New Zealand, and it is foolish to think that their experiences will apply to ours. Therefore I reject data coming out of studies from these countries, and rely on my doomsday predictions and thought experiments instead."

Have you ever considered that people in these other countries have made the same thought experiments as you did?

I agree that we need to be careful about overlaying the experiences of other countries onto Ontario. But at least the experiences in other countries give us some examples for what actually occurs in practice, and whether the worst-case scenarios we dream up are that likely.

The problem with thought experiments is that there are too many variables at play. Time and time again I have been surprised to see that my predictions of how MMP works do not hold up under closer scrutiny. In that sense I am much more likely to trust actual data over hypotheses.

Selective Cross-Country Comparisons

"It is foolish to overlay results from other countries onto Ontario. We have no way to predict what is going to happen under MMP. Why, we could turn out like Russia, which is so corrupt that they sell list seat placements to fundraise money!"

If you reject any predictive power to Ontario, why do you raise scare stories about worst-case scenarios from other countries?

Although I believe that we cannot put a lot of confidence in results from other countries, I reject the assertion that the experiences of other countries give us no predictive power whatsoever. I also find it strange that many of the same people who offer the conservatism argument have no problems with the implementation of scientific discoveries, liberalization of global finance, or other radical changes that have had huge impacts on our lives.

I think the key to wise use of cross-country data is to put cultural and social information in context. For example, in many ways New Zealand is similar to Ontario, so I feel okay about trying to predict Ontario under MMP using New Zealand as a model. However, there are some areas in which New Zealand and Ontario differ considerably -- our fiscal attitudes are one, and our history and treatment of aboriginal relations are another. It would be nice to predict the same kind of financial surpluses or strong aboriginal representation in Ontario that we see in New Zealand, but these are likely foolish predictions. On the other hand, New Zealand and Ontario are both unicameral governments with strong party discipline coming from a Westminister parliamentary history, so other predictions are more likely to hold.

Promises to Redo the Process

"I know you don't like FPTP. I don't like FPTP either. But if you vote for FPTP, we can redo the process and get the electoral reforms we want."

Oy. So answering "first-past-the-post" to the question of "Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature" is actually a vote that you don't support FPTP?

Oh! I get it! You're telling me that you support FPTP more than MMP! Okay! I'm sure that future politicians that win their landslide "majorities" under FPTP will totally agree with your interpretation. If we get a referendum result that is 35% in favour of MMP and 65% in favour of FPTP, politicians will clearly interpret the result as resounding evidence that we want to revisit the electoral reform issue again and again and again until we get the result we want.

I can't predict the future. Maybe there will be a groundswell of support for electoral reform even if we lose the referendum. But losing a referendum (especially if we lose with less than 50% of the vote) gives politicians a huge cudgel they will gleefully use to beat us over the head every time we complain about FPTP in the future. We'll just be another special interest group out of tune with the wishes of the electorate, "as the 2007 Ontario Referendum results clearly demonstrate".

Look. If you genuinely like FPTP better than MMP, then vote for FPTP. But when you do so, be prepared to live under FPTP for a good long time. If you actually like MMP better but are voting for FPTP because you are holding out for something better, then you are shooting yourself in the foot. If nothing else, countries have demonstrated a (somewhat disturbing) tendency to revisit electoral reform once they have made an initial change.

One final comment about this hoary old argument: people have different tastes. Many other people have a favourite system that is different from yours. If you honestly believe that the intrinsic superiority of your system is going to carry a future referendum past a 60% threshold, then you should get your meds checked out.

Party Power vs. Lists

"You should oppose MMP because it gives parties more power -- namely, the power to select list members."

This argument underlies a lot of the uneasiness people feel about MMP. Certainly, I am sympathetic to the sentiment behind the argument: like many others, I too am wary of making political parties (and in particular party elites) stronger at the expense of voters -- that's one of the main reasons I got into this sordid business of electoral reform. But -- compelling as it is -- the argument above is näive and misleading.

There is no question in my mind that closed lists do give parties more control over the list nomination process. Like other MMP advocates, I don't think this level of control is all that different from the control parties and their hacks can (but don't always) wield in the riding nomination process. For the sake of argument, let's assume the worst case scenario: party leaders and hacks will have total control over the list nomination process in a way that lets them appoint all kinds of syncophantic puppies to the list positions. I still claim the argument is näive and misleading, because it ignores the big picture: under MMP parties get weaker, not stronger.

The reason for this is simple: MMP is a proportional system. That means voters have several viable political parties they can choose on their ballot -- not just the 2.5 options we get now. That means the existing parties cannot afford to be as arrogant as they are now, because voters have realistic options to take their party votes elsewhere. In turn, this means that parties have to be more responsive to voters during the election, which reduces their autonomy and puts power back where it belongs.

Furthermore, once the election is over parties will usually need to put together coalition governments. A single party government can concentrate its power in the hands of the premier, the cabinet and the party hacks who pull the strings. In a coalition setting, that power can't help but be distributed, if only because there are multiple party leaders to contend with. As I have argued earlier, in other countries it seems that power gets distributed even further, to backbenchers and committees.

There's a tradeoff here. We are giving party hacks more explicit control over the nomination process for list candidates, and in return we give the parties some real competition and the voters some real choice. We can argue whether the cost of list MPPs outweighs the benefits of greater party competition and voter choice, but painting MMP as a slam-dunk win for party hacks is totally wrong. If it really was a win for party hacks, then you would expect that the party hacks of Ontario's two biggest parties would be staunchly in favour of MMP. Instead, it looks like many of them are totally opposed and running scared.

Parliamentary Reform

"We shouldn't be concentrating on electoral reform. Parliamentary reform is more important."

Dude. You can do both. Unless you show me how adopting MMP makes parliamentary reform harder/impossible, I'm not buying this. In particular, please demonstrate how a premier and cabinet that already has power centralized in its hands will be persuaded to give that power to backbenchers.

And hey! You want parliamentary reform? Go for it! Once this referendum is over, please demonstrate comparable effort to reforming parliament that Fair Vote Canada has demonstrated to electoral reform. I have been donating energy to this cause for a year and a half now; other people have been working a lot longer and a lot harder. What? You think political reform is easy?

Reduced Representation

"Despite all published evidence to the contrary, I refuse to believe that list members will serve as local representatives. Therefore, we will be going down from 107 MPPs to 90. That's unacceptable!"

The OCA report states that with 107 seats there would be about one MPP for every 114 000 people. The next worst ratio is Quebec, which has one MP for every 60 000 people. If we assume that your incorrect argument is sound and list MPs don't give us any representation, then we get about one MP for every 135 000 people.

Now it's your job to explain why 107 seats (or 103 if you prefer the original terms of the Fewer Politicians Act) is the right number for Ontario but 90 is not. We're already so much worse than every other province. Just to get to Quebec's levels of representation we would need 201 ridings. Are you advocating that we should have 201 ridings? More? What is the right number and why? Are all the other provinces overrepresented?

And before you pull out the argument that it's vitally important that we keep our riding boundaries synchronized provincially and federally: you're begging the question, because Ontario is underrepresented by population federally as well. We will probably stay underrepresented in federal legislature because the other provinces don't want a Canada dominated by Ontario. That's fine, but those arguments don't apply to the provincial legislature, and it is totally unclear to me that the financial savings from synchronizing boundaries outweigh the representative losses of carrying over federal political compromises to the provincial level.

Incidentally, we could have had 107 ridings. The OCA considered a system with 107 ridings and 46 list seats, for a total of 153 seats. (OCA long, p. 118) This system even went to secret ballot, and lost. Why? My feeling is that it is precisely because people would gripe about all of the extra salaries. And even 153 seats gives us a worse representation ratio than any other province.

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