Democratic reform is needed but the solution is preferential balloting, not proportional representation

Tomorrow Canadian MPs will vote on a democratic reform bill from the NDP. The non-binding bill would endorse a system of 'mixed member proportional representation' at the federal level.

Proportional representation is a system that bases the number of seats in Parliament on the percentage of the vote. A party that got 25% of the vote would get 25% of the seats. There are currently 338 seats which means that for every 1% of the vote a party received they would receive 3.38 seats.

A mixed member proportional system (MMP) alters the formula a bit by including a set number of members by geographic consistency, to maintain local representation.

It all sounds swell, fair and democratic but there are a few glaring problems:

First of all it puts more power in the hands of the party leader. Under the Canadian system, the party leader is just what the name implies. Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair and Elizabeth May are all the leaders of their parties, as well as the leaders of the party's MPs in Parliament.

So, while the parties may deny it, the party leader would play a huge role in selecting the MPs. Under a MMP system, voters don't vote for an individual MP, they vote for a party. The party leaders are responsible for maintaining lists of which candidates are elected in which order.

For example, the Liberal party would have a list of candidates from Ontario (to maintain the regional component of MMP). Based on the percentage of the vote received they would choose candidates from that list. A candidates appeal to or relationship with the party leader would play a huge role in the likelihood of their becoming an MP. In other words people who disagreed with the leader or rubbed him or her the wrong way would not wind up in Parliament.

If the NDP has its way, the Canadian Senate (the only real check on the Prime Minister's power) would be done away with entirely. So in Tom Mulcair's dream world he would be surrounded by MPs that he had chosen or approved, who would vote the way he told them to and where there was no other check on his power - in effect, an elected dictatorship.

After Stephen Harpers years of abusing the Canadian system we need a system where party leaders have less power, not more.

The second problem with MMP is actually a problem with it being a bit too democratic. Under a proportional system tiny parties can wield considerable power.

Under the current system it would be fine, the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Greens would hold 99% of the seats in parliament. However, under an MMP system there would be no reason not to start new parties. Groups might split because they didn't feel that the NDP was left enough, or the Conservatives were right enough or simply because they didn't feel the party had the right leader (Canadians love to make political parties anyway).

There is no disincentive because these factional parties can form coalitions with the larger party anyway, but will hold more power than they would otherwise. This can, and sometimes does in some countries, lead to parties with 5-10% of the vote holding the balance of power. If they aren't pleased they can remove themselves from the ruling coalition and force an election. The party that gets the most votes still gets to push their agenda, but when it comes to the pet issues of the smaller party, they have to compromise or go to the polls.

If Canadians are displeased because the Conservatives got a majority government without a majority of the votes, wait until the government is held hostage by the Canadian Traditional Values Party with 5% of the vote.

Under a preferential balloting system people vote for the candidate they like the most (just like they do now). Instead of putting an X by their candidate however they put a 1, then they put a 2 next to their 2nd choice and a 3 next to their 3rd.

When the ballots are counted, if no one has 50%, election workers take the ballots from the last place candidate and count the #2 votes, then the process is repeated with the second least popular candidate. This goes on until one candidate reaches the 50% point.

What that means is that, while not everyone gets their first choice, as many people as possible get a candidate they can live with. That system, ultimately, is better for democracy than MMP.

Preferential balloting encourages compromise and compromise is an essential part of democracy. MMP encourages democracy in some ways, like encouraging parties to work together. It discourages compromise in others, encouraging small parties and factions to go it alone and leverage whatever power they have.

I am glad that the motion coming forward tomorrow is non-binding. I hope that it is defeated. I agree with the NDP about a great many things, but the desperate power grabs by a party that has never finished higher than 2nd (and appears poised to sink again in the next election) makes me nervous and has negatively coloured my impression of Tom Mulcair.
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