Just Say No by Brian Henry
This is an op-ed I wrote for The Toronto Star when Ontario was having a referendum about changing our voting system. In Canada’s current federal election, it’s once again become relevant, as two of the parties say, if elected, they’ll change our voting system.
On October 10, Ontario will vote on whether to switch the way we elect our government to a scheme called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). The system is deliriously complicated but suffice it to say that MMP is a form of proportional representation and thus shares PR’s usual faults.
Like all proportional systems, MMP is meant to guarantee that a single party can’t form a majority government. Consequently, we may have elections once a year as they do in Italy.
Alternatively, we may get reasonably stable governments, as the party winning the largest number of seats forms a coalition with one or more parties on the edges of the political spectrum – the NDP, the Greens, and other fringe parties that would emerge and win seats in a proportional system.
MMP salesmen will tell you it’s only fair to give greater clout to parties that the vast majority reject. I can’t see the logic.
In a typical Ontario election, more than 80% of us vote for either the centre left party (the Liberals) or the centre-right party (the Progressive Conservatives). Then one forms the government, and the other forms the opposition, while the NDP takes about 15%, leaving 4% to the Greens and other fringe parties.
It might be more fair – that is, it might better reflect the will of the large majority – if we could have a blend of the two centre parties. But that won’t happen.
To join a government coalition, the second largest party would need to relinquish its role as the government in waiting. It’s much better for them to wait for us to throw out the party in power and then step forward as the reasonable alternative.
The opposition won’t give up that opportunity. Nor should they. A strong opposition helps keep the government honest. A government that faces no credible opposition does what it likes without fear of being voted out of power.
So the best MMP has to offer are unstable governments or coalitions composed of a centre party and a fringe party or two that the large majority of voters have rejected.
The worst MMP offers is a splintering of the party system as every politician with an ego and every demagogue with a grievance forms his own party.
Unlike most places in Europe where proportional systems are common, Ontario doesn’t have any racist or xenophobic parties. Why? Because we’re tolerant people. There isn’t a riding in the province where an extremist could come in fourth place, let alone win.
But under proportional representation, the extremists don’t have to be concentrated in one riding. In the MMP system, a party gets votes from across the province, and with just 3% of the vote a party would win four seats and instant respectability – regardless of how vile their policies might be.
According to an Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) survey released September 11, 12% of Canadians don’t like Jews. This is better than most places in the world, especially as only 4% have a “very unfavourable” opinion of Jews. But even 4% is over the threshold a party would need to gain seats under the MMP system.
Other groups would be even more vulnerable. The ACS study found 16% of Canadians don’t like Sikhs and 18% don’t like Muslims. (In each case 9% hold a “very unfavourable” opinion of these groups.)
Under our current electoral system, no party represents the bigots. Under MMP it will be only a matter of time before a party emerges to fill this vacuum. And a few years down the road when seven or eight parties are winning seats in the legislature, a party on the centre left or centre right, desperate to cobble together a stable coalition, might well invite some extremist party to join the government.
We could end up with a Citizenship Minister who flat out doesn’t like immigrants or an Aboriginal Affairs minister who doesn’t like native people – anything at all is possible.
And that’s the main point. We have an electoral system that works just fine. The proposal is to break it and see what happens. It’s sheer foolishness. On October 10, vote no.
Brian Henry is a writer and editor living in Toronto. He frequently contributes to the Jewish Tribune.
Note: The referendum was massively defeated, with 102 out of 107 ridings voting against changing the way we vote. To read my comments on the debate (or lack of debate) on changing the voting system in the 2015 federal election, see here.