I know I walk onto thin ice here, so I can only hope my blog is insignificant enought to avoid the inevitable flamewar that follows any discussion of Mixed-Member Proportional representation in Ontario. When I first heard that Ontario was planning to hold a referendum on electoral reform, I was intrigued. I mean, who doesn't like a little electoral reform? After a hundred odd years, our current system must have gotten a little stale. So sure, let's shake things up and see if we can make the whole democratic process work better.
And then I saw the proposal, and got a little worried.
Not that I oppose proportional representation on principled grounds. It is entirely logical that a political party's seats in the legislature should correspond to their share of the popular vote. And I recognize many of the benefits of MMP. It allows smaller parties who garner a significant percentage of the vote but never win a seat to enter Queen's Park. In turn, it validates and empowers the individuals who vote for these parties. Believe me, I'd like nothing more than some fresh air in government. We've been in thrall to the three stooges for too long. And let's be honest: they all suck.
Unfortunately, this strength is also a weakness. While MMP may allow, say, the Green Party to get a few seats in the house, we've got to be realistic. Ontario, like all human populations, has a fairly high proportion of idiots roaming the streets and exercising their democratic rights. Idiots often vote for idiotic parties. In Europe, this kind of latent idiocy combined with proportional representation leads to all kinds of parliamentary hilarity, such as ultra-nationalistic/racist parties legitimated with legislative seats. Awesome. The first-past-the-post system acts as a fairly efficient filter, weeding out virulent idiocy and leaving us with a crop of benign 'can't get anything done' idiots, as opposed to the 'we hate everyone who doesn't look like us' variety of moron. And yes, many of you might think it's high-time the Green Party gets a seat in the legislature. For the time being, however, I'm happy to keep this right-wing, regressive party-with-a-green-face out of government until they come up with something approaching actual policy. You're against social housing? C'mon now.
MMP also has the notable strength of allowing traditionally under-represented groups- woman and visible minorities- to serve as MPPs. The sheer time and money needed to mount a successful campaign prevents many people without those precious resources from running for office. With MMP, party lists can be used to increase the number of women and other under-represented groups in the legislature. Of course, I'm not a big believer in the whole 'delegate' school of democracy, or the idea that only a woman can speak for women, or only a Sudanese individual can speak for immigrants from Sudan. I think there is something transcendant in human nature that allows an MPP- or at least a good one- to speak for all the people she represents. Nevertheless, MMP is a useful way to remove many of the barriers facing people who wish to run for office, although MMP still requires potential MMP candidates to sell their souls to one of Ontario's god-awful political parties.
Much has been made about the potential for proportional systems to create a neverending stream of minority governments. I'm not convinced that's true. Moreover, our current majority governments don't really get anything done either, so this argument rings a little hollow. And a minority government is a useful way of mitigating damaging policy programs, such as the entire legislative history of the Harris government.
On balance, then, I would have to concede that MMP is not really any worse or better than our current system. It does deliver one clear benefit, in that it opens up the political system to new voices and can help to fight political cynicism. But there is one convincing reason why I will not vote for MMP- almost nobody knows what the hell it is.
Oh sure, I know what it is. And there are vast swaths of educated, predominantly urban folks who consume a lot of media and are therefore equipped to make an informed decision on electorial reform. But there are many more people who don't know what MMP is, they don't understand how it will affect their lives, and they are not in a position to make an educated choice about the proposal. This isn't really their fault. Most Ontarians are worried enough with feeding, housing and caring for themselves and their families that they really don't have the time to seek out information on MMP and ponder the relative merits of a proportional system. It is therefore the responsibility of the provincial government to make damn sure that every Ontarian understands what MMP is and what they're being asked to decide. I have seen very little evidence of the government fulfilling these obligations. The public information campaign around MMP is weak. A website and token TV commerncials does not an informed decision make, and many people I've talked to are more confused by the PSAs than anything. And what genius decided to run an electoral reform referendum alongside a provincial election campaign? People's attention is justifiably focused on deciding which party is going to screw up the province the least. With John Tory stumbling all over the place, Howard Hampton yelling at reporters, and Dalton McGuinty treating us all to a fantastically low-cal platform, I can't help but think the whole 'electoral reform' message is getting a bit lost in the mix. The MMP referendum is at best a sideshow, and it is far too important a choice to be relegated to the political background. There should be a separate referendum and information campiagn, months away from a provincial election. The campaign should feature a media blitz, town halls, free publications mailed to every voter, whatever it takes. Sure, this would be a bit more expensive. OK, a lot more expensive. But we're talking about a fundamental decision regarding how we select our government. That's worth a whole lot of time, money and effort. And the alternative is more than a little scary. If Ontario ends up saddled with an electoral system is doesn't understand and didn't really want, then we're all in big trouble.
The evidence is pretty clear that Ontarians are befuddled about MMP. According to the CBC, 3 million Ontario voters have no idea that there is a referendum. Of the remaining 5.4 million voters, only about half (2.7 million) describe themeselves as 'somewhat or very knowledgeable'. So, we're going to let our electoral system be decided by 32 per cent of voters? And even if we assume MMP passes by a generous margin- say 60 per cent in favour- that's only 1.6 million people. That ain't even Toronto, and it certainly isn't democratic.
Even the citizens' assembly that recommended MMP in the first place recognizes the failure of the referendum campaign. Said Richard Bowdidge, a member of the assembly:
"There's an awful lack of understanding on the proposition. I think that's too bad. Elections Ontario isn't doing its job. There's been no real attempt at a major public education campaign, and that's what was needed."
Clearly. If MMP passes on October 10, I will have absolutely no confidence that the vote represents an informed decision by the people of Ontario for a new electoral system. And for that reason, I will vote against MMP this time around. I urge you to do the same.