Saturday, September 22, 2007

Andrew Coyne: On the MMP

Here is a conservative defence of the MMP. I must say I agree with much of the article except that I don't think the NDP is much to the left and it is certainly influenced by the same forces that cause the Liberals and Conservatives to be like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Although on particular issues the NDP might be able to drive the main parties a bit to the left the whole political spectrum has been drifting right for decades. Imagine a Regina Manifesto in 2007 or even a Waffle Manifesto for that matter. This is excerpted from Andrew Coyne's blog.

The conservative case for electoral reform
On points, I’d give last night’s debate to John Tory. The Progressive Conservative leader was poised, articulate, punchy and surprisingly focused. All in all, he made a strong case for … much the same....
A Tory government would Plan Better, and Spend Smarter. It would also Tell the Truth -- we have his word on it. But in the broad strokes, the government of Ontario would look much the same under Mr. Tory as under Dalton McGuinty. It would do much the same things, at much the same cost, with much the same results.

Oh, Mr. Tory would fiddle at the margins -- cut a tax or two, expand funding to a few thousand kids in religious schools -- issues that both leaders would like you to think show the vast gulf between them. But they’re not kidding anyone. Whoever wins, the forecast is for McGuintory governments, as far as the eye can see.

I’m not blaming either man. Both are simply responding to the incentives in our political system -- notably the method of voting. Sometimes known as “first past the post,” sometimes called “plurality” voting, it should really be called the “winner take all” system, since that captures its most essential dynamic.

Whoever gets the most votes in a riding, no matter how few, wins; they may only have 25% of the vote, but they get 100% of the representation. Likewise in the aggregate: a third of the vote is commonly sufficient to win two-thirds of the seats -- and all of the power. In such a system, as we have seen, victory or defeat can turn on the swing of one or two percentage points.

Living on a knife-edge does strange things to people. On the one hand, it leaves the parties in a perpetual fever of anticipation, convinced they have only to gain a few points in the polls to destroy their opponents. That is one reason the two federal conservative parties, Progressive Conservative and Reform, were so reluctant to merge. It is also the reason why minority governments tend, under our system, to be so unstable.

On the other hand, the consequences of losing a few points makes them excessively, almost neurotically cautious, unwilling to take the slightest risk or advocate the mildest change, but each hugging as close as it can to the median voter, the status quo and each other. Hence the dominance of the two brokerage parties, indistinguishable in philosophy -- alike, that is, in the lack of it.

Put the two together, and you have much of Canadian politics -- viciously partisan, yet unspeakably trivial; much ado about nothing much. McGuintoryism, in short.

So the case for electoral reform, it seems to me, is one that conservatives, if not Conservatives, should find appealing. It is a cause that has tended, historically, to be identified with the left, not least in the current referendum debate; many conservatives have accordingly rejected it. Yet it is not the left that has suffered most under the current system. It’s the right.

By whatever combination of historical circumstances, the left has a party that will advance its ideas, free of the brokerage parties’ grip: the NDP. Though not often in government, outside of the West, it has succeeded in dragging the entire political spectrum to the left, its policies adopted by Liberal and Conservative governments alike. Nothing like it exists on the right, federally or provincially, nor has since Reform’s demise. Nor is one likely to emerge, so long as “first past the post” remains the rule.

The same is true of parties less easily categorized, like the Green party. Though it is the party of choice for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, it has yet to win a seat, unable to concentrate its support geographically in the way that FPTP requires. How many more votes might it win if potential supporters were not disheartened at the prospect of “wasting” their votes, or worse, “splitting” the vote, as they are forever warned against doing?

But what if there were a system in which no votes were wasted, where vote-splitting ceased to be an issue? There is such a system, and it’s called proportional representation, of which the proposal before Ontarians is a variant. Not only the Greens, but other parties -- libertarian, social-conservative, or other -- might then have a fighting chance. The spectrum of acceptable ideas for debate would noticeably broaden.

Moreover, because the “winner take all” dynamic would have been broken -- parties get roughly the share of the seats their proportion of the vote would suggest, rather than the highly leveraged payoffs observed under FPTP -- all parties would have less fear of taking risks. True, there would also be less upside: progress would only come by sustained advocacy over many years. Conservatives grouse that a Mike Harris revolution would be unlikely, but so would the NDP disaster that preceded it.

So conservatives, genuine conservatives, have a choice. Hold onto the current system, and hope for a Harris-style change of government every fifty years or so. Or take a chance on something new, and start changing minds today.

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