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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Should conservatives be wary of MMP?

I've read a lot of conservative bloggers' support for the mixed-member proportional representation system ( MMP) in the upcoming Ontario referendum. I have a nagging doubt about it which no one has been able to address - I would welcome some discussion on this issue.

The MMP system's combination of 90 MPs elected by ridings in a "first past the post" system with 39 "list" candidates selected by the parties is an attempt to address the perceived problem that representation in the legislature rarely reflects the popular vote. In fact, we haven't had a government in Ontario with greater than 50% of the popular vote since the 1930s. The new system will ensure that the number of each party's seats in the legislature approximates its percentage of the popular vote. OK, fine - seems fair.

Here's the problem I have with it. With the current party system in Ontario, it is rare for any of the big three parties (the PCs, the Liberals and the NDP) to get more than 50% of the popular vote. Under MMP, this would practically guarantee a minority government after every election. Let's take a look at the popular vote results from the 2003 election:
  • Liberals - 46.4%
  • Progressive Conservatives - 34.6%
  • NDP - 14.7%
  • Green Party - 2.8%
  • Family Coalition - 0.8%
  • Freedom Party - 0.2%

Since there is a 3% threshold in the new proposal, only the big three parties would have representation in an MMP legislature, and the 129 seats would break down approximately like this:

  • Liberals - 62 seats
  • Progressive conservatives - 47 seats
  • NDP - 20 seats

Clearly the Liberals won the 2003 election, but only with a plurality of the vote, not a majority. In the legislature, they would not have had enough seats to form a majority (65 seats) and could only govern with the support of another party, likely the NDP since they are fellow travellers on the left-centre side of the political spectrum. Even if the Greens had won enough votes to be represented, they would likely support the Liberals.

And here is where I have a problem. In a system which would almost always produce minority governments, it could be very difficult for the Progressive Conservatives to form a government. If the PCs won a plurality of the vote, they would still be a minority in the legislature, and would face a left-centre opposition with a majority of seats which could block every item of a Conservative legislative agenda.

It is even conceivable that the PCs could win a plurality of seats in an election and STILL not form the government. Again, take the 2003 results. Let's assume, for a moment, that the Liberal and the PC support was reversed, and the PCs had 62 seats in the legislature vs the Liberals' 47. If the liberals formed a coalition with the NDP, that would give them a voting block of 67 seats in the legislature, which is a clear majority. Since in parliamentary tradition the government must command the confidence of the legislature, it is conceivable that a Liberal/NDP coalition could form the government even though the Conservatives had the largest party in the legislature.

That's democracy, you might say - the majority rules. However, the Progressive Conservatives are the only party that passes for a centre-right party in Ontario. How would the PCs form a coalition with another party to command a majority in the legislature? Can you picture a PC/NDP coalition? Not likely. How about a PC/Liberal coalition? Yikes - that scenario essentially reduces the province to a one-party state with the two main centrist parties essentially having a monopoly on power in the legislature with no effective opposition at all.

I can't think of any scenario that would allow a stable Conservative government to govern effectively. While that prospect might delight Liberals and other lefties, that isn't a good situation for democracy. We need a system where the voters at least theoretically have the power to sweep a party from office, with at least two major functioning parties capable of forming a government and commanding the confidence of the legislature. Under MMP, Ontario would be doomed to perpetual minority governments, and likely to perpetual Liberal/NDP/Green coalitions. The deck is stacked against right-wing parties under MMP - conservatives should seriously consider the implications of this.


SUZANNE said...

You assume that under MMP the same percentages would apply. They wouldn't. More PC's would vote FCP and Freedom, and more NDPers would vote Green and other parties.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

I share your concerns about MMP.

Conservative Christian had an interesting post about Coyne's article, where he (Coyne) says Conservatives should embrace MMP. I disagree.

Eric said...

I agree with your comment, but the problem still remains - the FCP and Freedom parties would bleed support from the PCs and only make the problem of forming a majority government worse for the tories, since it would reduce conservative representation in the legislature, and a PC/FCP/Freedom coalition would still likely not be enough for a majority. The same problem applies to an NDP bleeding of support to the Liberals. Either way, the chances of the PCs forming a centre-right coalition with a majority in the legislature are slim, and this would be a built-in feature of the new electoral system. That's not a good thing.

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

I guess my take on it is that I LIKE the idea that MMP will probably end up with more minority governments because that's what the people tend to vote for. The last time we had a true single party majority government in Ontario that actually reflected the way the electorate voted was 1934. I just don't share this mystical belief in the importance of majority governments. I just don't like a system that imposes majority rule on the province when the votes of the people don't warrant it.

I also happen to think that there is a much higher incentive for parties to work collaboratively in an MMP system, because you don't have two or three parties working furiously to get the just 5% they need to have unfettered rule. People don't seem to love minority governments under FPTP, but I think one of the biggest problems we see in minority governments in our current system is that parties don't want to cooperate with each other (and see little need to) when they all feel they're pretty close to taking majority control of the legislature. Make getting a single party majority more difficult, and I think the parties and their candidates will become less obsessed with trying to win a "majority", and we'll get much more collaborative and cooperative government aimed at truly representing the will of the largest segment of the populace possible.

SUZANNE said...

Eric wrote:

PC/FCP/Freedom coalition would still likely not be enough for a majority.

Then persuade more voters to vote for you. It's the same in FPTP.

Do you want the legislature to representative, or do you want a majority government?

valiantmauz said...

I agree with Suzanne, even if the spectre of a PC/FCP/Freedom coalition Parliament gives me all kinds of willies. I disagree with Suzanne on nearly everything else, but in this, she's right.

If we have to put up with government in the first place, it should be a government that reflects what we actually voted for.

I get so tired "wasting" my vote each election - this time around, I really like the NDP candidate in my riding, but there is zero chance she will ever be elected, so what's the point? I think she would make an excellent MP. At one and the same time, I do not want an NDP government for Ontario. I am fiscally more restrained than most "left-wingers". I like some of their energy ideas, but not all the other parts of the platform.

But it doesn't matter what I really think, because the race in my riding is a nearly perfect Liberal/Conservative tie. And if, like me, you oppose religious school funding of any stripe, let alone full faith funding, what do you think I'll feel obliged to do?

I imagine there are voters well to my right who face the exact same dilemma. What's a Conservative voter to do in a tight Liberal/NDP race? In Toronto-Centre, maybe?

I want to vote my conscience, and I want all Ontarians to have the same freedom to mark an X on their ballot and go home satisfied that it might actually make a difference.

If that means minority coalitions, so be it.

I also think you underestimate the Conservative vote, by the way. I can easily see Liberal/Conservative agreement on some fiscal policies - you'd have to be a complete twit not to know that the Liberals will swing right or left if the wind is in their favour.

valiantmauz said...


In no way did I intend to imply that you are a twit. I like intelligent conservatives, and I think you are one.