Why does Mulcair's NDP think less democracy is more democratic?

  • National Newswatch

Tom Mulcair's commitment to implement a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system has received alarmingly sparse coverage or analysis, despite the seismic impact it would have on our political culture, traditions, and institutional values. Make no mistake, the NDP's insistence on MMP requires Canadians to believe that less democracy is somehow more democratic.With self-congratulatory fanfare, the NDP has decreed that the October writ will be “Canada's last unfair election”. It is a flippant claim that implies their historical exclusion from government is unjust and all prior elections are lacking legitimacy.The NDP laments the traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, in which MPs are tied to geographic constituencies and elected by accruing more votes than other local candidates. Under FPTP, governments are typically formed with less than 50% of the popular vote.The NDP points to the present government as a case in point. The Conservatives hold over half of the seats in the Commons despite winning just 40% of the vote. These numbers would converge in a proportional system, and the House of Commons would achieve a distribution that approximates the popular vote. This is a commendable objective – the trouble is that MMP is the wrong vehicle for achieving it.Here's why: MMP attempts to achieve proportionality by supplementing the geographic MPs with additional MPs drawn from preferential lists generated by political parties. In other words, the NDP would like to appoint as MPs unelected (or unelectable) political insiders that are not accountable to voters or representative of any particular community. Ironically, this job description is precisely the pejorative the NDP hurls at Senators, whose role they seek to abolish.MMP's new class of 'list MPs' is also likely to be an upper class. By giving parties more control of the composition of the Commons, the House can be stacked with social, economic, and urban elites in a far more shameless and irreproachable manner than ever before. MMP solidifies the stranglehold that wealth, major cities, populous regions, and party agents have over Canada's political fortunes, at the expense of northern, rural, Aboriginal, or smaller communities.It is perhaps little wonder why a downtown Toronto MP is the NDP's chief MMP advocate or why most of the 16 Liberals who supported the NDP's motion on MMP last year were those from major cities, where constituents have the least to lose. The 5 out of 107 Ontario ridings that endorsed MMP in 2007 were also located in Toronto.The proposed system surrenders both electoral choice and Parliamentary participation to party brass, giving rise to outcomes that might attract constitutional scrutiny. For example:
  • To accommodate MMP's list MPs, either the size of the House or the size of ridings has to be increased. Both options water down the influence of local representatives and the interests they bring forward to debate.
  • MMP is lauded for giving voice to smaller parties that amass enough nationwide support to seat a few list MPs, but this outcome also destabilizes legislatures by placing the balance of power in the hands of fringe parties.
  • A winning party could form an American-style cabinet entirely from its list MPs, forsaking the caucus elected by voters. This short-circuits a crucial feedback mechanism between the public and their ministers, and divorces the legislature from the executive in a manner foreign to our Parliamentary tradition.
These are substantial policy risks to incur to correct a statistical annoyance.More crucially, the complexity of MMP threatens the electoral enterprise of our free and democratic society by breaking the incentivizing links of accountability and representation between MPs and ridings. MMP rewires these loyalties such that a slew of MPs are accountable to party marching orders, not Canadian electors. Complicating the method of election alone shakes voter faith in the system.At the same time, MMP fuels a culture of hyper-partisan follow-the-leader politics. It fixates on rectifying the quantities of our representatives but does so at the expense of the quality of their office.  There is little benefit added to our politics by injecting a horde of seat-warming spear-carriers to the House of Commons, ready to vote on command and recite vacuous talking points from their leader's office. This is the exact sort of pull-string partisanship and rigid discipline that has cast a shadow on Parliament.The ill wisdom of this policy is borne out in the record of the provincial New Democrats, who have now formed governments in six of Canada's ten provinces. Notwithstanding ample opportunity, not one of these governments has implemented MMP. Accordingly, their federal cousins' imposition of this reform is without precedent. It also disrespects the recent choices of Canada's most and least populated provinces, which each decisively rejected MMP in referenda, and voters in British Columbia, who have taken a pass on a new electoral system twice.If the objective of reforms is to ensure that everyone's ballot 'counts', ranked or preferential balloting is a far superior method for arriving at local agreement on a victor while maintaining the simplicity, accountability, and mapping of FPTP. The Ontario government appears to agree. The runoff format of preferential ballot acknowledges that most Canadians are pragmatic and recognize value in more than one candidate. Under this system, candidates must appeal to a broad swath of voters in order to achieve the 50% support needed to be elected. The victor, in turn, is incentivized to provide support to those who do not hold party memberships. Ranked balloting lessens partisan entrenchment, produces more representative outcomes and ensures that Canadians – as opposed to party apparatchiks – remain in the driver's seatWhile both Opposition parties are right to start a conversation on democratic reform, the NDP is wrong to prescribe a self-serving remedy with such sparse detail on its effects. Canadians deserve a more particularized discussion of any bid to retool their most basic, legitimizing interface with government machinery. Anything less is a coup of our Commons, and Mr. Mulcair's NDP has no mandate to impose such a radical transformation.Douglas Judson is the past president of the Law Students' Society of Ontario. He was a federal political aide and public servant from 2007 to 2011. Follow him at @dwjudson.