Letters from Green Island

October 9 2007

Electoral reform fraught with risk - for who???

Editor,
Re: Electoral reform fraught with risk Toronto Star, October 9, 2007
(original story also copied at the end of this letter)

I must say I am more than a little saddened at the depths to which the once progressive Toronto Star has fallen in the last 18 months since the corporate sellout - to see that you are not content simply to oppose 'one small step for democracy' in Ontario, but you feel that it is acceptable to use your editorial page for rhetoric and hyperbole verging on outright lies, certainly qualifiable as equivocation or prevarication, to try to persuade people to vote against the referendum on MMP in the election this week.

You claim 'stable, progressive government for the past four years' with McGuinty's Liberals - some examples of 'progressive' might have been nice - apparently many people have trouble pointing to anything specific in terms of McGuinty's accomplishments - do you have shorter waiting times for medical procedures? Lower tuition fees for university students? Fewer people living in poverty or going to food banks? More happiness and less violence overall? Less road rage? More and better jobs in the province? The litany of broken promises - well, all governments do that nowadays, I guess, so you define it now as progressive or stable to continue that fine tradition? And as for stable - well, this is Canada, after all, we don't go in for regular coups or revolutions, we kind of expect 'stable', even when governments are doing things we don't like. If you simply mean by 'stable' a government that has some 'legal' authority to govern for a certain period of time without having to answer to the people, well, that's not necessarily good - by that sort of definition, as has been pointed out by others, any old dictatorship is good, if 'stable' is your point of reference.

You write - "...While some see this as a "fairer" system that produces a Legislature more closely aligned with the popular vote, it has one major drawback..." - one wonders why you enclose 'fairer' in the quotation marks, which is usually a signal that the writer disagrees with whatever is enclosed in those marks - so you are saying, then, that you are of the opinion that a party getting 40% of the vote and thus 40% of the seats, and another party getting 50% of the vote and a corresponding 50% of the seats, and etc with whatever percentages, is somehow not 'fair'? Not fair to who exactly? I suppose it might be a bit unfair to parties who are used to getting 60% of the seats with 40% of the votes, and that sort of thing (90% of the seats with 50% of the vote is the norm in PEI), but it might be instructive to at least try to figure out if it would fair or unfair to how many people, at least in your opinion, and so on. Your reasoning on this would be interesting. The bully on the hill always screams 'Unfair!!!!' when he is pulled down and forced to stop terrorizing the other kids - but most of the formerly-terrorized kids are feeling that things are more fair now, and not less. For example.

But those are relatively minor points that I simply mentioned to demonstrate that your whole editorial is opinionated in the extreme from first to last, with no supporting arguments for your statements, but I did accuse you of more serious things, so let's carry on to 'prevarication' and 'equivocation'.

And then you go on to say - "... Countries that have gone this route, including Israel, Italy, Germany and Belgium, have become notorious for chaotic, horse-trading minority governments and legislative gridlock..." - and here I can quite honestly accuse you of some kind of equivocation or prevarication - intentionally deviating from the truth, and with intent to deceive. Certainly a couple of countries have had problems with their particular form of proportional representation, although it is hard to see what your quarrel is with the German government, as Germany is one of the strongest and wealthiest and most progressive countries in the world - but Israel and Italy have considerably different forms of PR than the MMP proposed for Ontario, which you do not bother to explain although it renders comparisons considerably less than accurate, and also these countries have very, very different social problems and histories than we have in Canada that exacerbate the problems that any elected government must deal with - again making it a case of comparing shiny red fresh apples and cheap bottles of olives or something like that - of only limited use, especially without further explanation, which you decline to offer. But your most egregious dissembulation is that by writing as you do, you also imply that all countries that have gone the PR route have such problems ('Countries that have gone this route...' is pretty inclusive - if you were writing honestly, you would have said 'Some countries that have gone the PR route, although with different PR systems than the MMP proposed for Ontario...' and etc) - and you would have, as an honest broker, mentioned that almost all PR countries have stable, progressive coalition-type governments which serve their people very well, for instance the Nordic countries, which are the most progressive in the world, and among the most prosperous and best governed, all of which use some form of PR, as a balancing comment to the problems of the small handful of countries that have had problems.

And you then go on to wonder how McGuinty might have governed if 'forced' to make a 'pact' with Tory or Hampton the last few years - and again you dive headlong into some combination of prevarication and nonsense, assuming that McGuinty's only option would be accepting a full list of demands from one or the other, the very worst of all conceivable worlds. In reality, as you probably know, in such situations negotiations take place, where each party puts forward what they want, and the negotiations bring them somewhere to the middle, with a compromise of some sort that both can accept. And the party with the smallest percent of the vote or seats at the table does NOT have the largest percent of the influence in such things, as you set up as a 'worst possible scenario'. Government is a fluid thing, and whoever is in the driver's seat, needing just a bit more support from someone to initiate some desired legislation, will open the negotiations to whoever might offer some support for that legislation, and modify it accordingly, and perhaps make some small concession in some other area, to achieve the present goal - and then next week or next month move on to the next desired goal, with new negotiations. Which is a very logical way to proceed, and will NOT result in some small fringe party taking over the entire government, the fear you attempt to propagate here with your editorial.

Which makes one wonder, exactly, what you are afraid of?

The things you say you fear - domination of the majority by the minority - is exactly what happens with FPTP faux-majorities - so it would appear that you are afraid of some minority losing the ability to govern at will, as has been the case in Canada and any province always, with the FPTP system.

You say - "..The point is, even with like-minded partners, deal-making does not always deliver the best policies..." - your inference being that faux-majority governments do? I think this is not a debating position you would really want to get into, considering, just for example, the Mulroney and Harris governments, who certainly governed with majorities, but had a support of a vanishingly small percent of the population in their last years, doing all sorts of things that most people did not agree with.

Well, I hardly want to continue, but must finish this, by carrying on to the outright idiocies you get into at the end of this editorial.

You say - "..And where would McGuinty be forced to turn if both the Conservatives and New Democrats balked? To the Green party, which wants not only to ban new nuclear reactors but also to raise hydro rates? To other fringe parties that want to abolish taxes, erode medicare or make it easier to own guns? How would that serve the public interest? ... And how far would weak premiers go, making obnoxious deals to keep their struggling governments in power?.."

- so you are suggesting something so outrageous might really happen? Why don't you offer some examples of this sort of thing happening ever, in Ontario or Canada? We have had lots of minority governments in Canada, if not so many in Ontario - why don't you set out some examples of some desperate-to-hang-on-to-power minority government making outrageous deals to cling to power? Why not? Because there are no such examples, as you well know. The 'fringe' party has nothing to gain, whilst the leading party has a great deal to lose.

No, actually, in reality, as you undoubtedly well know, some of the best things ever to happen in Canada have come about because of minority governments being driven to GOOD things by having to deal with a third party - the famous advances in Canada during the mid-60s through mid-70s of the national healthcare program, the old age pension, Canada transfers, and so on, all came about because of the influence of the NDP on minority liberal governments. Can you point to anything at all that has turned out to be bad policy that resulted from minority governments making deals with third or fringe parties? Of course not - there are no such things. Which make your scare tactics not only false, but very dishonest as well.

You say "..More commonly, governments in proportional systems are divisive, unstable, short-lived and paralyzed by conflict. Too often, the leading party is forced to align with small, sometimes radical, special-interest parties. That can badly skew the policy-making process..." - but again I must note, you offer no examples whatsoever, just mythological bogeymen - because there are no examples of Canadian minority governments being influenced into bad decisions by fringe parties, as the minority struggles desperately to hang on to power.

One could, of course, point to any number of bad policies enacted by 'majority' governments governing with substantially less than true majority support - one might start, for instance, with the so-called 'free' trade agreement of 1988, opposed by most people who voted in that election, yet passed because Mulroney got a 'majority' with something like 45% of the votes; or one might jump ahead to the next election and NAFTA, which a certain Jean Chretien promised to either renegotiate or abrogate - yet once he got his faux-majority with a similar 45% of the vote, changed his mind and signed it. It is hard to imagine that the NDP of 1993 would have supported Chretien and NAFTA, had there been PR at that time, thus forcing him to do what he promised to do, and what a solid majority of Canadians wanted. Would you care to explain why that would have been bad for democracy? I well understand that the Star now strongly supports all the free trade agreements you can find - but you simply cannot, in any honesty, pretend they have anything to do with democratic decisions by the people of Canada, which PR and MMP are both about.

What about our current situation? I don't recall seeing a single story in the Star or any other media about the terrible danger Canada is in currently because we have a minority government, and the leader is bound to be absolutely desperate to forge deals with anyone to stay in power - oh my god, Quebec is going to separate as Harper forges a deal with Duceppe!!!! Or we're going to go all socialist or Communist and call the US Government bad names as Harper desperately forges a terrible deal with Layton!!! - nonsense, of course, because any Canadian leader must first answer to his or her own party supporters, and must tread carefully if he or she doesn't want immediate firing as party leader, or face great cursing from the Canadian corporate media until they toe the line - as they all know. Compromises will happen with minorities, but they will be fought over, and negotiated, and in every case that can be found in Canada, compromises with minority governments have wound up somewhere closer to the middle, where most Canadians live, and have thus been both supported by the country and good for it.

What is NOT good for Canada are these false 'majorities' that we constantly see with the FPTP winner-take-all system, as we lurch from one extreme to another, from everybody hating Bob Rae on the left to everybody hating Mike Harris on the right - wouldn't it have been better in both cases, and in every other case, to have a coalition government governing from the middle somewhere?

Of course it would - if you want government good for most Canadians.

If you want corporate governments governing from ever further on the right, using either Liberal faux-majorities or 'conservative' faux-majorities, as we have been having for the last 30+ years, then FPTP is obviously the system of choice - which makes one wonder seriously what the Star is really doing fighting so hard against what is really a fairly small change to the voting system in Ontario, but which will result in much fairer representation in Queen's Park.

You have a right to express an opinion - but I think you do great dishonor to your responsibility to the Canadian people by this kind of prevarication, and also add serious weight to the distrust people in Canada have already of their media. If I am seeing these kinds of things in your positions, then you can be sure a lot of others are, whether you choose to print letters like this or not. And you are not looking very good. I/we don't mind that you have different opinions - what bothers me, and most of us I think, is your dishonesty, as you show clearly here with your thinly disguised lies on what PR and MMP are all about. We're nowhere near as simple-minded as you treat us.


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Electoral reform fraught with risk Toronto Star, October 9, 2007

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Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals failed to win 50 per cent of the popular vote in the 2003 election; they came a few points short. No surprise there. The last Ontario premier to break the 50 per cent threshold was Mitch Hepburn some 70 years ago.

Even so, under Ontario's current first-past-the post electoral system, McGuinty took 72 seats in the 103-seat Legislature, and we have had stable, progressive government for the past four years.

But if Ontarians choose to abandon that system in tomorrow's referendum, and adopt a new method for electing members of the Legislature known as "mixed-member proportional," future premiers who fail to get 50 per cent will have to cut deals with other parties to stay in power. And based on past experience, that could go on for decades.

First-past-the-post awards each riding to the candidate who gets the most votes. Tomorrow, Ontarians will have 107 ridings to fill.

The proposed mixed-member proportional system would give voters two votes for a bigger Legislature of 129 MPPs, one for the party they prefer and one for a local MPP. A total of 90 MPPs would be elected locally in first-past-the-post fashion. Then the pool of 39 extra MPPs would be distributed among the parties to bring each party's standing in the Legislature into line with the party vote. Those 39 extra MPPs would come from lists drawn up by the parties.

While some see this as a "fairer" system that produces a Legislature more closely aligned with the popular vote, it has one major drawback.

Countries that have gone this route, including Israel, Italy, Germany and Belgium, have become notorious for chaotic, horse-trading minority governments and legislative gridlock.

Consider Ontario's case. Where would McGuinty have to turn for enough support to govern, if the proposed new system were in place today, and he won less than 50 per cent of the vote and half the seats?

He could form a "grand coalition" or cut some other kind of deal with John Tory's Conservatives. But they have made funding religious schools a big part of their campaign. They also favour more privately delivered health care. Would Ontarians want a deal on those lines?

Alternatively, McGuinty might try to make a pact with Howard Hampton's New Democrats, whose program is progressive and far closer to the Liberal one. But even there, the New Democrats oppose investing in new nuclear reactors that will be needed to prevent brownouts, keep Ontario's lights on and industry moving. A Liberal-NDP deal might be good for schools and health care, but what about the energy sector? Jobs ride on it. The point is, even with like-minded partners, deal-making does not always deliver the best policies.

And where would McGuinty be forced to turn if both the Conservatives and New Democrats balked? To the Green party, which wants not only to ban new nuclear reactors but also to raise hydro rates? To other fringe parties that want to abolish taxes, erode medicare or make it easier to own guns? How would that serve the public interest?

And how far would weak premiers go, making obnoxious deals to keep their struggling governments in power?

Granted, some minority or coalition governments do manage to deliver solid, progressive government. But they are rarities. More commonly, governments in proportional systems are divisive, unstable, short-lived and paralyzed by conflict. Too often, the leading party is forced to align with small, sometimes radical, special-interest parties. That can badly skew the policy-making process.

Is that the kind of government that Ontario voters really want? Will it be good for Ontario? We don't think so.

As we have argued in a previous editorial, the system Ontario has enjoyed since Confederation, and before, has proved its worth. It is democratic and robust, delivering strong, stable government that works.

Tomorrow voters who care about good government should vote to retain the existing first-past-the-post method. Our system does not need a "fix," because it isn't broken.


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