The problem is that we elect crummy politicians

Ontario is slated to hold a “historic” referendum this October on whether to discard our centuries-old system of electing representatives in favour of something called MMP or “mixed member proportional.” Just say No. It’s a bad solution to the wrong problem. The whole thing feels like one of those ghastly facilitated exercises where, without any sort of pressure at all, moderators with flip charts and soothing manners and information packages massage and re-educate you into a consensus on, of all things, exactly what the organizers had in mind when they summoned you to the facility. How many of the participants came in thinking we really should keep electing 90 MPPs in ridings, but have parties that get at least three per cent of the vote appoint, in total, 39 more MPPs to bring their share in the legislature up to their share of the popular vote? Why would they?

I know some people complain that under our existing first-past-the-post (FPP) system, majority governments get elected by a minority of voters. And yes, I’d rather they were elected by a majority of voters. But under MMP they wouldn’t get elected at all. Instead, we’d get endless coalitions dominated by the most tireless and self-serving of backroom politicians who would, moreover, invariably get some of the 39 seats reserved for the various parties’ most tenacious hacks. And this is a solution to which of our pressing public-policy problems?

Not, certainly, the lack of independence among politicians. Nor that our governments overspend so they overtax, that our politicians are arrogant and smoothly evasive or that the presentation and even content of policy is relentlessly spun and focus-grouped and calibrated to subsidize key middle-class demographics. And you could add a lot more to this list before coming to a problem caused by an electoral system giving parties such big legislative majorities that they can afford to take unpopular steps for the long-term good of the country.

On the plus side we’re told MMP will produce legislatures that better reflect the population. I take it the idea is that parties will, from their lists, appoint people we wouldn’t vote for but who fulfill the requirements of “diversity.” But I care if your philosophy is libertarian on policy and conservative on the human condition, not what colour your hair is or whether you wear heels. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I want legislators who think like me, not ones who look like me. If I were that obsessed with my own reflection I’d just look in a mirror. Say, do I have a subsidy stuck in my teeth?

That brings me to my final objection: that focusing on our electoral system distracts us from what’s really going wrong in our politics. Classical theorists from Aristotle to James Madison warned that democracy was turbulent and prone to elevate to high office those most skilled at pandering to the worse impulses of the populace. Can you disagree? But I do not see that MMP was designed to solve this problem.

Many of MMP’s opponents don’t make much sense, either. Provincial Tory leader John Tory dismissed the proposal on the grounds that it would increase the total number of MPPs from 103 to 129, saying, “In all of my travels around the province ... I have not met one person yet who has told me that the answer ... is to have more politicians of any kind at Queen’s Park or anywhere else.”

Allow me please to introduce myself. I want more politicians, here and elsewhere, because legislatures exist to keep the executive under control. They’re less likely to do so if there are attractive jobs (in cabinet, on “important” party task forces, as committee chairpersons who must go on junkets, or as critics on prestigious files) for almost all the boys and girls. Give us more discontented government backbenchers, and more opposition members with time on their hands they might as well use poking around in the public accounts or thinking of really awkward questions to ask in committee.

If, on the other hand, fewer politicians is better, why not just have 10? Or four? Or one? Mr. Tory’s remark admittedly reads like a talking point crafted by some belligerently partisan 20-something in an expensive but ill-fitting suit who looks as if he shaved and had a haircut every seven hours. But having read it, Mr. Tory said it, even though it managed, like MMP itself, to be simultaneously irrelevant and wrong. Amazing how contemporary politics can turn anyone into an angry hayseed in short order. One more thing MMP won’t change.

There’s nothing wrong with the way we elect politicians. What’s wrong is whom we elect and why, and how little thought they, or we, give to basic issues in political economy. Like why MMP is a bad answer to the wrong question.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

UncategorizedJohn Robson