Monday, November 14, 2005

Proportional Representation Debate Recap

I've just come back from a very lively and informative debate on the currently proposed Mixed Member Proportional Representation electoral system that Islanders will be voting on in a plebiscite on Nov. 28th. I had previously written about the proposed system here: Link, but thanks to tonight's debate I am now much better informed about the details of the proposed system.

Here's a blurb about the event and the participants from the Queen St. Commons blog: Link.

MMPR Debate at The Commons

by Cynthia Dunsford [] - reply

The Queen Street Commons will be hosting an evening of lively discussion and debate with representatives from both the YES and NO sides of the issue, Mark Greenan and Gordon Cobb respectively. The proposed MMPR model will be on the table.

...

Gordon Cobb is a member of the NO to the MMP Proposal Coalition, a citizens group in favour of electoral reform but opposed to the current MMP proposal. The Coalition urges Islanders to vote NO on November 28 in order to have an open, inclusive, and fair electoral reform process in the future. Gordon is a federal public servant and a former political advisor to Cabinet ministers and political party leaders. He presented the PR proposal- the STV-based Island Choice model- in the Guardian on July 28, 2005.

Born and raised in Summerside, Mark Greenan is a M.A. candidate in political science at the University of Ottawa. He developed an interest in politics thanks to lively debates around the kitchen table at home and as a page at both Province House and the House of Commons. Having observed politicians his age behave like children for two years and the ongoing decline in electoral participation among his generation, he become passionately convinced of the need to renew Canadian democracy by replacing our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system with one that ensure that every citizen's vote counts. He is happy to be taking a semester's break from his studies to be back on the Island as Coordinator of the Yes on MMP Coalition, educating Islanders on the many ways that system would revitalize our civic life.
I was impressed with the quality of discussion, and both debaters were focused on informing us about the details of the proposed system rather than simply attacking each other's positions. The debate was structured to allow each side to present some background, explain their positions and to rebut the other's arguments, but the structure wasn't overbearing, and mostly it was questions and answers with the audience.

Background

First, and most importantly, Cynthia Dunsford, the moderator, with the help of both Mark and Gordon, did a good job of explaining just how the electoral system will work under Mixed Member Proportional Representation. The definitive guide is at the Commission on Prince Edward Island Electoral Reform home page, this is the gist of it as was presented tonight.

Basically, instead of the 27 individually-elected districts we have now, we will have 17 districts, with one candidate being directly elected from each. Along with the 17 district seats there will be 10 ‘list seats’. Each voter will vote twice, once for a particular candidate in his or her riding, and once for a particular party's set of list candidates.

The list candidates will then be divided up among the non-winning parties based on the proportion of the non-winning parties' votes above a 5% threshold according to the d'Hont system.

So, for example, if the Conservatives receive 55% of the list vote, with the Liberals getting 35% and the NDP getting 10%, with the Conservatives winning 14 of the 17 district seats and Liberals wining the other 3, the results will look like this:

d'Hondt Method Results

The following table shows the assignment of the 10 "list seats" using the d'Hondt method. You can show the detailed calculations or modify your entries to see how changed results effect the outcome.

SeatToryLiberalNDP
13,6668,75010,000
23,6668,7505,000
33,6667,0005,000
43,6665,8335,000
53,6665,0005,000
63,6664,3755,000
73,6664,3753,333
83,6663,8883,333
93,6663,5003,333
103,4373,5003,333
LIST SEATS172
DISTRICT SEATS1430
TOTAL SEATS15102

Basically the list candidates are divided up among the remaining parties with the list votes of the parties that win seats removed for each seat won. So in an election that normally would have been a near Tory sweep, we get 15-10-2. Still a majority, but with a closer balance between the three parties.

The Case For MMPR

Mark Greenan was very positive and upbeat about the changes that would be brought about were an MMPR system to be introduced on the Island. He spoke about the smokyey back-rooms where all the political wheeling and dealing happens nowadays and how “they” don't want this system because “it takes away their power”. He didn't really explain how this would happen, rather just talking about the need for any change at all from the first-past-the-post system, with the details of the MMPR proposal being secondary to the need for a change.

Mark's key line was “this would make every vote count equally”, but again it was more of a catchphrase than an objective assessment. He painted the choice on the 28th as either for or against change, with a ‘no’ vote sending the message that Islanders want the status quo, which is what we would be stuck with if the MMPR proposal didn't get the most votes.

Mark also mentioned that other countries that have adopted MMPR have seen their parliaments include more female representatives, saying that parties will be pressured to balance their lists to contain a good proportion of women and men, and to be balanced regionally. But there will be no official requirement for the makeup of the list. Under the proposed system the parties choose their list on their own, with no input from voters as to which member of the list they prefer. Therefore the #1 person on a party's list will almost certainly get a seat, while the #10 will probably never get one.

The Case Against Closed-List MMPR

Gordon Cobb had easier-to-defend positon of being against the proposed system but not having to be nailed down to any one alternative. He raised several important concerns with the proposed system, and spoke both on the subject of ideals and values as well as on practical considerations.

First he said that a closed list, which is what is proposed, puts more power in the hands of the parties instead of the voters. With the system we have now, and to an extent with an open list, like the one recently proposed in British Columbia, MMPR system, voters can punish individual representatives who are not performing satisfactorily by voting them out of their seats. Under a closed system, favoured members of a party will be almost guaranteed a spot in the legislature. Gordon called this a weakening of democracy. Mark responded by saying that political parties were simply a reality and we were stuck with them whether we liked it or not. That left a bad taste in my mouth.

He also pointed out a very real potential problem in that parties who win a lot of seats will have fewer list seats, creating a conflict of interest between a party's list candidates and its district candidates. If you are a list candidate you want fewer members of your own party elected to their districts, which would give your party more available list votes, and thus giving you a greater chance of having a job for the next four years.

The other problem is that a closed list creates a credibility problem for the list members, who aren't accountable to some constituency and who don't represent anyone except their party. Mark said that this is better because in PEI politics much of a candidate's electability depends on his or her ability to get patronage jobs for party members in their districts, with 200-300 people often swinging a vote one way or another. With list candidates you vote for a party and a platform instead. Gordon's position was that this was simply putting more power in the hands of the parties and out of what he called ‘DR’ or direct representation.

Audience Questions and Further Discussion

Another problem along the same lines, which I raised as a question, was that if a party expected to form the government (a realistic possibility for 2 of the existing for the foreseeable future), and the leader of that party wanted to ensure that his 10 best and brightest candidates were elected so he could have them in his cabinet, he would want them all to run in district seats, because if the party does win the most seats, they lose list seats. My thought was that that would lead to the lists being populated by also-rans and party loyalists rather than people who would want to be part of a government. Mark avoided my question at first, but I pressed him and he admitted that he would likely put most of his good candidates in the districts if he could. He wanted to speak of a more idealistic future with more people voting for minor parties instead of dealing with the realities of the Island's current electoral makeup.

Gordon made his position clear that he was in favour of electoral reform, but against the particular proposal. When asked about alternatives to MMPR he mentioned the Single Transferrable Vote system proposed in BC, but admitted that the formula for electing and calculating seats was even more complex and was always done using a computer. But this would allow voters to rank their preferred candidates rather than just being able to choose one party or another. STV also allows independent candidates to run for the list seats, where they are blocked out of the closed list system.

We also talked about how this plebiscite seemed to come up rather suddenly. Gordon said that tonight's was the first real debate he had been to, and the vote is just two weeks away. Everyone agreed that it seemed people had been kept in the dark during the two year process that the commission on electoral reform had been meeting and drawing up the current proposal. In BC they had a citizen's coalition of about 150 people who all got together and agreed, if slowly, on a proposal. By contrast it seems like our proposal was drawn up in the dark and now we're just being asked a ‘yes or no’ question that is being framed by the media as either status quo or reform, leaving out the specifics of the proposed system.

That's what bothered me the most, that we were given an all-or-nothing option. I would have much preferred being able to vote either ‘yes to the proposed system’, ‘yes to reform and further discussion, but no to the current proposal’ or ‘no to reform’. Everyone seemed to agree that that would be a much better question and would give people time, if they voted for further discussion, to really understand what MMPR systems entail and how they each work.

As it is I'm still not decided one way or the other. I am worried that a ‘no’ vote might leave us with the system we have now, but I also don't want to vote for change just for the sake of it, and the flaws Gordon pointed out were very significant.

I'll be doing more reading and writing on the subject in the coming weeks, and playing a lot with the d'Hondt seat calculator.

But I'm very glad for the opportunity to take part in such an informative debate. Like Gordon mentioned, this was the very first of its kind. All of the Queen St. Commons members who attended were eager to continue with debates or meetings on other subjects in the future, and I personally would be very excited to see them continue.
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By al - 11:54 p.m. |

Comments:
Great summary. I was walking past the Commons around 7:30 on my way home from another meeting and saw the group in the front window. I would like to have joined in but as an uninvited non-member I didn't think it was kosher to barge in halfway through the meeting.
 
Rob, it would have perfectly fine for you to have 'barged' in. The invitation wasn't limited to members only. Sorry you had that impression, but I can see how you might. We extended an invitation to a few non-members we thought would like to attend, keeping in mind that we could only hold 15 or so people in that room.

As a result of the success from last night we are thinking of having more debates at the C on different topics. Any ideas would be helpful. Thanks Rob.

And thanks Alex for this great summary.
 
You caught me before proofreading this, Cyn :) I am still baffled by what blogger's spellcheck sometimes seems to do to posts. Fixed up now, though.

Thanks for the kind words, and yeah I tried to invited a few friends who might be interested but that line between having too many to fit in the room and giving the impression of exclusivity (which isn't true) is a difficult one.
 
Don't worry guys, I was pretty certain you'd welcome me or anyone else. It was just late and I had the feeling I'd be clueless joining the conversation 30 minutes into it.
 
For the real exclusive members-only secret society stuff we draw the curtains and light candles.
 
Yes, this is true. ON the candles thing and on blogger's crappy text edtiing. The problem, Al, is when you cut nad paste from another test editor, namely Word. The apostrophe's and special characters do not translate properly.

I started writing my longer posts away from blogger so that I wouldn't mysteriously lose posts like I have in the past, but then I have to spend time correcting the errors from the paste job. It sucks.
 
I generally use notepad or emacs to compose long posts first. Turn on word wrap and it about the same as typing in the comment window.
 
I like your new apostrophes. Saweet.
 
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