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Monday, April 05, 2010

Revisiting the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system

In 2007 Ontario voted to keep the traditional ‘first-past-the post’ electoral system and rejected the Mixed Member Proportional system. At the time I campaigned hard against MMP. I felt that it would lead to small parties controlling the agenda and other unpredictable outcomes. The proponents of MMP held up New Zealand as an example of why I was wrong. And New Zealand is indeed a fair case study for how the system works. New Zealand has similar cultural and institutional roots as Canada (as much as any two countries share such roots). The problem was that the proponents of MMP drew the wrong lesson from New Zealand.

New Zealanders are set to make a verdict on their electoral experiment in a referendum to be held at the same time as the New Zealand election. Those who are interested in electoral reform should keep a close eye on the debate and results that will be coming out of New Zealand. Australian Policy Online provides a taste of how that debate will likely take form:

The new world of politics and equitable representation, however, never quite materialised. In fact, MMP created many perverse incentives and largely unforeseen consequences, such as increasing the power of political parties, the cessation of MPs being legitimised by their local electorate, and a reduction of political accountability for laws passed. The compromises that MMP encourages have led to a more consensual style of government, but it has also contributed to ad hoc lawmaking, an inability of government to take proper charge of a legislative programme, and pork barrel politics and ‘back room deals.’

MMP is a system concerned with process rather than outcomes. Although MMP has brought proportionality to parliamentary representation, it has produced political results that can hardly claim to be representative. This is because minor parties have a greater say in contentious legislation than their vote warrants. MMP was also designed to give women and ethnic groups more representation in Parliament. Maori and women’s representation has somewhat improved under MMP, but there is little or no evidence that it was MMP itself that led to this improvement.

Another case worth studying is how MMP has worked in Scotland, another country with a historic cultural and institutional relationship with Canada. There is little evidence that the same adverse effects have taken place in the Scottish Parliament, at least not to the extent that there should be concern. Scottish politics are dominated by four major political parties: Scottish National Party, Labour Party, Conservative Party, and the Liberal-Democrat Party. There was an upsurge of small parties in earlier elections, but they have all but disappeared in the 2007 election. MMP has even worked to provide representation that otherwise wouldn’t have existed; the Conservative Party would have barely gotten any seats in the traditional Westminster system even though they get more votes than the Liberal-Democrats. The MMP system has allowed the Conservatives to be a real political force in the Scottish Parliament.

So why does it work in Scotland and not in New Zealand? The answer is pretty simple; the Scottish Parliament did not move from ‘first-past-the post,’ it started off with MMP when it was established in 1999. The whole institution of the Scottish Parliament is built with MMP at the core. This meant that the Scots did away with some traditional aspects of a Westminster Parliament, including confidence votes for budgets and a stronger committee system.

The lesson for electoral reformers and democratic reformers in general is that you can’t just change one part of an institution. You have to make the various bits fit together. They fit together well in Scotland but they don’t fit in New Zealand, this is why MMP is dysfunctional in New Zealand. A lot of reform can be advantageous but a little reform can be a disaster.

Posted by Hugh MacIntyre on April 5, 2010 | Permalink

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