Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Calling Out Ian Urquhart

I refuse to believe Ian Urquhart is a stupid as his columns would lead one to think. He was at his usual "know nothing best" this morning attacking the Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform. Lets' go through this horror step by step. In the first few paragraphs Urquhart recaps the process, somewhat grudgingly, but in a relatively straightforward way. Then, after relaying the Assembly's decision to move ahead with possibly recommending Mixed Member PR for Ontario, he writes:
The assembly sees MMP as a middle ground between the status quo and more radical proposals, such as STV.

"It won't be like we're stepping in and completely disassembling what's already been set up," said Stephanie Jones, an actress and the assembly member from Niagara Centre, during the weekend debate.(emphasis mine)
In the first place, STV isn't a more radical proposal. It is different than MMP, but calling it radical is a rhetorical hatchet, wielded by someone who isn't interested in any reform at all. Second, why choose a comment from that particular member of the assembly? And why helpfully point out she is an "actress"? Could it be Mr. Urquhart is trying to subtly suggest that an "actress" couldn't possibly know as much about the electoral system as say, a Toronto Star hack? I will let the reader decide.

Next, he runs down the list of "problems" with MMP:
More politicians. There would be at least 22 more in the Legislature under MMP. Advocates say that would just restore the Legislature to its former size before Mike Harris cut it back by adopting the federal riding boundaries.
This is going to be the standard Liberal (and Tory) Party talking point. We can't possibly have more politicians. If politicians are so bad, let's get rid of them altogether then. Why is 103 (or 107) just right and 129 too many?

Bigger ridings. With just 90 constituencies, the average riding would have about 143,000 people, compared to about 125,000 today. Geographically, a northern riding like Kenora-Rainy River, which is already bigger than Italy, could grow to the size of France.
This is the flip side of the there are too many politicians argument. Yes the constituencies will be somewhat bigger. That decision was taken to keep the number of politicians at a level the assembly thought acceptable to the public. To argue both that there are too many politicians and then argue there will be too few is a logically flawed. And to choose (as Urquhart constantly does), the worst case scenario to illustrate his point is just laughable. So, it's ok to have a riding the size of Italy in FPTP, but it is somehow bad to have one the size of France in MMP?

This next point really shows that either Urquhart is completely ignorant of the facts or he is merely spinning for the status quo:
Permanent minorities. MMP is designed so that a party cannot win a majority of the seats in the Legislature without a majority of the popular vote, which no party has received in an Ontario election since 1937. The experts who advised the citizens' assembly tried to sugar-coat this point by saying that MMP would lead to "majority coalition governments," which is an oxymoron.
Majority coalitions governments are not an oxymoron. If Urquhart had even bothered to spend five minutes looking at the history of MMP in New Zealand or Germany, it would be crystal clear that that is exactly what has happened. In New Zealand for example there has been a stable coalition formed by the Labour party and the other progressive parties that has ruled in a stable coalition for the whole of this century. In Germany, which has a much longer history of MMP, stable coalition governments have been formed with both left of centre and right of centre parties. The system works because the motivation for toppling a government is lessened, since there is little chance of gaining a false "majority", by cobbling together 40% of the vote on a given day, as is the case now. Since the motivation to "go for the majority" is absent, the parties are forced to work together (even in places, like New Zealand, where cooperation was alien to the political culture). You don't have to believe me, just look at the record of jurisdictions already using MMP.

Finally, Urquhart, realizing that he will have a very difficult time bringing in his pet examples of failed PR, Italy and Israel, tosses in this brick:
Seats for fringe parties. In the last provincial election, not even the Greens, with 2.8 per cent of the popular vote, exceeded the 3 per cent threshold established by the assembly. However, a forward-looking analysis of the proposed change suggests MMP would encourage votes for fringe parties so that not only the Greens, but also groupings like the Family Coalition (a pro-life party), could exceed the threshold.
He acknowledges the Greens wouldn't have met the threshold and then tosses in the "threat" of an even less mainstream party gaining seats. Does anyone else not see the contradiction in that?

Then Urquhart moves in for the "kill":
Elections that give one party a majority of the seats with less than 50 per cent of the vote were viewed as somehow "unfair," and ballots that force voters to make just one choice incorporating both party and local representative were seen as too restrictive.

Given short shrift were other principles, such as the stability and effectiveness of majority government, the bridging of differences by broad-based parties, and the inordinate influence exercised by fringe parties with the balance of power in minority legislatures.
Well yes, in a democracy, giving absolute power to a party with a minority of votes is unfair. It isn't just "viewed" as unfair, it is absolutely unfair. And giving voters more choice is not a bad thing, unless of course you have a very low opinion of voters.

As for the "benefits" of the current system. I would only point to the last 15 years of politics in Ontario. We went from Liberal to NDP to Conservative and back to Liberal governments. Is that stable? Look at New Zealand. They have had the same coalition government since 1999. Which system is more stable? The fringe argument is Urquhart's hobby horse. He never defines "fringe" but I suspect he means any party other than the Tories or Liberals. And as for bridging the difference by broad based parties, that is just laughable. Did Mike Harris ever bridge a difference in his life?

Ian Urquhart is a pamphleteer in the service of the status quo. Read him if you must, but read him with the understanding that he will say anything to protect it.
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