The Ontario referendum: Decisiveness and complexity

By: Sandford BorinsTo prepare to vote in Ontario's referendum on electoral reform, I first went to the official Elections Ontario site for an overview of the arguments. I had to drill down several levels to get a comprehensive explanation of how the proposed mixed-member proportional (MMP) system would actually work.Then I looked at the online magazine, Spacing, which has a good overview of online resources. Finally I attended a discussion where dueling U of T political scientists Peter Russell spoke in favour of MMP and Andrew Stark against. On an issue this important and complex, it's necessary to consult a full range of sources. So here's my take.As I see it, the two key factors in the choice between the status quo – first past the post – and the alternative – mixed-member proportional – are decisiveness and complexity. First past the post (FPP) often – though not always – turns popular pluralities into strong legislative majorities.Mixed-member proportional will almost always produce minority or coalition governments.Supporters of MMP argue that minority governments aren't necessarily a recipe for political gridlock and that MMP empowers the legislature, rather than the executive.Supporters of FPP haven't argued as powerfully as they could the key virtue of majority government. It empowers the cabinet, and the first minister in particular, to launch bold and controversial initiatives they consider to be in the public's long-run best interest.Think back over the past few decades: eliminating the federal deficit, establishing the GST, negotiating the Free Trade Agreement, repatriating the Constitution, enacting the National Energy Policy, and implementing the Common Sense Revolution, were all the work of majority governments.Some have remained in place and some have been rolled back, but all were ambitious and far-reaching initiatives. They would probably not have occurred in the context of a minority government.The second issue is complexity. The virtue of FPP is its simplicity. The voting system is simple – one ballot, one choice. It generates a small number of “big tent” political parties, which develop platforms to garner widespread support. Voters must make trade-offs in their own minds, opting for the best of the imperfect alternatives.MMP is necessarily much more complicated: for example, the complexity of allocating the proportional seats across party lists (see the Citizen's Assembly description).Even pure proportional representation has the complexity of allocating the final few seats on the basis of fractions of percentages of the vote. Then there is the complexity of more political parties, the complexity of bargaining among parties to form a government, and still more bargaining among parties on each piece of legislation.If you tolerate complexity, or even embrace it, then MMP won't bother you. If you like your politics simple, you'll likely prefer FPP. This isn't to imply subtle minds prefer MMP and simpletons opt for FPP; subtle minds recognize that simplicity is often a virtue.Posing the question this way presents a clear choice. I understand how some voters will opt for clearer representation of small interest groups, more legislative deliberation, and more complexity. My own preference is for decisiveness and simplicity. I'll vote no.

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