Ontario’s recent general election offered voters an interesting experience, namely the chance to vote for two things at once.
The first vote was on a referendum question: “Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?” The two choices — and for many people, it should be noted, having only two choices felt unnecessarily limiting — were (a) the existing first-past-the-post system, or (b) the proposed Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.
Now, from what I could tell, MMP had a substantial amount of money and airtime backing it. I can’t count the number of times radio ads bombarded me with the cheerful news that I’d be relieved of the terrible dilemma of voting for a good party with a bad local candidate, or for a good local candidate working for a bad party. You can have it all, the ads implied. By contrast, I can’t remember seeing or hearing a single ad supporting the existing system. Imperfect old first-past-the-post was apparently heading for the knacker’s yard.
And yet the existing system won, by 63% to MMP’s 37%. This, for me, was a happy result, unexpected though it was. Although the critique most commonly aimed at systems of proportional representation is that they generally result in minority governments and the associated need for coalition building, this doesn’t drive much of my thinking. I’m not terribly worried about minority governments, although I’ll admit the politicking that comes with coalition building does have a certain anti-democratic flavour to it.
Rather, my concern is more of a bottom-up and philosophical one. Our democracy evolved as a system in which each locality sends its representative to a central parliament. This is the original tie that connects a people to its central government, and along which legitimacy is transmitted. Parties are an ideological and functional overlay on this basic system. Their existence makes it easier to raise funds, coordinate campaigns, and maintain a solid base of parliamentary support for the term of a single government. They are a useful and permanent part of the machinery. But they are not fundamental to the system in the way that the principle of local representation is.
So proportional representation (mixed or unmixed) has always seemed to me to be a system that seeks to fix a set of modest problems — the fact that seats do not get allocated according to the parties’ proportion of the aggregate vote, the fact that a citizen cannot vote for parties and local candidates separately (and I’m not even sure that this is a “problem” more than a perceived inconvenience in an age of consumer choice) — at the cost of seriously weakening the foundation of our democratic system itself. Representative democracy was not invented to be easy, convenient, or even particularly “fair”. It was invented (though that’s too cut-and-dried a word) to give the people a voice in the running of the government through the specific representatives that each locality sends on its own behalf. And it’s this very specificity, this tangible connection between place and parliamentary seat, that keeps our democratic government rooted, legitimate, and accountable.
Having now displayed my Burkean conservative side, in my next post I’ll tell you why I voted Green.
To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,–these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
– Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 Nov. 1774