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Sudbury Star

Real democracy

New Zealand experience shows proportional representation works
Steve Withers

Editorial & Opinion, Saturday, July 14, 2007, p. A10
Guest Column

I`m from Ontario. I grew up in Thunder Bay. In 1980, I met a nice girl from New Zealand. In 1982, she wanted to visit her mother in New Zealand ... and we are still visiting. Eleven years ago, New Zealand adopted the mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system for electing MPs to Parliament in Wellington. It is a version very similar to that recommended for Ontario by the Ontario Citizens Assembly.

I was sad to read Claire Hoy's column (Un-democracy - July 4) sneering at the Citizens Assembly. It does not deserve anyone's contempt. They are ordinary, everyday Ontarians who were randomly chosen, one from each riding, to look at how we elect MPPs and see if we couldn't do something better. After nine months of study and public hearings, they made a recommendation in favour of an Ontario-made version of MMP. I think it is a good one. I think that because I have lived under a very similar MMP system for the past 11 years in New Zealand.

Hoy said some things that were at odds with verifiable reality.

For example, who really picks the candidates under MMP? Hoy says they are party hacks chosen in back rooms by party bosses. It's a fun story to tell, no doubt, but completely untrue. In New Zealand, all local and list candidates who stand for a party have been elected to their party's list by democratic vote of party members. That's how it really works. I've seen it. I've done it.

How does MMP really work? Let me tell you about where I live.

I live in the Otaki riding, north of Wellington, on the west coast of the North Island. Otaki is a mainly rural riding. The largest towns are Levin and the north end of Paraparaumu. The local MP is Darren Hughes of the Labour Party. Local Labourites selected him as their candidate. He has offices in the main streets of Levin and Paraparaumu.

Not far away in both towns are the riding offices of Nathan Guy. He is a list MP for the National Party. He came second to Hughes in the local race, but was high enough on the list that he was also elected by his party's vote nationally.

So the voters of Otaki have two MPs, one from each major party, competing head to head to serve them.

But wait, there's more. Sue Kedgley, a list MP from the Green Party, also serves the Otaki electorate as well as the other nine ridings of the Wellington region. Her ads are in the weekly give-aways inviting Otaki voters to talk to her on issues of concern.

Why do they do this? Because under MMP, every vote counts everywhere. The politicians can't ignore anyone. The whole idea of winning an election by pandering to swing voters in a few marginals becomes obsolete. That should be good news for Ontario's North! Under MMP, you need to win every last vote you can possibly win in order to be successful.

If this sounds wonderful, it is. This is how Ontario could be after Oct. 10.

Hoy talks about minority governments as though they are bad. Not in my experience. After 11 years of them on the trot, I absolutely love them. No single party with a minority of voter support is able to ram their policies through despite most people having not voted for them. Democracy at last! Any minority government under MMP must listen to other points of view and take them into account if it wants to pass any law. This isn't as hard as it sounds. It happens every day in most of the world's democracies with little muss nor fuss. As democracy goes, MMP is much more responsive to and sensitive to voters through out the electoral cycle than what Ontario has now. I could cite endless examples, like the infamous proposed "Fart Tax" on livestock greenhouse gas emissions that was scrapped in NZ after public opposition to the idea. They listen, They have to.

Minority governments under MMP-style systems are just as stable as under the present system and almost always last the full term. No minority government has fallen in the 11 years of MMP so far. This is because there is no possibility they can win the phony majorities that the present system can deliver to one party. Calling an election with such hopes would be a futile exercise. So it doesn't happen.

Hoy says what I'm describing isn't as democratic as what we have now in Ontario. He would have us believe that voting for one candidate in just one of the 103 ridings is as good as it gets. The other 102 MPPs are utterly unaccountable to each of us. From where I'm standing, with my experiences under MMP in New Zealand, Claire Hoy is flat wrong.

MMP offers voters more choice. MPP provides fairer elections results. MMP delivers stronger representation. I've seen it happen. As a voter, I've helped it happen.

Ontario voters will be mad not to vote for it in their millions. I felt so strongly about how good MMP is that left my job in New Zealand, bought a ticket, and came back to Ontario this year to share the good news about MMP with my fellow Ontarians.

Steve Withers has been a National Executive member, with the Electoral Reform Coalition of New Zealand since 1988. He has been a member of Fair Vote Canada since 2001.

© 2007 Sudbury Star (ON). All rights reserved.