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BC Politics

Greens Political ‘Hostage-Taking’ Preview of Grim Future Under Proportional Representation

New Zealand’s coming election shows small parties gain too much power under complicated MMP system.

Bill Tieleman 19 Sep

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. Email him at [email protected] see Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

“What the NDP promised in their election campaign is not really relevant.” — B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver.

Last week BC Green MLAs’ dramatic political “hostage-taking” paid off as the NDP government dropped two key election promises from the budget.

What’s more, Green leader Andrew Weaver, the chief “hostage-taker” airily dismissed the NDP campaign pledges to introduce a much needed $10-a-day childcare plan and a $400 annual renters’ rebate.

Weaver’s veto meant last week’s budget update allocated no money to implement the two promises that helped the NDP defeat a BC Liberal government that neglected both families with young children and renters.

But more importantly, the Green Party’s blocking of those and other NDP promises is a very troubling example of how perpetual minority governments would work if a proportional representation electoral system is adopted by referendum next year.

That’s because proportional representation practically guarantees that no party will ever be able to win a majority of seats, leaving every government dependent on small parties like the Greens.

And it means smaller parties get vastly disproportionate power because they can hold parties with much greater popular support and more seats hostage until their demands are met.

It isn’t a pretty picture. It is, however, what the tail wagging the dog looks like.

And it wasn’t just last week. Weaver has also vetoed changes to the Labour Relations Code that would have levelled the playing field for unions trying to organize workers. The Greens successfully demanded that the NDP commitment to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 be excluded from the mandate for a planned Fair Wages Commission.

If they could have, the Greens would have stopped the NDP government from ending tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges. Fortunately, that was impossible.

But it’s not just here in B.C. Proportional representation systems around the world create endless minorities and constant demands for deals from tiny parties.

Proportional representation advocates hate it when Italy and Israel are used as examples of political systems where the tail always wags the dog, with disastrous results.

But it also happens in other countries like New Zealand, which has the mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation system that both the NDP and Greens say they like best.

Elections will be held Saturday under what Australia’s The Age newspaper called “New Zealand’s fiendishly complicated MMP proportional representation voting system.” And they aren’t joking.

And polls show the left-wing Labour Party and the governing right-wing National Party appear tied at about 41 per cent support, not enough to win a majority under MMP.

That means five other parties could decide who governs and under what terms. The Green Party, the conservative populist New Zealand First, ACT New Zealand, another right-wing party, United Future, a Christian-oriented party, and the Maori Party are all represented in the current Parliament, as any party that receives five per cent of the vote gets at least one seat seat. (Maori Indigenous people are guaranteed a set number of seats based on their population.)

While supporters say it is simple, New Zealand’s mixed member system is anything but. Voters cast two votes — one to chose a candidate for their local riding, and a second to support a political party. Parties create lists of candidates, and seats are assigned from the lists based on the parties’ share of the vote.

New Zealand uses a “closed list” system. Parties decide the order in which candidates are elected from the lists, without voters having any say.

Of New Zealand’s current 119 Members of Parliament, just 62 actually represent geographic ridings like those in Canada. A whopping 50 MPs come from party lists, while another seven MPs represent Maori electorates.

In some other MMP systems voters can re-order the party candidates in a so-called “open list,” a system favoured by proportional representation advocacy group Fair Vote Canada in its submission to a parliamentary committee studying electoral change.

In an “open list” MMP system voters face the daunting prospect of ranking their choices with dozens of candidates on the party list. It’s also been noted “that female candidates do not generally benefit from an open list PR system and integrating gender quotas can be problematic.”

The “open list” system could result in well-meaning parties’ best efforts to promote gender, sexual, minority, regional and other balance in their candidates are undone by voters reordering the party choices.

And if that’s not complex enough, something called the Sainte-Laguë Formula is used in New Zealand to determine the number of seats each party gets.

New Zealand’s Electoral Commission starts to explain the six-step Sainte-Laguë Formula this way:

“To determine the precise order in which all the seats in Parliament are allocated to the various political parties, the Electoral Act 1993 prescribes that a mathematical formula, called the Sainte-Laguë formula, be applied.” 

“The nationwide party vote of each of the parties which qualified for representation in Parliament is divided by successive odd numbers starting with 1 (i.e. the party votes divided by 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc).  The 120 highest numbers (which are called quotients) determine both the number of seats for each party and the order in which they are allocated,” the commission website states before going through each step with an example.

So it’s no wonder it’s a mystery who will actually govern after Saturday’s election in New Zealand.

“New Zealand’s idiosyncratic mixed-member proportional representation electoral system makes it tough for any one party to win outright,” says The Australian newspaper.

And while proportional representation supporters are keen to say that no party having a majority means genuine co-operation in legislatures, the reality is that minority governments are completely dependent on deal-making between parties, often in backrooms where election pledges go to die to satisfy the demands of small parties.

BC Green communications director Stefan Jonsson tweeted on Saturday that “New Zealand made the successful transition to proportional representation. So exited for #bcpoli to do the same in just over a year.”

Jonsson included a link to a New Zealand Green Party election ad exhorting voters to choose Green in their “party vote” because “Labour will need to work with another party to make up the numbers” to form a government.

And he’s right — under MMP a small party will decide not only who forms government, but which of that larger party’s policies will live or die.

Thinks otherwise? Consider what just happened in British Columbia to childcare and the renters’ rebate with the kind of minority government that would be commonplace under proportional representation.

“We’re surprised and very disappointed on behalf of families in British Columbia,” said Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, which has campaigned for years to make $10-a-day childcare a reality.

And renters, who looked forward to a little fairness compared to the $570 to $770 grant that most homeowners receive each year, were also blocked from getting their promised $400 by the Greens.

The Greens quickly defended themselves as negative reaction hit, arguing they still support universal childcare and renters. Green MLA Sonia Furstenau said they would not defeat the government on those issues. But the damage was done.

The bottom line question is should just three MLAs in a legislature of 87 members be the tail wagging the dog on important policies that affect us all?

The answer is simple — no. And with an MMP proportional electoral system promising minority governments forever, that should also be voters’ answer in the 2018 referendum.  [Tyee]

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