When Steve Whithers heard in New Zealand that Ontario was holding a referendum on its electoral system, he gave up his job and returned home to volunteer for the yes side of that question.
Whithers, with Fair Vote Canada, a group supporting the Mixed Member Proportional option in the referendum on Oct. 10, is an enthusiastic supporter of the MMP system.
He was born in Ontario, but spent most of the last 20 years in New Zealand working for such companies as IBM and AT&T as its Asian Pacific client solutions manager. He has also been a prison guard, a farmer, and a bouncer in a pub.
He likes the MMP system because, he said, “No one party is able to tell how it’s going to be. Every vote counts.”
He said the current system, First Past the Post, means that people get to vote in only one riding, for one candidate, and “That vote most often elects nobody at all. In the majority of the ridings, voters are not voting for whoever won.”
He said that system gives people a government that most of them did not vote for.
The MMP system “tries to fix that.” It takes into account that most people like a riding system, but the second vote, for a particular party, is more powerful because it is a province-wide vote. “MMP let’s you separate the two.”
In the MMP system, there would be 90 ridings where the candidate with the most votes would be elected. But, there would be an additional 39 seats available for party lists, and those MPPs would be chosen in the province wide vote. If the NDP, for example, got 20 per cent of the vote but won only 15% of the riding seats, they could “top up” their share of the vote from the party’s list, taking enough of the 39 seats to have 20% of the MPPs they were entitled to by the proportion of their support.
Whithers has lived under the MMP system since New Zealand adopted it in 1996 after nearly eight years of wrangling, a Royal Commission, opposition from the top two parties, and, finally, a referendum that approved it.He said that system conserves strong local representation, but the 39 extra seats are “the grease on the wheel.”
He pointed out that if there are no votes for a party, there are no seats, and said the argument the 39 list MPPs would be like senators is wrong, because senators are appointed, and these would be elected.
“Your vote could elect five people,” he said. “So, it’s more accountable.”
He cited a party in New Zealand that had 18 members through proportional representation and which did something voters opposed. In the next election, voters reduced its numbers to 5 seats.
“I’ve seen examples,” he said. “Parties have paid the price.”
As for the charges that the proposed system is happening too quickly for voters to consider it properly, he said, “It’s not too fast – provided voters are paying attention.”
He said the provincial government failed to explain to the voters why the system was recommended. He said that reason is on the Citizens’ Assembly web site, and everyone should read it.
“It certainly is a worry” if people reject the MMP. “I know if they stay with First Past the Post – it can’t get any worse.”
He said the best that could happen is a lot of people endorse MMP, “and get a better system by accident.”
Whithers added that the people defending the current system are “the best reason for voting MMP.”
He said during the 20 years he lived in Ontario, he voted for only one winning candidate, having had the bad luck to live in ridings where there were safe seats for parties he did not support.
He pointed out the Progressive Conservatives got 225,000 votes in the Greater Toronto Area in the 2003 election, and failed to win a single seat there. “It’s not just the minority parties we’re talking about here,” he said.
When asked if the lists would contain party members mainly from Toronto, Whithers said such a suggestion is “crap.” There would be “a reasonable number” because of the population centered there, but parties would ignore regional candidates at their peril because entire regions would not support a party under the MMP when there is no area representation on the lists.
“The bottom line is if the party leader wants to win seats everywhere, he has to get the team out there everywhere.”
He again cited the provincial Progressive Conservative Party, with no seats in the north, and said MMP makes it worthwhile to get parties working in those areas. The same would go for the Liberal party in certain areas of southern Ontario.
“Why would you do it any other way?”
He also called the 3% needed vote threshold to earn some of the 39 seats is “a beautiful number because it effectively lowers the barriers,” to getting elected and represented in the legislature.
He pointed out that in New Zealand, some of the candidates in ridings are also on their party’s list. He said one of them lost a riding election by 350 votes, but was elected by the party list, and placed to represent the region he had run in. The result was two elected officials in the same area working very hard for support for the next election. He said it was like a baby being kissed from both sides by candidates.
“Under the MMP, all Liberal votes still matter in a Tory riding.”
He also laughed off the charge that the MMP system is too complicated. He said that is comparing a good mechanic with a screwdriver to do his work, and a mechanic with a whole box of tools.
“Sure, there may be more choices, but that’s a good thing at the end of the day,” Whithers said.
He said that, generally, it takes 21,500 votes to win a riding in Ontario. With MMP, a list party would need 300,000 votes across the province to elect a single member off its list, or, dividing the votes by the number of ridings, need about 33,500 votes to win a seat from the list.
“It takes nearly 50% more votes [to get elected from the list.] They [the votes] are just not coming from the same town.”
Whithers also said people placed on the party list in most countries using the MMP system are elected within their parties, and that makes sense to him.
“I’ve actually done it,” he said, having belonged to a political party in New Zealand.
There are no set rules that force parties to elect list candidates, but already several parties in Ontario, including the Green Party, have stated they would elect their candidates to the list.
Whithers said Progressive Conservative leader John Tory has noted that his party has always been democratic, so it would likely use a similar system. Howard Hampton has promised something similar for his NDP.
Whithers said the reason is simple. If people are not treated well by their party, “You don’t have to put up with that crap.”
He said party members are not going to work elections, campaign for people, go door to door, and then blindly allow party leaders to choose the list representatives.
“Would you hang around for a party boss?” he asked. “That’s the very reason it won’t happen. Party members won’t put up with anything else” but full democracy.