Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Accountability and Proportional Representation

Fruits and Votes, the nicely eccentric blog about electoral systems (and tree fruits, go figure), has here a note about New Zealand politics.

New Zealand, let us recall, has more or less the MMP system of proportional representation Ontario voters rejected last fall (except that Ontario would have had 30% of members appointed from party lists; in New Zealand it's fully 50%)

In preparation for an election, the Labour Party prime minister, Helen Clark, and her party president recently sat down to prune their party lists. They are getting rid of any backbenchers whom they find insufficiently loyal -- pour encourager les autres, you might say. They have moved no less than a quarter of the sitting MPs so far down the party's list of candidates that they will no longer have seats after the election.

The decisive criticism of MMP in Ontario's debate last fall was that it would allow the parties to fill the legislature with their hacks and flunkies. It was a criticism that reduced PR advocates to hysterics. I never saw any rational response to it from the Yes side in Ontario's referendum. "PR is more democratic. That's the end of it. The lists will be democratic. It's a no brainer. Shut up!" pretty much summarized the Yes side's response to the No side's concern that members appointed by MMP would be even more beholden to the party than they already are, in effect making our system worse in the name of making it better.

PR advocates often point to PR's successes all over the world. Surely this latest news from New Zealand is more evidence the No side's criticisms were well founded. New Zealand used to have a vigorous tradition of backbencher activism. The caucuses of elected MPs made policy, influenced cabinet-making, and dumped underperforming party leaders -- things Canadians might envy. All that stopped dead with the switch to MMP, now that Kiwi MPs who disagree with their parties lose their seats.
BC is gearing up to rerun its prop-rep referendum in 2009. But the favoured system there is a complicated transferable vote system, one that would not give the parties a hammerlock upon who got to sit in the legislature.

Later update: An anonymous reader observes that MMP lists need not be under party control; they could be done by vote of party members.

He/she goes on to say, 'You describe STV-PR on which BC will vote next year as "complicated". But from the voters' perspective STV-PR is much simpler than MMP. With STV the voters just vote for the candidates they really want to see elected.'

Matthew Shugart, who runs Fruits & Votes, says: 'I believe you are likely drawing more from that story [ie, the New Zealand one his site reported on] than is warranted. It is unclear (to me, anyway) how many of those MPs will continue to have their own constituencies, where they can run and "be accountable." The changes are also not all about "loyalty," per se, but about cutting the safety of the list out from underperforming members (such as the head of the Labour Maori caucus in that story). It seems that those concerned about accountability would rather cheer such a result, actually.'

Should we cheer? In this situation "underperforming" means "underperforming in the eyes of the party leader." It's in the nature of parliamentary systems (if not human nature) that party leaders will prefer blind loyalty over most other qualities. Still seems to me that letting the leaders pick their own followers reduces accountability instead of reinforcing it.
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