Crossposted from Torontoist.
The referendum on Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) has become the latest victim of the costly and annoying “email hoax.” This time, instead of telling you about HIV-infected needles hidden in movie theatre seats, or a plan by the U.S. Congress to tax your email messages, the anonymous missive attempts to paint MMP as a mysterious government conspiracy to consolidate power. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so effective.
The email and its variations, with subjects like “MMP Referendum” or “The upcoming referendum – be wary,” capitalizes on the lack of knowledge that most people have about the electoral reform proposal before us. Some iterations contain legitimate criticism, others misleading statements, and some outright lies. And whether you support reforming our voting system or not, you should make your decision based on truth.
The email’s anonymous author begins by attempting to discredit the Citizens’ Assembly that created the proposal, saying, “purportedly, the members of the Citizens Assembly were chosen randomly but no one can establish which database or what information was used to determine such random participation.” That’s false. Members of the Assembly were selected at random by Elections Ontario from the Permanent Register of Electors for Ontario between April and June 2006. Since that information is easily available, the author is likely attempting to fabricate the sense that some sort of conspiracy is afoot.
In the same breath they claim that MMP is “the government’s solution” to our electoral dysfunction. Again, that’s not true. The government didn’t recommend MMP, the Citizens’ Assembly did, using an open and transparent democratic process under which they were not beholden to any political parties or special interests.
That feeds into their next (bolded) claim that MMP would “shift the power from the people of Ontario (local voters and ridings) to the politicians at Queens [sic] Park.” Since this is an argument, it’s less easy to categorize it as clearly being fact or fiction. Defenders of the status quo will maintain that this statement is true, while supporters of change say it’s completely false. The important question to ask, however, is why would a group of informed citizens, people, voters, design a system that decreases their own power? The most likely answer is that they wouldn’t and didn’t.
The email author then builds on their vague allusions to a conspiracy by saying “there has been no education on this referendum and its timing, coinciding with the October 10 Ontario election, may allow for an easy pass by sheer overshadowing.” This is disingenuous on one count, and false on the other. It’s disingenuous for opponents of MMP to complain about the lack of education surrounding the referendum, since they’re the ones that blocked the distribution of Citizens’ Assembly-produced materials explaining what they’re recommending and why. And it’s false to suggest this referendum is headed for any kind of “easy pass.” In fact, many observers have suggested that the odds have been intentionally stacked against MMP by those who are in power thanks to the current system. The most obvious example is the fact that supporters of MMP need a 60% threshold to carry the day, while defenders of the status quo, conversely, only need 40% plus one. Former Conservative MP Patrick Boyer, who Wikipedia describes as “one of the foremost experts in Canadian constitutional law,” has even suggested that the 60% threshold may be unconstitutional.
As the email gets more specific, it again becomes possible to clearly separate truth from lies. The author claims that MMP would “decrease the current number of elected MPPs” and “incorporate a new non-elected number of MPP.” This is false. According to Elections Ontario (a non-biased body), under MMP all representatives would be elected by voters. The 90 regional representatives would be elected by candidate vote, and the 39 list representatives would be elected by what’s called the party vote. If one wanted to argue that those list representatives are not elected, they’d have to make the same argument even more forcefully about the Premier under the current system, since they get to run the whole province even though they’ve only directly received a small handful of votes in one of 108 ridings.
Amusingly, the author goes on to make two completely contradictory arguments. On the one hand, they argue that MMP will create “decreased accessibility to government” since the number of local representatives would be decreased to 90. Then, they complain that MMP will “[use] our tax dollars to pay for 22 more politicians,” since the overall size of the legislature would be increased to 129. Well, which is it? Is this person (or group of people) advocating for more representation or less?
The fact is that if you’re worried about the overall size of the legislature, you should know that at 129 seats Ontario would still have fewer elected representatives than we did before Mike Harris cut it down, and would have fewer representatives per capita than any other province or territory in Canada.
There are other examples of where this email goes over the top (at one point it says we’re heading for a “form of government that is reminiscent of Communist regimes”), but an exhaustive list would be exhausting. Suffice it to say that it employs many of the fear-based tactics of a classic hoax email, which is probably why it’s being forwarded so widely and successfully. The other real cleverness of the email is that it capitalizes on cynicism about the current political system in order to argue that we should keep the current political system. It’s party due to our voting system that people feel like they’re not having their voices heard at Queen’s Park, and that sense of disenfranchisement helps feed into the believability of a government conspiracy to entrench their own power.
If that were true, however, then the recommendation to vote for Mixed Member Proportional would have come from politicians, not people. If that were true, then the people opposing it would have been motivated to help, not hurt the public education process. If that were true then the threshold for approving the recommendation would not have been set so high. But no, whether you support MMP or not, you must recognize that it was recommended by a democratic, citizens-driven group who ended up voting an overwhelming 94-8 in favour of change. Therefore, if we believe in democracyâ€”the idea that, as a group, citizens know what’s best for the provinceâ€”then we need to give this proposal very serious consideration. If we don’t believe that, however, then maybe we shouldnâ€™t be letting citizens pick governments in the first place.