The NDP clearly hope to use the Liberals’ promise to effect electoral reform to replace FPTP with a mixed-member proprtional system (MMP). This is precisely what the NDP promised in its election platform (http://xfer.ndp.ca/2015/2015-Full-Platform-EN.pdf), and it is why the NDP have seized on the Liberal’s promise to make “make every vote count” (which is the same phrase used in the NDP’s platform).
The NDP’s platform did not detail the MMP system the party hoped to install, and I suspect that the NDP have not thought through in any serious fashion about the impediments to installing MMP nationally. I set out these impediments in my previous post (e.g., the need to redistribute district boundaries whilst also respecting the senatorial floor clause etc.), but the central obstacle to MMP at this moment is that the Liberals’ electoral interests are far better served by an alternative vote (AV) or single-transferable vote (STV) system. Seriously, what does the MMP give the Liberals that AV or STV does not… proportionality? How does proportionality serve the Liberals?
The NDP’s House Leader, Nathan Cullen, has advanced an interesting idea: try out a new system for one or two elections, and then have a “post-reform” referendum on whether to keep the new system or return to FPTP. I’ll leave it to the political philosophers to debate the normative merits of this proposal. The strategic value of Cullen’s proposal rests on the fact that most plebiscites and referendums fail. Cullen’s proposal thus stands as a means to lock-in electoral reform. In contrast, a “pre-reform” referendum held to choose between FPTP and an alternative would likely fail, keeping FPTP in place and removing electoral reform from the political agenda for the foreseeable future.*
Even were the NDP to get their wish of a “post-reform” referendum, they still confront a choice between STV, AV, and FPTP – because I see little possibility that MMP emerges as the alternative to FPTP. Observing Josep Colmer’s maxim that when it comes to electoral systems, “the large [parties] like the small [district magnitudes], and the small [parties] like the large [district magnitudes], one assumes that the NDP’s preferences over these alternatives are STV > AV > FPTP. I would assume the Greens hold similar preferences.
This is a good point at which to review my arguments of the parties’ preferences over electoral systems. These are:
Liberals: AV > low-M STV > FPTP > high-M STV > MMP
Conservatives: FPTP >> AV >= low-M STV >= high-M STV >= MMP
NDP (and Greens): MMP > high-M STV >> low-M STV > AV >= FPTP
(Recall from my previous post that M stands for district magnitude, i.e., the number of seats per district. Proportionality is a function of the district magnitude.)
The configuration of parties’ preference orderings over electoral systems suggests two nascent coalitions**:
- An ideological coalition of the Liberals, NDP, and Greens versus the Conservatives;
- A coalition of the large (Liberals and Conservatives) against the small (NDP and Greens).
The first coalition could come together around a high-district magnitude STV system, but not around MMP. The second could come together around AV or low-M STV.
Frankly, I just don’t see the first coalition as all that viable. Here’s why:
- The Liberals enjoy a majority; they can impose their own choice on the country;
- The Liberals are also the only party that’s common to both coalitions; quite apart from their majority, they are pivotal on this issue;
- The Conservatives actually have some leverage vis-a-vis the Liberals in the form of a (temporary) Senate majority. Even if the Liberals were to stack the Senate, the Conservatives could mount a fairly effective blockade of the legislation.
- Let’s say that the first coalition threatens to crystallize around high-M STV (or, due to some surprising event, around MMP), the Conservative could concede AV to the Liberals. This offer i) gets the Liberals exactly what they want with ii) the support of their main ideological opponent (all the better to rebut charges of self-interest), and iii) AV’s district magnitude of 1 preserves the disproportionality that that Conservatives need to do well; and iv) it removes electoral reform from the agenda for decades.
- To repeat, MMP just doesn’t serve the Liberals’ interests as well as AV or low-M STV.
For these reasons (and especially the last), a coalition of the Large versus the Small seems more likely to me.
All of this suggests to me that the NDP is in a tough position with respect to electoral reform. Even if they were to secure Cullen’s post-reform referendum, their best outcome under such conditions would be STV – and then electoral reform would be off the agenda forever. At worst, the NDP gets stuck with AV, and this is cemented in place by precisely the strategy that the NDP now champions. An alternative vote system is not necessarily a death knell to the NDP (they are capable of winning single-member districts), but it’s not particularly friendly to third-parties either. This is a point I’ll consider in an upcoming post on the dynamics of AV in Australia and the Australian States.
* The only scenario where MMP makes it to a referendum ballot IMO is if the Liberals – intent on sinking the whole damn thing – present voters with a ballot that contains 3-4 alternatives to FPTP; support for electoral reform would splinter across said alternatives and FPTP would remain in place. I could also see the Conservatives backing this kind of proposal.
** When I use the term “coalition” here, I am using only in the sense that these actors find themselves on the same side of an issue.