Volume 41, Number 5: September/October 2007

A Vote That Might Really Change Something

On October 10, Ontarians will go the polls in their first fixed-date election, just one of a host of allegedly modernizing innovations introduced by the McGuinty Liberal government. But election day will also offer voters a chance to comment on a much more radical and far-reaching proposal to alter Ontario’s electoral process; for there will also be a referendum on the provincial voting system.

The referendum question will ask voters to choose whether they wish to retain Canada’s traditional, first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, or adopt the recommendation from the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly (OCA) for a mixed-member, proportional representation (PR) system. The mixed member proportional representation (MMP) system, used in Germany for sixty years and recently introduced in New Zealand, combines local representation in single-member ridings (just like we have now) with a top-up party list that would assure proportional outcomes for all the parties.

Though many progressives typically despair of the electoral choices before them on election day, this time we face a vote that could really change things. A successful vote in favour of a proportional form of voting would have multiple effects upon the political system. It would open up political competition, end phony majority government and increase the points of access for activists keen to affect government policy. For these reasons and many more, we need to focus our activist energies on winning this vote.

Why Change the System?

The arguments in favour of changing our voting system are probably familiar to most readers of Canadian Dimension. Our present system does a lousy job of representing what Canadians say with their votes. It tends to over-represent the most prevalent opinions, allowing majority governments like the Harris Conservatives to ram through policies, despite never gaining more than 45 per cent of the popular vote. Some might say that was okay if the Left operated in the same way when it came to power – but it does not. Instead, Canada’s social democrats water down their policies in office to keep their wavering centrist supporters onside. Our present voting system also does a lousy job representing our social diversity in terms of electing women, people of colour, Aboriginal people – basically any group that is not white, male and financially well off.

And what can be said in favour of FPTP? It turns out, very little. The arguments for keeping our present system are often weak and undemocratic. Defenders of the status quo argue that the present system creates stability and strong government, and limits the entry of “fringe” parties. Yet, these sound like the same arguments typically used to justify authoritarian dictatorships, as well.

Media Opposition

Despite the compelling arguments in favour of change, winning this referendum will not be easy. The public knows very little about our democratic institutions, and the details and implications of all voting systems are complex and often counterintuitive. Ontario’s media has either ignored the issue or come out against any change. As most people gain their political information from mainstream news sources, this poses a real challenge. Back in 2005, when B.C. had a similar referendum on its voting system, media responses were not terribly different, and public-opinion polling showed that few voters had heard of the referendum, let alone understood what was being proposed. On the other hand, the media had given more positive coverage to the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly process, which had designed and recommended the PR voting system. In the end, academic research suggests that most voters went along with the Citizens’ Assembly endorsement. Not surprisingly – given the unexpectedly large vote for change in B.C. (nearly 58 per cent of voters said yes to PR) – Ontario’s media has relentlessly attacked the credibility of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly, no doubt hoping to prevent a repeat of what happened in B.C.

Liberal Attitudes Mixed

Another source of opposition to changing the voting system comes from the political class itself. Of the “big three” electorally competitive parties in Ontario, only the NDP has endorsed the OCA recommendation for PR. Tory opposition is hardly surprising, as that party has typically been the beneficiary of the current, unrepresentative system.

The Liberal opposition is more complicated. Though the McGuinty Liberals sponsored the process that has led to the referendum vote, and while a few, high-profile Toronto Liberals like George Smitherman and Michael Bryant have voiced support, most of the government caucus is vehemently opposed to change. Indeed, the Liberals have sent mixed messages on this issue from the beginning of their term in office. On the face of it, their willingness to talk about the voting system itself seemed surprising, as parties that regularly rank number-two in a political system like ours are usually loath to bring up the topic. But a gander at the last century of election results gives some indication of why the Ontario Liberals might be willing to talk. Despite regularly being one of the top-two parties, they have rarely formed government, particularly over the last fifty years. Still, once back in office in 2003, the Liberals dragged their feet in establishing the promised public forum on the voting system, waiting until the last possible minute to get it up and running, thus limiting public exposure to and debate over whatever that process might produce.

Then, in a desperate bid to maintain the status quo, they reproduced B.C.’s disgraceful super-majority rules to try to prevent voters choosing change. To win, supporters of PR must gain sixty per cent of the vote, while supporters of the status quo need only gain forty per cent. Since few of our many, supposed majority governments gain even fifty per cent of the popular vote, setting the referendum threshold at sixty per cent was pretty cynical and self-serving. Still, as the B.C. vote came very close to meeting this threshold, victory is not impossible.

Who Supports PR?

The existing grassroots forces that are attempting to mobilize public support for the PR voting system on the table in Ontario stretch across the political spectrum. Even though the current system would appear to have benefited the right, there are right-wingers in Ontario who don’t like the system – for all sorts of reasons. Some don’t like the fact that their particular Conservative vote doesn’t count in the election result, a regular occurrence for Tory voters in Toronto. Others hate party discipline, or would like to vote for a different right-wing party than the Conservatives. Whatever the reasons, every vote – right, left, or centre – will be crucial in winning the referendum to bring PR to Ontario.

While PR by itself won’t bring about the policies or politics that the Left might want, it will dramatically alter the strategic and competitive environment under which we seek them. For that reason alone, winning this referendum should be our key priority up to the vote on October 10.

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