Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ontario Citizens' Assembly Chair: Bad timing undermined exercise in democracy

Telling reading this morning in the Toronto Star from George Thomson, who was the chair of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.

Here's an excerpt:

"The [referendum] public education program faced another major challenge from the beginning: timing. The [Citizens'] assembly was set up very late in the government's mandate and completed its work less than five months before the referendum. Elections Ontario apparently was asked to take on the task of public education only as the assembly's report was being finalized and released.

"Many voters had little or no knowledge of the Citizens' Assembly, despite the fact that it was established and funded by the government to consider an important policy question on behalf of all Ontarians. Assembly members read, researched, analyzed, consulted (with citizens and experts) and debated the question of electoral reform for eight months. Both the government and Elections Ontario were concerned that making the assembly's report more readily available would appear as campaigning for the MMP option. One day after the referendum, I spoke to a class of 75 Carleton University students who had a strong interest in the topic. Not one of them had seen or read the 27-page report or any other assembly materials.

"Elections Ontario decided to focus on informing voters that there was a referendum and on providing only the basic elements of the two systems. It was left to others to foster discussion about how the different elements would work in practice, and to debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of each system.

"With ample time and substantial support for healthy discussion and debate, this might have worked well. With only one month after the summer break and an election campaign going on at the same time, it is not surprising that many voters knew little about the choice they were being asked to make.

"The impact of these factors on the referendum is impossible to assess and the clear result should, of course, be acknowledged and respected. The assembly members knew and accepted that it would be up to the electorate to adopt or reject their recommendation.

"I do regret that, for the most part, an opportunity for vigorous, informed public discussion on an important public policy issue was missed. As well, there are lessons to be learned about how to structure and respond to exercises in citizen engagement.

"What I hope most of all is that we recognize the enormous value of the Citizens' Assembly and other methods of involving Ontarians in the democratic process. In my long career, I have never observed an attempt to engage the broader public that approached the level of commitment, enthusiasm and self-sacrifice shown by the members of the Citizens' Assembly. These randomly selected Ontarians inspired all those who came to observe them in their work. One look at the low turnout in this election should make us all eager for more opportunities to inspire citizens to
participate so directly in our democracy."


Anonymous said...

No, its not for Elections Ontario to support one side or the other and Canadians have never said yes to any referrenda ever presented to them. Timing made no difference neither did elections Ontario's involvement. The NO was resounding.

Matt Guerin said...

Hey gutless anonymous poster who lacks the courage to put a name next to your comments - it was the responsibility of the McGuinty government which promised the Citizens' Assembly process and initiated the process to inform voters about it. The government hired 104 individuals to work for 8 months to study the issue and possibly recommend an alternative. They did. Then the Liberals abandoned and buried the work done by these citizens, failed to inform voters the process was even happening, failed to release the publicly funded report to Ontarians (even though they were voting on the Assembly's recommendation) and then went ahead with a referendum on the question, only funding a generic, useless Elections Ontario education campaign designed to bore everyone who came across it. The establishment media did the rest printing misinformation about the new system, ensuring its defeat by a public not at all engaged in this so-called democratic process. The McGuinty government will pay a price for this fiasco of democracy, that I promise you.

Linuxluver said...

Not telling voters WHY the MMP option was recommended was a critical failure. Explaining the recommendation isn't "advocacy". It's what needed to be done.

In British Columbia, the CA recommendation to be voted on was sent to every home in the province. In Ontario, the substance of the recommendation was effectively suppressed.

The outcome of the referendum cannot be seen as legitimate, given this critical failure to inform voters.

The debate that was supposed to occur between pro and anti sides was choked in the crib by Metroland Media (TorStar Group) and Sun Media. The London Free Press carried no significant coverage at all of the referendum after September 16th. They did publish 7 ngative letters and none in favour, despite receiving many in favour.

How can anyone say there was robust public debate when both the government and their allies in the media acted in concert to hide the substance of the recommendation?

The whole process after the OCA repot was rendered was a farce. Yet one more example of WHY we need both MMP *and* new laws regarding concentration of media ownership.