With the Hill Times reporting today that about half of Canadians support holding a national referendum on changing Canada's electoral system in the next general election, and 45 per cent say that in such a referendum they would vote in favour of proportional representation (versus only 28% for our winner-take-all system), there is much to be encouraged about as we move forward in this debate.
We'd like to share our thoughts on the recent Ontario referendum on electoral reform.
In 2003, Dalton McGuinty said, "The time has come for a full, open debate on voting reform...When almost half of the public does not see the point in heading to the polls we have already had a non-confidence vote in our democracy."
While Ontario did have a debate on voting reform with the referendum, it's clear to us that this discussion was not full nor open. In fact, as most would agree, it was greatly clouded by the noise of the Ontario election campaign.
Also very disturbing was the low voter turn-out in this election at only 52.8% support. Voter turn-out for the referendum was even worse at only 51.1%.
Voters did not have enough information on their choices in this referendum. The McGuinty government failed in the run-up to the referendum to adequately inform voters that the process was even taking place. The decision by the government to bury public information on the Citizens' Assembly undermined the process. Most voters didn't even find out about the referendum until mid-September. Sadly for some Ontarians, the first they heard of the Citizens' Assembly was when they saw it mentioned on their referendum ballot on October 10th. Voters were rushed into this decision with little time for considering the great benefits of proportional voting.
Instead, there was too much misinformation spread by mainstream media outlets and supporters of the status quo. This was compounded by Elections Ontario's woefully inadequate education campaign, which can now be considered one of the most ineffective (and expensive) communications campaigns in recent Ontario history. The government should have decided to fund an official "Pro-MMP" campaign, as well as an official "Pro-FPTP" campaign to ensure more voters were properly informed of their choices.
While we accept the verdict of voters that this particular version of Mixed Member Proportional is now off the table, we do not accept that the debate on electoral reform is over in Ontario or across Canada.
We have the following recommendations for moving forward on this issue:
* The McGuinty government should appoint a new Minister for Democratic Renewal to tackle the troubling issue of low voter turn-out and engagement. The low 52.8% turnout in this election is deeply troubling.
* A legislative committee should study the referendum process to see if it was fair and the result valid.
* Many voters, while unsure about the strengths of MMP, expressed great dislike for our current system. Since Ontario voters don't appear to be willing to accept a major change to our voting system at this time, the government should consider other more modest changes that would fix some of the many problems of our current system. When more voters are ready to move toward proportional representation, we should consider better forms of PR for Ontario.
As we move forward, we are encouraged that voters in British Columbia will have another chance in 2009 to vote on their version of proportional representation called the Single Transferable Vote or PR-STV. We'll watch this referendum very closely.
Many say PR-STV is a better form of proportional representation as it ensures all politicians are directly elected by the voters in local constituencies. Since MMP was rejected in Ontario, we should consider PR-STV as an option to our antiquated First-Past-The-Post system in the future.