Thursday, November 29, 2007

Electoral reform redux: Revisionist history from the Toronto Star

As this site has stated previously, the recent Ontario referendum on voting reform was nothing short of a fiasco. Ontario did not have a full debate on the issue as Dalton McGuinty promised in 2003. In fact, as most objective observers now agree, the 2007 referendum process was greatly clouded by the noise of the Ontario election campaign, among other manipulations.

The McGuinty government failed in the run-up to the referendum to adequately inform voters that the process was even taking place. When the referendum officially began in September, public awareness of the Citizens' Assembly process and its proposed Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system was dismally low. The former Minister for Democratic Renewal, Marie Bountrogianni (now retired) has admitted the process started too late in the government's first mandate.

The McGuinty government also undermined the process by burying public information on the Citizens' Assembly. The final report from the Citizens' Assembly (paid for by Ontarians) was not widely distributed and the government stopped printing information on the Assembly altogether before most voters even knew what was going on. Sadly for many 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 question.

Instead, there was too much misinformation spread by mainstream media outlets including the Toronto Star and supporters of the status quo. The Toronto Star misled its readers when it used the loaded word "appointed" in news stories to describe how some MPPs would be elected to the legislature under the Mixed Member Proportional system. This misinformation 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. Instead, the government should've used that $6.8 million to fund both the 'Yes' and the 'No' sides, which struggled to get their messages out to a confused and bewildered electorate.

In response to this press release yesterday from Fair Vote Ontario, the Toronto Star today published this editorial, the latest in the paper's cynical attempt to spin the issue of voting reform in favour of the Toronto establishment's favoured "Winner-Take-All" status quo. If the Star can't be trusted to be truthful about electoral reform, on what other issues will it choose to misinform readers?

In spite of all listed above, the Star still claims that, "Electoral reform proponents had a fair opportunity to make their case." Perhaps the editorial writer failed to read this Toronto Star piece penned by George Thomson, who served as chair of Ontario's first Citizens' Assembly, entitled, 'Bad timing undermined exercise in democracy.'

The issue of electoral reform is certainly not dead in Ontario or Canada. An unjust system like our "Winner-Take-All" system cannot and will not be tolerated forever. As we know, British Columbians have another opportunity in 2009 to vote on their version of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote or STV. That's because over 57% of B.C. voters endorsed the proposal in a 2005 referendum, but the government refused to implement it because of its imposed 60% threshold. This STV system would provide for results that closely match the wishes of voters, while guaranteeing all representatives are directly elected by the voters in multi-member constituencies. In many ways, it's better than MMP. If B.C. passes this system in 2009, it will be a huge victory for electoral reform in Canada, keeping alive the issue right across the country.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

42% is not a mandate for majority rule: Ontario legislature has unfinished business on electoral reform

The following was released today from Fair Vote Ontario:

TORONTO: November 28, 2007: As the 39th Ontario provincial parliament prepares to sit, Fair Vote Ontario is calling on all parties to address the unfinished business of electoral reform.

“On Thursday we will hear the throne speech from yet another phony majority government, elected by just over forty per cent of the voters in an election with the lowest ever turnout,” said June Macdonald, President, Fair Vote Ontario. “The only ‘mandate’ such a government should have is to immediately launch a better-funded and fairly managed citizen-driven electoral reform process.”

Fair Vote Ontario rejects the claim that the government honoured a pledge for an open and informed public debate on electoral reform.

“While using a citizens’ assembly and referendum for electoral reform is the right approach, that process must have adequate time and resources to allow for an informed public debate and decision,” said Macdonald. “Whether intentional or not, the poor management of the process over the past two years made a mockery of the exercise.”

Fair Vote Ontario cited the following problems:

- The Citizens’ Assembly was not convened until late in the last government’s term, unduly reducing the time it had for deliberation and consultation and for the subsequent referendum.

- The referendum was triggered by a recommendation by the Citizens’ Assembly, but neither the Assembly’s report nor summary brochure were distributed to all voters. In fact, the government ceased printing the Assembly brochure in late summer.

- Due to poor government promotion and media coverage, about half of the electorate had very little understanding of the role and mandate of the Citizens Assembly.

- When voting in the referendum, only about half of the electorate had even a rudimentary understanding of the MMP system proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly.

- At least a quarter of the electorate had no idea a referendum was being held. In some polls, very few voters knew about the referendum.

- The Election Ontario public education program left most voters bewildered and uninformed – e.g., the official public education campaign would not tell voters the reasons for the Assembly recommending the MMP system or how key aspects worked.

By setting an unfair 60 per cent threshold, under-funding and misdirecting the public education program, the government created a widely shared impression that the whole process was cynically designed to fail.

In his 2003 election platform, Dalton McGuinty said: “I find it unacceptable that [my children’s] generation may be so turned off by our political system that they will virtually abandon representative democracy. We cannot let that happen. I will not let that happen.” A poll take just days before the referendum found that more than 60 per cent of young voters, ages 18-34 were in favour of the proposed reform.

“We call on Premier McGuinty to put democratic renewal and citizen-driven electoral reform back at the top of the agenda where it belongs,” said Macdonald. “As the Mr. McGuinty said, we cannot afford to let the status quo continue.”

Fair Vote Ontario is a program of Fair Vote Canada, a national citizens’ organization for electoral reform:

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Contact: June Macdonald at 416-962-8181 or Larry Gordon 647-519-7585.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ontario and Quebec vow to fight federal plans to change Commons, Senate

It's clear the federal Conservative Bill C-22 discriminates unfairly against Ontario, providing Canada's largest province with far less representation than it deserves, compared to British Columbia and Alberta, let alone the other provinces. This issue has been getting decent press over the last couple of weeks, most notably the war of words between Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and federal House Leader Peter Van Loan, who hails from the York-Simcoe riding in Ontario.

Now today this story from Canadian Press:

"The premiers of Canada's two largest provinces vowed Monday to keep fighting the federal government's plans to change the makeup of the House of Commons and reform the Senate, and called for a first ministers' meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to resolve the disputes."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

MMP would've served Ontario democracy better in 2007

Kudos to Christina Blizzard for today's article on electoral reform in the Toronto Sun.

Here's an excerpt:

"Peter MacLeod, of Queen's University's Centre for the Study of Democracy, has crunched the numbers from last month's vote and says the Legislature would look quite different had it been elected using MMP.

It is difficult to be entirely accurate in this calculation. MacLeod points out we can't say for sure how people would have directed their second vote for the party, but he estimates the Tories would have gained the most from MMP.

With 107 seats under the First Past The Post system, the Grits have 71 seats; PCs 26; NDP 10 and the Greens have none.

Under a 129-seat House under MMP, the Liberals would have dropped dramatically to 56 seats; PCs would have 41; NDP 22; Greens, 10...[But] many potential voters in this province simply sat home Oct. 10. Voter turn-out was a pathetic 52%.

"We may have voted down the referendum, but we're getting perilously close to voting down democracy too. A 52% turnout isn't much of an endorsement and yet I can't believe this is what people want," MacLeod said.

The issue of democratic renewal now seems forgotten, since Premier Dalton McGuinty dropped the democratic renewal portfolio from cabinet.

That doesn't augur well for this the democratic process. The MMP proposal...was a complex issue for voters to grasp as they also grappled with election issues.

MMP died a cruel death on election night. But at least it opened up a conversation about democracy and elections -- and how and why we vote. But when almost half of eligible voters stay home on election day, it's tough to call it democracy. The people may have spoken -- but they did so very quietly."

Monday, November 5, 2007

Bountrogianni voted for MMP, agrees the Citizens' Assembly process should have begun earlier

Former Ontario Democratic Renewal Minister Marie Bountrogianni, who chose not to run again for the McGuinty Liberals in the Oct 10th Ontario election, says she voted in favour of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system proposed by Ontario's Citizens' Assembly.

"I think it would have been an exciting change," she says.

Bountrogianni's comments were published in an Ottawa Citizen article this weekend.

The former minister remained publicly neutral on the question during the referendum campaign. Bountrogianni was reacting to criticism from Fair Vote Ontario that the Citizens' Assembly that recommended the new system was set up too late in the McGuinty government's first term, leaving little time for public education and debate.

"They have a legitimate point there," says Bountrogianni. The problem, she says, was that Michael Bryant, who had responsibility for Democratic Renewal for the first two years of the government's mandate, was also Attorney General and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

"I think something this important perhaps should have been given to someone with fewer responsibilities earlier," she said.

By the time she took on the portfolio in 2005, there was much to be done and little time in which to do it. "I ran as fast as I could," she said. "This was my number one and only legislative priority. I spent most of my time on this." Bountrogianni was also the government's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister.

Bountrogianni continues to support the government's decision to impose a 60% threshold for approval on MMP. She also challenges the notion that Ontario voters lacked information, pointing out, among other things, that extensive background was available at the Citizens' Assembly's web site. Nevertheless, when the referendum officially began in September, public awareness of the Citizens' Assembly process and its proposed system was dismally low. The government had decided not to distribute the Assembly's final report widely and ultimately stopped printing the Assembly's brochure long before most voters even knew the referendum was taking place.

Bountrogianni also defends the government's decision to leave the referendum's education campaign in the hands of Elections Ontario, saying the government placed no restrictions on the agency. "We left it entirely up to them." Most observers say Elections Ontario's dry campaign failed to give the referendum question proper context.

It's interesting to note that both Democratic Renewal ministers in the first McGuinty government - both Michael Bryant and Marie Bountrogianni - ended up endorsing the new MMP system.

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."

With the failure of Dalton McGuinty to appoint a new Minister of Democratic Renewal in last week's cabinet shuffle, clearly the low turnout of 52.8% in 2007 seems to now suit McGuinty just fine. What a pity.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Is electoral reform dead in Canada?

Mark Sutcliffe wrote this incisive piece in today's Ottawa Citizen in which he asks the question, "If Canadians are so dissatisfied with our current system of electing governments, why do recent elections show us unwilling to embrace change?"

He points out that both Ontario and Prince Edward Island rejected a version of Mixed Member Proportional (or MMP) in referenda by near identical margins after experiencing very similar campaigns. Vote For MMP Ontario chair Rick Anderson correctly argues that governments in both provinces did little to educate voters about their choices. But Sutcliffe also quotes Carleton University political scientist Jonathan Malloy who points to aspects of MMP that proved unpopular with voters, including the infamous province-wide "lists" that would come with such a system. Voters also seem reluctant to embrace a system that produces never-ending minority governments in which smaller parties frequently win the balance of power, says Malloy.

The writer notes that 57% of British Columbians did vote for a different system called Single Transferable Vote (or STV) in a 2005 referendum, but the government refused to implement it due to its high 60% threshold for approval. There too voters complained the government didn't do enough to explain the alternative system, yet that didn't stop voters from almost giving STV the green light. Now B.C. residents will vote again on their new system in 2009.

Sutcliffe notes that, "STV is a much more complicated process in which between two and seven candidates are elected in each riding, depending on the population. Voters rank their top choices and votes are redistributed in a multi-step process until the required number of candidates has enough votes to be elected. The results are expected to mirror proportional representation while using exclusively local representatives...Another factor that may have worked in favour of reform in British Columbia was the uneasy state of politics in the province. For electoral change to be embraced, the confidence of the electorate may need to be shaken by a crisis or a series of scandals, not slowly eroded by apathy."

Indeed, British Columbia saw the NDP win a majority of seats in 1996 with only 39% of the vote, three points less than the Liberals who won 42% of the vote! Five years later, the Liberals won 98% of the seats with only 58% of the vote. Thus voters were likely more aware of how First Past The Post greatly distorts voters' wishes. No such freak-result elections have occurred in Ontario in recent memory, thus making it more difficult to convince voters of the need for change.

In the end, Sutcliffe writes: "Having somebody break the ice would help people increase their comfort level," [says Malloy.] That may come in 2009. After having come so close in 2005, there's a strong chance that British Columbians will push STV over the top in the next referendum. Once that happens, voters in other provinces, including Ontario, may feel more comfortable making changes to their own systems."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Flawed electoral reform process means the Ontario government has not yet met its commitment to let Ontarians decide

The following was released this week by Fair Vote Ontario:

Flawed electoral reform process means the Ontario government has not yet met its commitment to let Ontarians decide

TORONTO – October 30, 2007: Today electoral reformers called on Premier McGuinty to address the flawed electoral reform referendum process and take steps to meet his commitment to give Ontarians an opportunity to make an informed decision on the best electoral system.

June Macdonald, President of Fair Vote Ontario, pointed to three design flaws in the referendum process that denied voters the opportunity they were promised.

“First, the citizens’ assembly process – which we enthusiastically support – was unnecessarily delayed until the end of the government’s first mandate,” said Macdonald. “With four years to take action, the government did not convene the Assembly until one year prior to the referendum date. By the time the Assembly could issue its report, the referendum was less than five months away, including the summer vacation period, which left little time for public debate.”

“Second, the public education program was glaringly inadequate. The referendum was triggered by a recommendation from the Citizens’ Assembly, which asked that the public education campaign include the Assembly’s rationale for recommending MMP. Unlike the British Columbia referendum, the Assembly’s report was not distributed to all households – in fact, the government stopped printing the Assembly’s summary brochure several months before the referendum, blocking widespread distribution to voters.”

“Third, while it had no effect on the October 10 vote, the application of an unfair referendum threshold of 60 per cent is simply unacceptable in a modern democracy. Prior to the application of the rigged threshold in two other recent electoral reform referendums, no provincial or federal referendum in Canadian history used any threshold other than the democratic standard of 50 per cent plus one. The all-party Select Committee on Electoral Reform, which had a majority of members from the Liberal Party, recommended a simple majority threshold.”

“Premier McGuinty promised a citizen-driven process for electoral reform, including a citizens’ assembly to assess the need for reform, and a referendum to decide upon any recommendation from that assembly,” said Macdonald. “That was the right approach, but the implementation was so severely flawed, Ontarians have not yet had the chance to make an informed decision on electoral reform. As the new government begins setting its agenda for the coming year, we call on Premier McGuinty to address this issue as soon as possible.”

Fair Vote Ontario is a program of Fair Vote Canada, a national multi-partisan citizens’ campaign for electoral reform:

Enclosed: backgrounder on the citizens’ assembly and referendum process.

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Contact: June Macdonald at 416-962-8181 or Larry Gordon at 647-519-7585.

Fair Vote Ontario:
Backgrounder on the Citizens’ Assembly and
Referendum Process

November 18, 2004: One year into his mandate, Premier Dalton McGuinty announces the impending creation of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.

June 13, 2005: Legislation to establish the Citizens' Assembly is passed and the all-party Select Committee on Electoral Reform is established.

November 29, 2005: The Select Committee reports. The majority report endorsed by the six Liberal members recommends "the referendum should be binding upon a vote of 50% + 1, and the support of 50% + 1 in at least two-thirds (i.e., 71) of the ridings, or any other formula that ensures the result has support from Northern, rural, and urban areas of the Province." The Committee also calls for a referendum public education campaign in which “every voter receives adequate information about the arguments for and against each side of any question that is put to the people.”

March 27, 2006: Another four months pass before the government announces the appointment of George Thomson as Assembly Chair. The timing means the Assembly cannot be set up and convened until September 2006. The government has set May 15, 2007, as the report date, so the public education period is reduced to five months. The government has yet to respond to the Select Committee’s proposed threshold.

September 9, 2006: The Assembly holds its first meeting – not a single reporter is present. The cabinet has still not decided on the threshold.

October 24, 2006: The government announces its decision – rejecting the recommendation of the Select Committee – by setting a super-majority threshold: "60 per cent of all votes cast provincewide, plus a simple majority of more than 50 per cent of votes cast in at least 64 provincial ridings (the equivalent of 60 per cent or more of provincial ridings)."

April 15, 2007: The Assembly votes by a 92% majority to recommend that Ontario adopt the Mixed Member Proportional voting system.

April 25, 2007: The government announces that "Elections Ontario will deliver neutral public education to raise awareness of the referendum and to educate the public about the alternatives under consideration."

May 15, 2007: The Assembly's final Report recommends that "the question should ask the voters whether Ontario should adopt the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system recommended by the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform."

The Assembly’s report also recommends that a “comprehensive, well-funded public education program, beginning in May and continuing through to the referendum, is vital. We believe that the program should include a description of the new system and how it differs from the current system; a description of the Citizens' Assembly process; and the Assembly's rationale for recommending a Mixed Member Proportional system for Ontario." The subsequent program of Elections Ontario focuses primarily on referendum awareness and does not include any information on the Assembly’s rationale for reform.

June 15, 2007: Marie Bountrogianni, Minister for Democratic Renewal, makes an announcement that she is not running again. An initial press report says the Minister was unhappy about the government’s referendum decisions, but she denies it.

June 20, 2007: The cabinet decision on the referendum question is announced. It ignores the Assembly’s recommendations.

Summer 2007: The Assembly report and a summary brochure are made available to the public through Service Ontario. However, the government subsequently decides to cease printing the brochure. Unlike voters in British Columbia, who received copies of their Assembly’s report in the mail, the great majority of Ontarians never see either a brochure or report from their Assembly.

Fair Vote Ontario
October 2007

Fair Vote Canada
26 Maryland Blvd.
Toronto, ON M4C 5C9