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."