Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007: The year Ontario electoral reformers lost their innocence...

The Ontario Citizens' Assembly (OCA) gave Ontarians a unique opportunity to dump our antiquated 'Winner-Take-All' voting system this year in favour of something more representative of voters' wishes. Sadly, Ontarians failed to take that opportunity on October 10th after the McGuinty government undermined the very process it set up.

As we know, 'Winner-Take-All' hands all the power to one political party, frequently giving it a majority of seats in our legislatures with far less than a majority of votes. Sometimes, 'Winner-Take-All' even gives the second-place party among voters an election victory! This has happened in six out of 10 provinces in recent times: Ontario, Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

After the party won majority power in 2003 with 46% of the vote, Ontario Liberal enthusiasm for real electoral reform, with some notable exceptions, began to wane. The Ontario Citizens' Assembly process was set up too late in the government's first mandate, the former Minister for Democratic Renewal has admitted.

The OCA, made up of 103 randomly-selected, ordinary Ontarians, spent months studying the issue of electoral reform and found our current system to be very wanting. In the end, they recommended a new system called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP. It was a thoughtful, moderate alternative which kept the best aspect of the current system (ensured local representation) while also creating a list system that would be used to ensure party representation matched party support among voters.

For electoral reformers, the prospect of a new system designed to make every vote count in Ontario seemed like a dream come true. Sadly it would not come to pass.

The opponents of change within the McGuinty government won the day in the backrooms long before any referendum ballots were cast.

To ensure any proposal for change would fail, the government approved a 60% threshold for passage (just as they did in British Columbia in 2005.)

With the recommendation for change coming so late in the government's mandate, voters had only a scant few months to learn about it and pass judgment. The McGuinty government failed to adequately inform Ontarians about the Citizens' Assembly process prior to its May 2007 recommendation, and then of course refused to distribute widely the Assembly's final report to voters. Most Ontarians spent the whole summer unaware they'd be asked to make a complicated choice in an October referendum.

The McGuinty government also chose to hold the referendum at the same time as the general election, ensuring the issue would not receive the attention it deserved from the public.

On top of this, instead of financing "Yes" and "No" campaigns that could work diligently to inform voters of their choices, the government passed the buck to Elections Ontario to design the entire education campaign. Not only would Elections Ontario have to run both the election and the referendum at the same time, it would also have to attempt to educate voters about their difficult referendum choice, and have only two months to do it. In the end, Elections Ontario's campaign made almost no mention of the deliberative process that led to the referendum. Elections Ontario opted to give Ontarians only a clinical comparison between voting systems and failed to mention the consequential differences.

Into this void of meaningful information stepped the opponents of electoral reform. They mainly attacked the perceived fatal flaw of the OCA proposal: province-wide party lists.

For supporters of voting reform, it was almost surreal to see a bunch of backroom party hacks on the 'No MMP' campaign attack MMP for giving "party hacks" more power. It also seemed surreal to hear opponents attack the new system as undemocratic, when in fact it was designed to fix the undemocratic aspects of First Past The Post. Mainstream media outlets like the Toronto Star also printed misinformation about the new system in their news stories and got away with it.

Proponents for change had virtually no effective way to counter these attacks. Vote For MMP was able to raise about $400,000 dollars from grassroots supporters, but such an amount was a drop in the bucket in a province the size of Ontario. Up against the circulation of the Toronto Star and other establishment media outlets, proponents had no chance.

By October 10th, the writing was on the wall. Ontarians had heard few substantial reasons to change systems because proponents had little ability to effectively communicate with the public. Ontarians knew almost nothing about the body of citizens who had recommended change and had heard or read a lot of negativity and doubts expressed by most establishment media about the new system.

Under such a scenario, it was virtually impossible that Ontarians would opt for change, let alone the 60% threshold required. In the end, 63% voted to keep our antiquated, vote-distorting 'Winner-Take-All' system.

This was not a fair fight. It was an electoral fiasco.

Even the non-partisan Chair of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly agreed the referendum process designed by the government was flawed.

Hindsight being 20/20, it's clear that the Citizens' Assembly should've never put forth its closed list proposal, designed specifically to address under-representation for certain groups in the legislature. This one proposal became the Achilles heel of the new system. A Mixed Member Proportional model with an open regional list system (where voters could choose which members would be elected to top-up local members, not the parties) might have been an easier sell to Ontarians.

Advocates of electoral reform in Ontario lost their innocence in 2007. We saw in all its ugly glory how far opponents of fair voting, both inside and outside governments, will go to keep our 'Winner-Take-All' system. Any process that contemplates change will never be enthusiastically embraced by the politicians, power brokers and party hacks who control the government decision-making process and benefit greatly from our flawed 'Winner-Take-All' system.

Initial enthusiasm for voting reform by mainstream parties historically victimized by 'Winner-Take-All' frequently disappears once those parties get a taste of false majority power. Witness how Dalton McGuinty has completely dropped the issue of democratic renewal, failing to appoint a new minister after his October re-election despite the historically low voter turnout. Former NB Premier Bernard Lord, whose New Brunswick Conservatives were shut out of the legislature in 1987 and struggled for 12 years in opposition, contemplated voting reform after returning to power in 1999. But after seven years in power, Lord failed to act on electoral reform and ironically saw his own party defeated again in 2006, even though it won the most votes.

Any change to fair voting in Canada will undoubtedly face the same kinds of delays and heavy-handed attacks that we saw this year in Ontario. This is a depressing reality for those fighting for a better, more just system.

But of course, as history has taught us, just change is never easy. The forces of the establishment will always fight to hang on to their power, no matter how unjust. Proponents of fair voting must learn from the 2007 Ontario referendum and continue to lay the groundwork for change in the future.

There remains one major opportunity on the horizon in British Columbia where voters will get another chance to push their fair voting option called Single Transferable Vote (STV) over the 60% threshold in a repeat referendum in 2009. (Voters in 2005 in B.C. voted 58% for STV.) This is cause for optimism as we move forward on this issue.

This site will continue to advocate for a fair voting system in Canada to ensure public interest and fairness will one day win out over the establishment, partisan interests who support our antiquated 'Winner-Take-All' system.


Sam said...

You apparently use the phrase "something more representative of voters' wishes." without irony; clearly the voters -that is the ones who showed up to vote, clearly did express their wishes. The matter you don't seem to address is the best interests of electorate which is clearly a different issue.
You choose to blame politicians for appealing to those who participate in elections rather than trying to educate & motivate those who do not. You are confusing cause with effect.
Think about it this way if you are in the market for a new house then you care about show homes & open houses but if you're not that stuff is just noise.
If you want electoral reform you need to get people to care about elections.

Matt Guerin said...

It's true we need to find ways to better inform people about the flaws of 'Winner-Take-All'. It's a hard struggle, considering the other myriad of political issues that need attention out there. Outside of political science majors, this issue has largely been ignored. But we're committed to advocating for change constantly.

However, the real opportunities to actually change the system are out of our hands. Politicians who benefit from the current system have all the power to change it. This is similar to the struggles of the past to improve democracy. The king had to cede absolute power to the court, eventually to the elected reps who were elected by land owning men, then all men, then men & women, etc. etc. Each step was no doubt a fight. Now we're trying to get rid of the archaic first past the post system to ensure all voters count equally in our democracy, not just those with mainstream views in swing ridings. It's not an easy sell next to war, terrorism, the environment or health care.

You are right - most voters aren't shopping around for a new voting system because most voters don't really know much about this issue or our current system. Proponents for change need to continue the fight to educate voters about this.

As for voters having expressed their wishes in the referendum, clearly my post explains how the entire process, taking advantage of an uninformed and admittedly uninterested electorate, was manipulated in such a way as to produce the result we got.

On this issue, even if we got 70% of voters to agree the existing system is flawed, it wouldn't likely lead to change unless some future courageous leader were willing to stick her/his neck out on a limb on a matter of principle, in violation of their own party's narrow electoral, power-hungry interests and propose change.

We are keenly aware of the obstacles we face in this fight.