November 2007: Another Setback For Democracy

Electoral reform in Ontario fails to win enough votes
November 1, 2007

Readers supporting the creaky old “first-past-the-post” (single member plurality, or SMP) electoral system will find neither aid nor comfort in this essay. If democracy is the worst form of governance in the world except for all the others, SMP is the best democratic voting system in the world—except for all the others. It allows parties with minority electoral support to rule as if they had majorities (in Ontario, since 1937), and excludes the political preferences of large numbers of electors.

So the required 60%-plus of Ontario’s voters should have voted Yes in the referendum that accompanied last month’s provincial election.

But they didn’t. Instead they overwhelmingly rejected the proposed electoral change.

This failure can’t be explained solely by the lack of public education on the subject. Although an Environics poll earlier this year showed that most Ontarians were unfamiliar with the concept of proportional representation, public awareness in itself is insufficient to move a citizenry towards significant political or social change. People are indifferent or hostile to major changes in which they do not feel personally involved. And there was little effort made by either side to involve ordinary citizens in the process of electoral reform -- an omission that always favours the status quo.

Canadians, in general, are politely unenthusiastic about politics. They turn out to the polls, but in increasingly modest numbers; they are not, for the most part, politically engaged; they are deeply cynical about governments and politicians. A poll by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada a few years ago found that more than 70% of its respondents agreed with the statement: “I don’t think governments care very much about what people like me think.” And 86% believed that politicians often lie to get elected.

This is not fertile ground for change. Politicians, after all, will still be elected, whatever system is in place. Simply exchanging one electoral process for another, on its own, fails to address the current malaise. The reform initiative in Ontario, which could have tackled this head-on by involving ordinary citizens from the start, instead played itself out far above their heads. From the perspective of the individual electors, it was politics as usual.

The process in Ontario began, as it did in British Columbia, with the appointment of a Citizens’ Assembly through a gender-balanced but otherwise random riding-by-riding selection. This gave the impression of a “citizen-driven” affair, but the CA members were in fact an unelected and unaccountable--and hence unrepresentative--group.

None of this might have posed a major obstacle to change. Had the process been run by politicians, however accountable, their political preconceptions, framed by the system in which they operate, could have excluded a number of new ideas. But the CA investigation into electoral reform proved to be subject to considerable framing limitations itself.

Indeed, that began well before the formation of the Citizens’ Assembly. Premier Dalton McGuinty announced in late 2004 that such a body would be created to “re-examine our first-past-the-post electoral system and recommend possible changes.” This seemed to rule out an examination of the Ontario electoral system that went beyond the issue of proportional representation.

The CA’s eventual mandate, however, did promise broader possibilities. An “electoral system” was loosely defined, and would enshrine nine general principles: legitimacy, fairness of representation, voter choice, effective parties, stable and effective government, effective parliament, stronger voter participation, accountability, and simplicity and practicality. Quite a range of democratic reforms could be conceived within this framework.

If a “made-in-Ontario” electoral system was the aim, however, the CA, coming to its task with an open and undirected mind, should have been given a brief orientation and sent out immediately to canvass the values, principles, and outcomes that Ontarians would like to see in an ideal electoral system. Rather than dealing with off-the-shelf electoral models at the outset, the CA could have collected ideas from Ontarians, assessed them, and come to some consensus about what the majority of Ontarians actually wanted. In tandem, reform activists could have been doing broad community work to raise interest and ensure wide participation in the CA process. Once the first phase had been completed, experts could have been invited to assist the CA in determining how to build a model that would best inculcate the ideas that they had gathered.

Perhaps something as radically new as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) or the Single Transferable Vote (STV) might have arisen from such a process. Perhaps the election of the governance structure as a whole—the premier, the cabinet, the legislature—might have been re-thought. Perhaps representation of groups such as First Nations might not have been pre-empted almost entirely by a party-based notion of proportionality.

But this was not to be. Very quickly it became apparent that the direction and the work of the CA were to be carefully controlled. The CA, once selected, was subjected to an intensive “learning phase” over a two-month period, one that focused exclusively on voting systems used elsewhere, with the assistance of a small army of facilitators and experts. By the time the CA set out on its tour of Ontario to seek citizen input, the die was cast.

The CA held 41 meetings across the province, attended by a total of 1,973 members of the public. Given the potential for significant electoral change in Ontario, this was a disappointingly small number, when one considers that 4.4 million electors (themselves only 55% of those eligible to vote) turned out to cast a ballot in the previous provincial election. The CA heard 501 time-limited oral presentations, and it received 963 individual written submissions, with a further 58 from organizations and 15 from outside Canada (all of these summarized for the CA members by staff). From all sources, the CA heard from about 3,000 members of the public. Input was not confined to ideas, values and principles, but mostly appeared to centre on electoral models.

The CA cannot be blamed for most of this. A vigorous participatory initiative in the communities of Ontario — community surveys followed by workshops and town-hall meetings, for example — might have generated a groundswell of popular enthusiasm. The best ideas can sometimes spring from brainstorming sessions, and encouraging these would have had the added benefit of involving many more people than reform activists from the beginning.

The only national voting reform organization, Fair Vote Canada, launched a Fair Vote Ontario campaign, but this proved to be largely a top-down affair. The Ontario FVC chapters were never invited to develop and approve a province-wide action plan that included substantial community outreach. No coherent public activation strategy was developed. The emphasis instead was to make presentations at CA meetings, and put out the FVC reform line in traditional ways, such as through letters to the editor. As already noted, most of the Ontario public remained oblivious.

The CA’s reports of the meetings indicate the degree to which pre-framing had occurred. Input was summarized on a template -- some of it attached to the nine CA guiding principles, most of it focused upon the current voting model and alternative voting systems. As an add-on, “Other Thoughts” were listed, where some of the most interesting content could be found.

Presenters advocated a wide range of reforms, such as popular or legislative election of the premier; recall votes and citizens’ initiatives; referendums on important issues; a ban on floor-crossing; consensus government; local residency requirements for MPPs; special measures to ensure Aboriginal representation; term limits; legislative seats for mayors of large cities; shorter terms for list MPPs; weighted legislative votes; a lower voting age; even tax credits to encourage voting. But not one of these ideas appears to have been seriously considered.

The CA produced a final report that explicitly rejected “sweeping reform,” opting instead for a “made-in-Ontario” voting system that was anything but. It was just a slightly tweaked version of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system, with a few hand-waves in the direction of public education and voting accessibility, but no other substantial recommendations — with the following single exception.

A province-wide, closed-list system, in which the political parties determine who their list MPPs will be (as opposed to open or flexible lists in which voters can choose among names on the list) would be accompanied by a transparency regulation requiring the parties to make public their method of assembling the lists. The aim here was to bring pressure to bear on the parties to improve their representation of women and minority groups, as well as to maintain geographic balance.

Closed lists are not as undemocratic as they might at first appear. The experience in Germany, for example, is that nearly all list candidates run in constituencies, and that the electorate discerns no real difference between list and riding representatives. (Parties under the current SMP system, of course, already determine who their candidates will be -- sometimes, as we have seen recently, against the wishes of the local riding association.) Parties placing unknowns on a list, or selecting candidates through an arbitrary process, run the obvious risk of losing votes.

But none of this really matters. From the standpoint of the average Ontario voter, likely unaware of (let alone involved in) the reform initiative in the first place, one party-based structure was simply being proposed to replace another, and the new structure appeared to allow even more party control of the process. It was far too easy for opponents of reform to exploit the skepticism that voters already have about parties and politicians.

The CA rejection of “sweeping reform,” given this barren soil, was undoubtedly wise; but had the process been different, with citizens’ ideas, debate, and meaningful involvement encouraged from the very start, a full-scale overhaul of the electoral system, in the widest sense of that term, might well have been achievable. Nothing less than a new political culture would have been born and fostered, and the electors, for once, would have felt that they had a stake in the outcome. In that context, the much-criticized 60% threshold for approval of the new system — entirely appropriate when a basic change is proposed in how we do democracy — could have been easily reached.

As it turned out, the proposed model promised greater fairness to political parties but offered a form of proportionality without any guarantee of true representativeness. For most citizens of Ontario, this was insufficient to justify making the leap of faith required of them, and they opted for the known. The process that set an alternative before them took place at as great a remove from the average citizen as the current political system. And those of us who want democratic change paid the price.

(John Baglow is an Ottawa consultant who, at this writing, was a member of the National Council of Fair Vote Canada. The opinions expressed here are very much his own and those of his late partner, Marianne MacKinnon, whose notes and comments contributed substantially to this article.)