Sunday, September 9, 2007

Ontario voters to vote on electoral reform

There seems to be little on this aspect of the election. It would be a great boon for smaller parties such as the Greens to have this reform.

Electoral reform could drastically change Ontario politics on Oct. 10. There is a website describing the two systems.

Mary Vallis
CanWest News Service


Friday, September 07, 2007



TORONTO -- The mournful tones of a bagpipe and saxophone echoed through Queen's Park this week as activists dressed in black declared Ontario's current voting system dead. Despite the cacophony, barely anyone heard them.

Only a smattering of activists attended the symbolic funeral for the province's old electoral system. Fewer still came out to defend it. And no one walking past the spectacle understood what it was about.

During the 2004 election, the Liberals committed to pursuing electoral reform if they formed the government. The following year, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced 103 average voters from across the province would examine the current first-past-the-post electoral system and recommend whether to change it. The citizens' assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new "mixed member proportional" system (MMP) that would give every Ontarian two votes instead of one - one for a local candidate, and another for a political party.

Now it's up to Ontarians to decide whether they agree. Voters will have the chance to forever change politics in Ontario on Oct. 10. In addition to casting ballots in the provincial election, voters will be asked in a referendum whether they want to implement the new system.

Electoral reform is not exactly sexy, but the vote is critical. Ontario has not considered changing the way the province's politicians are elected since 1792. And voters have not had a chance to answer a province-wide referendum question since 1924, back in the days of prohibition.

"There are two things happening on Oct. 10. The second-most important is choosing the next government," says Larry Gordon, campaign manager of Vote for MMP, which organized the funeral. "The most important is the referendum, where we're choosing how we're going to choose governments from now on."

But that message does not appear to be getting through - at least not yet. People wandering past the funeral for Ontario's current "first-past-the-post" electoral system seemed more interested in the nearby film festival than pondering the intricacies of electoral reform. Most did not know about the vote. Those who had heard about the referendum admitted they are not inclined to take part. "I don't know if it will have much of an impact," Mary, a civil servant, said of the referendum. "Most people will think it's just political trickery."

Not even the media are paying attention. Vote for MMP organized the funeral as a spectacle to attract news cameras. But the referendum is competing with the election for air time: The pro-MMP camp staged the stunt at the precise moment Premier Dalton McGuinty launched the Liberals' campaign platform somewhere else downtown.

At the edge of the funeral, three men are clustered under a tree, watching the spectacle. They are the opposition - the "no MMP" camp that wants Ontarians to vote in favour of the status quo. They came to watch their opponents' protest and get their own message out.

This handful of people - both sides of the debate are so small hey could all comfortably fit on a city bus - represent the entire debate.

"I'm worried that unless someone skydives off the CN Tower with a parachute with a big 'R' on it, we're just not going to wake up," said Peter MacLeod, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University. "It's not about waking up in order to all vote MMP. It's waking to what a significant political opportunity or decision this is."

British Columbia and Prince Edward Island have both flirted with new electoral systems. P.E.I. rejected electoral reform, voting 64 per cent against a new system in 1995, but it nearly passed in B.C. the same year, attracting 58 per cent of the vote in 2005. Their proposed system, different from that suggested for Ontario, needed 60 per cent to pass.

If Ontario votes in favour of the new method, the next provincial election in 2011 will be unlike any other in the country. The province will have fewer ridings than it does now, but with 22 more politicians drawing six-figure salaries. Gone will be the days of simply marking an X for a preferred candidate and sending the winner from each riding to Queen's Park. At least sort of: The proposed MMP system is a mishmash of electing local candidates and proportional representation.

In some ways, the proposed system seems fiendishly complicated. In others, it is elegant in its simplicity.

Ontario would be split into 90 ridings, each slightly larger than the current 107. The "local members" would still be elected the old-fashioned way - he or she with the most votes gets sent to Toronto.

But there would be 129 MPPs in total.

The remaining 39 so-called "list seats" would be allocated based on each party's share of the party vote. This is where the votes cast for political parties are important. If the party's share of this second vote is greater than the number of MPPs elected in local ridings, then the party is awarded a number of "top-up" seats from the pool of 39 seats. For example, if the Liberals receive 18 per cent of the party vote but wins only 15 local seats, the party would be awarded another eight seats drawn from the party list (18 per cent of a of a 129-seat legislature equals 23 seats for the Liberals in total).

Before the election, each political party would draft a list of potential candidates in the order it wants them selected if list seats become available. Parties can devise their lists in whatever manners they like, and Elections Ontario would make each list public so voters can take them into account before they vote.

The rules of Ontario's proposed MMP system allow for parties that do not win any local seats to send "list members" to Queen's Park as long as they attract three per cent of the party vote. Thus, the system could help small parties such as the Greens - simply crossing the three per cent threshold means they would add at least four members to legislature, even if the party did not win a single local seat.

It should come as no surprise that many lefties support MMP -among them Ed Broadbent and provincial NDP Leader Howard Hampton, who predicts it will stop NDP supporters from voting Liberal to keep Conservatives out of office. But proponents say the system is equally attractive to right-wingers in ridings dominated by the left, and supporters of small fringe parties desperate for a political voice. Conservative Leader John Tory and McGuinty have said they will remain neutral.

Proponents of MMP argue it will inject new life into provincial politics, promote diversity in legislature and encourage the apathetic electorate to cast ballots.

"It's really an issue of voters' rights," said Gordon, who is leading the charge for MMP. Under the new system there are no wasted votes, he adds. "You know you're always going to elect somebody."

And while MMP systems tend to produce fewer majority governments, the system's proponents say the minority governments it would likely produce in Canada are nothing to fear. Rather, the new political environment encourages parties to form coalitions and co-operate, Gordon says. Parties will not prematurely pull the plug and call an election, Gordon argues, because they will simply have to compromise with the same political parties afterwards if public opinion has not changed.

"It doesn't create utopian consensual politics at all, but it removes the expectation that you can go it alone and impose any political agenda you want as a party," Gordon says. "You always know you're going to have to negotiate and compromise with somebody else."

Supporters of MMP point to New Zealand as a shining example of what Ontario could become. The House of Representatives adopted a similar system in the 1993 and has experienced a rise in its proportion of female MPs and ethnic minorities. One MMP campaigner, Steve Withers, who had been living in New Zealand is so proud of the system that he moved back to Ontario earlier this year to spread the word.

The mixed member proportional system must receive 60 per cent support on all valid votes cast in Ontario and 50 per cent support in at least 64 electoral districts in order to pass.

Ontario's Vote for MMP campaign is headquartered in a modest section of the Centre for Social Innovation. Organizers claim to have raised approximately $100,000 for their cause. But if the pro-reform camp looks small, it looks positively mighty when compared to the campaign to keep the status quo. Vote No to MMP, founded by a retired city planner named Michael Ufford has spent $500 on its campaign so far.

During the funeral planned by the pro-MMP camp, Ufford waited patiently for the few reporters in attendance to ask for his reaction.

"The MMP system shifts power from the local voters in the ridings down to party headquarters right here in Queen's Park. We feel the exact opposite - that political power should come from the people of Ontario, in the ridings," Ufford says.

Opponents of MMP take particular exception with the notion of list members. With no set framework for how parties will develop their lists - that will be left for the parties to decide - they fear incumbent MPPs at risk of losing their seats will no longer be accountable. Their parties could simply add them to the list, raising the possibility they could still be sent to Queen's Park if they are not elected by voters in their ridings. The system could also create two tiers of MPPs: Local politicians accountable to their ridings and list politicians accountable to no one except their party brass, says Joseph Angolano of No MMP.

Regional representation is also an issue. In some countries with MMP, such as Germany, lists of candidates are designed to ensure regions are equally represented. But with a proposed 70-30 split between local and list politicians in Ontario, MMP's detractors say ridings will wind up with an unequal number of representatives.

"That's the question we're asking: Do you trust political parties to get things right? They haven't done it yet," Angolano said during a recent meeting. "They're going to put these MPPs where they think it's politically expedient."

The "No" camp argues diversity in legislature will be an afterthought. And gone will be the days of allowing a government with a strong, clear mandate carry out their vision, says Angolano, who is finishing up a PhD on democratic reform.

"What they call coalitions, I call back room deals, simple as that," Angolano said.

The one issue both sides agree on is Elections Ontario is not doing a good job advertising the referendum.

The pro-MMP camp says the agency is not spending enough money promoting the vote - it has allocated $6.8 million to the referendum campaign - while the anti-MMP camp alleges the agency is unfairly pushing the work of the citizens' assembly.

At the heart of the debate are the minds of 8.5 million Ontarians eligible to vote.

Elections Ontario rolled out neutral television ads after Labour Day and will boost its information campaign as the referendum vote nears, said Loren Wells, Ontario's deputy chief electoral officer.

Elections Ontario has also hired 107 referendum resource officers to spread the word in their ridings through community meetings, fall fairs and other local events.

"People have to wait and see how broad the campaign is," Wells said.

The public's knowledge of the referendum remained low over the summer - one survey put voters' complete awareness of the referendum at just eight per cent, Wells admitted. But interest picked up in September: The referendum website, yourbigdecision.ca, had attracted 32,8000 visits by Wednesday, with 4,000 of them on Tuesday alone. Elections Ontario's 1-800 line experienced a similar surge this week, adding 230 calls in one day to its 1,624 total.

And while Ontarians might not yet realize the historical significance of the vote, the international community certainly does.

Canada is the only country in the world where voters themselves designed the proposed systems.

"Hopefully, it leads to a wider debate," said Stina Laserud, a Stockholm-based policy specialist with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

© National Post 2007

1 comment:

Linuxluver said...

The official site you point to isn't allowed to explain WHY the Citizens Assembly recommended MMP (voting 94 to 8 in favour).

This is just one example of how the Ontario government is now working hard to prevent people from find out how much better MMP is as compared to the present voting system.

Better and more useful information can be found at:

http://www.citizensassembly.gov.on.ca

and

http://www.voteformmp.ca