Inside Queen's Park: Ontarians lukewarm to election reform

The largest single political demonstration in Israeli history took place in 1990 and was over electoral reform, not the Arab-Israeli conflict.

More than 250,000 people turned out publicly to demand revisions as to how Israel elects its legislators and determines its governments.

If Ontarians had the same desire for change, we would have seen 1.5 million people jamming the streets of downtown Toronto and demanding electoral reform.

The vehicle to do so exists. In 2006, the Liberals created the Citizens’ Assembly for Electoral Reform to review the existing system and recommend needed changes, if any.

But instead of massive turnouts, 41 assembly meetings held around Ontario saw a turnout of only 2,400 people, about half of whom made submissions. And that low response came despite massive free, and mainly favourable, publicity in the media.

This suggests that changing how we in Ontario pick our legislators isn’t exactly a screaming priority among voters.

Commonly called “first past the post,” our British-descended system gives a seat in the legislature to the single candidate who obtains the most votes cast in a geographic area called a riding.

A bewildering variety of other systems exist around the world, all of them more-or-less functional.
In Israel, no one votes for candidates in general elections, only for parties, a form of proportional representation (PR), which many electoral reform advocates seek to import to Ontario. Its advantage is that seats in a PR legislature reflect the vote the party actually gets, unlike our first-past-the-post system, which often distorts results.

For example, in the 2003 provincial election the Liberals won 70 per cent of the 103 seats (72 seats) with only 46 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives took 24 per cent of the seats with 35 per cent of the vote, and the NDP have seven per cent and 15 per cent of the vote respectively.

In an Israeli-style PR parliament of 103 seats, where the cut-off point for representation is getting 1.5 per cent of the vote, the 2003 election would have produced 49 Liberals, 36 Conservatives, 15 New Democrats and three Greens.

Yet despite any major outcry seeking reform, the Citizens’ Assembly is to bring recommendations to the government that can be incorporated into a referendum question when Ontarians go to the polls this October.
And although its mandate allows it to recommend the status quo, it is highly unlikely to do so.

That’s partly because of human nature. People who are content with things as they are rarely join gatherings to trumpet the point. And the culling process for the 103 members of the citizens’ assembly - one to represent each riding in the current parliament - chose only those interested.

Elections Ontario randomly sent letters to 124,000 people, then reduced the 12,000 who responded to 1,200 by supposedly profiling for age alone. Those 1,200 were invited to “choosing” sessions where 103 delegates plus alternates were picked by random secret ballot from those who wanted to continue participation.

Curiously, this process produced 52 females and 51 males, one-third of them foreign-born.
Moreover, interviews with them seem to suggest a predisposition towards change, like the similar citizens’ assembly in British Columbia in 2005, which recommended a version of PR (known as “single transferable vote” or STV) because, published reports say, they were led to it by staff.

The Liberals say the same thing can’t happen in Ontario, but one has to wonder. Put 103 people in a room and you’ll get at least 104 opinions - unless the debate is structured and led. The assembly’s Liberal-appointed chair, George Thomson, is a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat enamored of the state’s organizing power.

The assembly is mandated to consider eight principles when designing any new system: legitimacy, fairness of representation, voter choice, effective parties, stable and effective government, an effective legislature, stronger voter participation, and accountability. But at bottom this is meaningless, since all electoral systems are trade-offs between those principles.

The citizens’ assembly itself added simplicity and practicality as features for consideration, which suggests we might as well stick with the current system.

Interestingly, the Liberals, who created the assembly, are throwing out mixed signals about how they view its work. Although Premier Dalton McGuinty promised electoral review before the last election in 2003, he took three years to create the assembly, and then belatedly tacked on a requirement that any recommended changes must be endorsed in a referendum by 60 per cent of those voting, as well as hurdle the geographic barrier of getting 50 per cent support in 64 ridings out of the 107 being contested in October.

One might suspect that the Liberals, having gotten a majority government under the first-past-the-post system - and knowing they wouldn’t get it under PR - are much less enthusiastic for electoral reform than they were four years ago. Just as most Ontarians appear to be from the low response to the assembly.

Derek Nelson joins Law Times this week as our new Inside Queen’s Park columnist. His column will appear in every second issue.

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