Ontario could have done better.

THE DEMOCRACY PAPERS #8- Revised  It was in 2007 that The Democracy Papers were written to make the case for our first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting in North America. Despite changes being rejected firmly in Ontario and twice in British Columbia, people still complain. The complaints are understandable. No system is perfect. Neither is democracy but it is better than the alternatives.

Suppose a decision needs to be made about something important to you. And that decision is being made for you. Who do you want to make that decision? Do you want people whom you know and trust to make it? Do you want people who are experts in that field to help? Do you want extensive public discussion on the issues? Do you want to consider all the options? Or would you, in some wild state of insanity, decide to get a bunch of lottery winners to make the decision for you? That is what happened in Ontario running up to the 2007 election.

And what is worse, most Ontario citizens were not aware of it. Surveys, in August that year, showed that less than 30 per cent of the population knew of Ontario’s citizens’ assembly on electoral reform and the referendum to be put before the voters during the October election. Ontario citizens were mugged.

In one of the most capricious acts of government in Ontario since the Harris Conservatives decided we did not need to be so rigid about checking the safety of our drinking water, the McGuinty Liberals set a group of lottery winners to play with our electoral system.

Not that there is anything wrong with examining our electoral system.   First-past-the-post (FPTP) voting is no sacred cow. Examine it all you like. It took centuries to develop. Nobody thinks it is perfect.

But would it not be better to have such things studied by people who know what they are doing? What is wrong with learned discussion? Why could we not consider the pros and cons with people who understood voting systems and the political scene? Why were we instead being force-fed a single option? It was wrong.

The McGuinty government picked one voter from each of 103 ridings in the province and said ‘you decide.’ They turned this befuddled group of citizens loose without even a leader who knew about the question. Judge George Thomson had presided over family court before going to work for Ontario’s civil service at Queen’s Park.   He was on the same learning curve as his flock. The results show how little they knew.

The lottery winners voted for a system called mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting. This is a somewhat confusing system of voting where political party appointees can be appointed to the legislature to ‘top up’ party representation. Their job done, the lottery winners went home to their ridings.   It was the voters who were left to sort it out in the referendum that came with the October provincial election.

And they did not get much help.   Elections Ontario had been told by the government to spend what was necessary to educate Ontario voters. Luckily, Elections Ontario decided to spend less than $7 million on the task. They left the educational job to the various groups organizing pro-MMP/pro-FPTP campaigns and the news media.

The battleground turned out to be the Internet. The news media were slow getting into the fray, relying mainly on their own political columnists and talking heads. The one thing for sure is that nobody showed off their expertise. One newspaper column solicited from an assistant professor inVictoria, B.C. gave a glowing report on MMP, mentioning how it has been used in Germany with excellent results. The academic needed to extend his research a bit and he would have also found that MMP was a reluctant compromise in 1949 because of how Hitler’s Brown Shirts took advantage of proportional voting in the Wiemar Republic.

But then everyone needs to improve their research on this question. Platitudes such as ‘MMP will help more women and minorities get in the legislature’ are all very nice but nobody has offered any proof of that statement.

Proportional representation is the most common voting system in the world. The reason is because it is easier for illiterate voters to vote for a party symbol than a name. Mixed-member proportional is not as common. Mixed member means that some people are elected directly and some are appointed by their political parties. The pro-MMP people are usually selective in their examples.   Using New Zealand is a guarantee that not many Ontario voters would know much about that country’s politics. Far more Ontario residents would be familiar with the results of MMP voting in Mexico. Now why does nobody mention the Mexico experience?

The most vigorous pro-MMP campaigns was by the Green Party and NDP. These parties are under the impression that they will benefit the most from MMP. The pro-FPTP campaigns were slower to emerge because of the ease with which the pro-MMP groups label you as reactionary. Hopefully, more and more informed people will join in on the discussion.  We need to protect our democracy.

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Copyright 2012 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

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