#1 Politics and political parties confused citizens’ assembly

It was very courageous of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform to suggest a ‘mixed-member proportional’ (MMP) electoral system be voted on in a referendum, October 10.   It was courageous because these people had no experience with politics, political parties or the various electoral systems they reviewed.   They must hope that the rest of Ontario’s voters are as confused as themselves.

The citizens’ assembly naively suggested in their deliberations that people have two votes, one for a candidate in an enlarged riding and the other for a party.   In this manner, they believe, there could be a fairer representation in the legislature of the popular vote between parties.   They never explain why this should be necessary.

The assembly members were under the impression that just because a party’s candidates receive maybe 15 per cent of the popular vote, then that party should be allowed to have 15 per cent of the seats.   The unasked question is: ‘Why?’

With only 15 per cent of the vote in a general election, your party is a loser.   Reality is that if your party cannot garner more than 15 per cent of the popular vote, it really needs to improve its platform strategy, reconsider its leadership and take a long hard look at its candidates.   To reward your party for this showing is to encourage mediocrity.

What used to happen to this 15-per cent party is that it got maybe three or four candidates elected.   This could be because these are outstanding people and the voters recognize this and vote for them despite their party affiliation.   It could also be that there is a large concentration of people sympathetic to the party’s ideals in that riding.   Or maybe so many people in that riding are related to the candidate and s/he cannot lose.   Whatever the reason, it does not take long to figure it out.

If, for example, you are the New Democratic Party, it is not hard to understand that the party can do well in areas of the province with a strong union vote.   While the party fields candidates in ridings where there might be little union support, such as in the more affluent parts of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), these party stalwarts are there to establish their credentials in the party. Realistically, they know to limit their campaigning to showing some signs and making appearances at all-candidate meetings.   And any long-term NDPer is realistic about how that works.   Most of the good workers in these throw-away ridings are asked to put their efforts into ridings with better possibilities.   And if the throw-away candidate makes a good showing despite the situation in the riding, they might be offered a more NDP-friendly riding next time.

Conservatives and Liberals have to spread themselves over far more ridings.   While there is always a tendency to slack off a bit in ridings where an opponent seems entrenched, there will be a renewed effort whenever the incumbent shows any sign of weakness.

Until the early 1990s, Ontario political parties were ‘candidate-centred.’   This meant that local riding associations used to have the right to choose their candidate without too much interference from party headquarters.   While the system tended to produce the occasional maverick, everyone agreed that the stodgy legislature needed some livening.   One of the problems with this was sometimes it was hard to find the right riding for a star candidate favoured by the party leadership.

Today, of course, party leaders control the ridings because they sign off on candidates so that they can be funded with taxpayers’ money.   The day of the maverick has ended.   Instead of being candidate centred, Ontario has been forced into a ‘party-centred’ political structure.   One thing that the citizens’ assembly MMP voting could ensure is that Ontario stays locked into being party-centred.

And there is no question that party-centred politics is a natural breeding ground for corruption.   The classic study of this is New York City’s Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party organization that controlled the city and its boroughs for 80 years.

Ontarians do not have to look far to see the potential problems with a party-centred system.   Québec’s federal Liberals are a good example.   The Montréal-based party organization appoints Liberal candidates across the province.   And that is another reason why Paul Martin’s Liberals were dragged from power by the sponsorship scandal.   Successive prime ministers, Chrétien and Martin had ignored the corruption-prone system at the roots of their Québec support.

But for the apolitical citizens’ assembly, political history such as this would have been a bore.   They were given the option of several voting systems.   They thought they were doing their job when they chose one of them.   They just did not have the political experience to know in what direction their option would send the province.

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