This is the ninth of the Democracy Papers written in 2007 in answer to the Ontario referendum that year on electoral reform. The referendum was defeated but the need for reform continues to rankle. We believe Canada must have an elected Constitutional Conference. Electoral reform is just one of the topics to be brought to the gathering. For this reason, the Democracy Papers are being updated and rerun.
Chapter 9 – To be a ‘No’ committee is no easy task.
It started with the announcement that the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform had decided to support ‘mixed-member proportional’ (MMP) voting in Ontario. Nobody really cared until we found out what that meant. This generated a flurry of e-mails to other political people in our network to the effect that we should launch a ‘no’ campaign. Some thought this might be fun, so we started talking seriously about it.
Our first problem was that very few of our potential financial backers knew what we were talking about. We had to explain the citizens’ assembly. For a representative group of voters, one from every riding in Ontario, the citizens’ assembly was remarkably apolitical. It was supposed to examine Ontario’s electoral system and it chose a system that has been causing headaches for New Zealand voters for the past 11 years. The assembly thought the idea was progressive. It is based on appointing people to the legislature according to the per cent of popular vote for each political party.
The first problem voters have with that is that there is nothing progressive about appointing 39 out of 129 members of the legislature. Ontario did that 200 years ago and it led to the Upper Canada Rebellion. Allowing anyone a seat in the legislature who is not elected by the voters is anathema to those who believe in democracy. And nobody wants another senate.
But arguing the case was not getting us closer to forming our ‘no’ campaign.
One problem with forming a ‘no’ committee, we were told, was that ‘no’ seemed so negative. The advice was to make the ‘no’ sound like a ‘yes.’ That gave us food for thought for maybe 30 seconds. If people think we are saying ‘yes’ then we could by accident make them think we were in favour of what is a really dumb idea.
We were rescued from that dilemma by Elections Ontario. In its wisdom, this body declared that it would not ask the voters a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question on election day, October 10. Instead the question will be something like: do you approve of staying with the old-fashioned ‘first-past-the-post’ election method or do you approve of this new mixed-member proportional idea from the citizens’ assembly? We were going to complain about how the question was worded but the ‘yes’ proponents beat us to the punch by complaining because theirs was not the first option. We figured that it must be fair if Elections Ontario is being berated by both sides.
But we are a bit concerned about Elections Ontario. That body has been charged and given a blank cheque to explain the options to the voters of Ontario. Assuming that, at this stage, maybe 15 per cent of the population of Ontario would have the slightest clue what this referendum is about, Elections Ontario has a tough job.
Any editor or reporter could tell them the problem they face: There is no such thing as being impartial. The very act of trying to explain the two options creates a conundrum. They are being forced to pose two options as though they are alternatives. They are giving credibility to the idea of mixed-member proportional representation that it does not deserve when it is only one of many possibilities.
And to make matters worse, you had to be there to believe what Elections Ontario told us was necessary for us to be a ‘no’ committee. Nobody, of sound mind, would want to play in that sandbox.
You may register, we were told, but if you spend more than $500 on (what they determine to be) advertising, you will report to us every penny you collect and where and from whom you got it. Further, you will then declare where you spend this money and if there is any left over, you will promptly give it to us at Elections Ontario.
That would likely be on the same day that our pet pigs learn to fly.
This caused a serious right-about face on our plans to be an official ‘no’ campaign. ‘Please do not send us your money,’ was the gist of an immediate series of e-mails. (We were assured by a few of the e-mail recipients that we need not have been concerned.)
If it was any consolation to most of us, we were on the ‘no’ side of the last federal referendum. That was an easy one. It was the Charlottetown Accord. Do you remember that all the party leaders supported that fiasco? It lost. Maybe that is why the two main political parties are keeping quiet on this referendum. They have enough problems without backing another loser.
And, while we have no intention of being complacent, this referendum looks like it is also heading for the dumper. If Elections Ontario spends enough of our money to get more than 60 per cent of the population to understand the options, they would likely have to bankrupt the province. Besides, someone with more brains than the average politician made sure that it would require 60 per cent of the total votes in favour MMP voting and with more than 60 per cent of Ontario’s ridings voting in favour to be approved.
©Copyright 2007, 2011, Peter Lowry
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