There are many assumptions being made about the upcoming Ontario referendum. It is a panacea to some people to solve the ills of our society. It is a harmless change to our legislature according to some others. For people who know Canadian politics though it is neither a panacea nor harmless. It can send Canadian politics into a spiral from which it might never recover.
The referendum is a choice between first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting that we imported from England more than 200 years ago and proportional voting that has been used in many other societies that allow voting for almost as long. The basic difference between the two voting approaches is that FPTP is considered idealistic. It attempts to create a government of our best and brightest. It is designed to select the people whom we believe best represent us. It means we select the people to govern who are preferred by the largest number of voters.
The option proposed to Ontario voters is mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting. It is a form of proportional voting that allows some members of the legislature to be elected in enlarged FPTP constituencies and others to be selected from party lists based on the votes for each party. An even simpler explanation is that FPTP voting is based on individual candidates and proportional voting is based on political parties.
The proportional part of the voting process seeks to represent society as it exists. In that sense, it is more realistic. It seeks to try to create an image of society in government by reflecting the make-up of the society. The proportional system allocates seats to the various parties according to the votes for each party.
But the problem with this attempt at mirroring of society is that it is being done with political parties. Political parties in Canada do not all try to mirror segments of their society. Parties such as the Conservatives and Liberals had some of their roots in demographics in the past but today are based more on ideology.
Federally, the two best known parties with demographic bases are the Bloc Québécoise and the New Democratic Party. The Bloc is regional and tribal, based on the threat of separation from Canada. The NDP is socialist and union based and originated from a earlier class struggle in what has become a mainly class-free society.
Factions such as the Green Party see proportional representation in Ontario as their only entrée into the legislature and are making it their cause. Proportional representation is also supported by unionists who see it as an opportunity for short-term gains for the NDP. The requirement for a minimum of three per cent of the popular vote before seats are allocated is expected to keep out parties such as the Communists and Libertarians.
Most political observers see the results in the long-term of proportional representation as a potential splintering of the right-of-centre parties. They expect the hard-line religious right to give up on the Conservatives and Liberals and form their own parties. With the dominance of Roman Catholics in the Right-to-Life movement, this could be a separate party from the Protestant religious right. A growth in this factionalism could also lead to religious parties for the more extreme Muslim, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox sects that would put an entirely new complexion on Canadian politics.
While demographically based parties on religious or tribal lines are common in the rest of the world, this is not a road that most Canadians want to travel. Despite the bad example of ethnic infighting over riding nominations in the Toronto area over the last 20 years, Canada’s political parties have tried to stay away from ethnic or religious manipulation in politics. A recent lapse in this regard was Conservative Leader John Tory’s ill-conceived offer to support non-Catholic parochial schools.
Much is made of the desire of some people to have gender equalization in the Ontario Legislature. The NDP have promoted this by ensuring that there are almost equal numbers of male and female NDP candidates in Ontario’s 107 ridings for this election. Nobody expects the results in the election for the NDP will be gender equal. Nor is the legislature likely to be gender equal. Hopefully, we will be represented by people of both genders, chosen for their abilities.
In a speech by a one-time political pundit many years ago, he made the point that political parties needed to make room in their ranks for all segments of Canadian society. To illustrate this, he made a somewhat tongue-in-cheek plea to have more stupid people in politics. His case was that there are likely to be some stupid people in Canada and they deserved to be represented just as much as anyone else. His entire argument fell apart when it was pointed out that the stupid faction was already well represented. For proof, one just had to sit through a late-night session of the Ontario legislature after some of the members had enjoyed their dinner hour in the press gallery bar.