You can never tell for sure but most political observers expect the October referendum on electoral reform in Ontario to be a big yawn. With the requirement for mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting to receive 60 per cent of the popular vote as well as winning in more than 60 per cent of the ridings, it is unlikely that a change in voting will be approved. And that is the good news.
What Ontario can really hope for are the changes that need to come from within the political parties themselves. That will be when the political parties return to being democratic. How can you lead a democratic society without believing in democracy?
What the people arguing in favour of MMP voting fail to recognize is that voting for party lists instead of individuals could drive another nail into the coffin of democracy in our province. We have a tradition in Canada of always having access to our local, provincial and federal politicians. Whether we voted for or against our local councillor and mayors, MPP or MP, they are our representatives and we have access.
MMP voting would be a foolish start to taking that access away from us. By increasing the size of provincial ridings to an average of 135,000 people under MMP voting is taking away from the ease of access we have now in smaller ridings.
In addition, giving the political parties the right to appoint 30 per cent of the legislature puts a wall between the voters and those legislators. Think about how much access average Canadians have to the Senate in Ottawa and that will give you an idea of how accessible you will find appointed legislators.
And what purpose do these appointed legislators serve? They are to be there, we are told, to represent the vote for political parties. Why political parties need to be represented in our legislature is not made very clear. Getting more women and minorities into the legislature by this back door approach is also a specious argument. And it insults the women and people from many minorities who been successful in winning seats the old-fashioned way: getting elected.
But the reform of our electoral system that is needed is the one in which most of the public does not get involved. Restoring democracy in our political parties is not something that will happen overnight. There will be much infighting among vested interests to block the necessary moves. A leading Liberal thinker, Tom Axworthy, who was principle secretary to the late Pierre Trudeau when he was Prime Minister, co-chaired a Liberal Renewal Commission in 2006 that called for power in the Liberal Party to be returned to the constituency organizations.
The most serious concern of the back-room politicos in all parties is the power exercised by the party leader’s office. By controlling party finances, election preparedness, policy development and candidate selection, the leader’s office leaves little for the people in the party rank and file to do, except what they are told.
This centralized control has weakened and reduced the involvement that people used to have in their local party associations. The only time parties seek new members now is during the occasional leadership contests. They need people to support one or another of the candidates and after the new leader is chosen, the recruits are quickly forgotten.
The few times over the years when they are out of power, the federal Liberals became much more democratic. Back in power, the wagons are quickly circled around an omnipotent leader’s office.
The various iterations of the federal Conservative party have not been democratic since the late Dalton Camp was president in the mid 1960s and succeeded in ousting a recalcitrant John Diefenbaker from the party leadership. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois make much of their purported democracy. NDPers do not like to admit that the union control of their party makes a mockery of their claims of democratic purity. In the case of the Bloc, nobody really cares.
But there are too many benefits to restoring the democracy. Strong, independent and hard working constituency organizations can make a difference in election campaigns. Progressive, involved regional political organizations can bring strength and cohesion to party fund raising and policy development. Provincial organizations that are trusted can contribute the leadership that the elected members of the party need to support them in directing the political issues on a daily basis. When this fails and the leader’s office tries to hold the reins of the entire party, the structure of the party collapses from the dry rot that sets in.
That is why Tom Axworthy’s report said to his party’s leadership that they had to return the funding of the party to the riding associations. That way the higher levels would learn to serve the lower levels to earn their keep. What many parties have been slow to learn is that politics is not a top-down managerial task. There is no business model that can explain a political party and how it functions. The party leader is not the chief executive officer of the party, he or she is leader of the elected wing of the party and, as such, is a servant of the party and the electors.