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Niagara Falls Review

October vote gives citizens rare clout

Front, Monday, July 9, 2007, p. A1

ST. CATHARINES - Ontario has one chance to reform its government. One shot that might not come again.

Or so says Peter Kormos.

The Niagara Centre NDP MPP said a referendum on the Oct. 10 ballot is the best chance voters have to change government for the better.

"I think we need government reform in Ontario quite badly.

"It is something that is long overdue and if that is what voters want, then the choice is simple: Vote for the proposal," he said.

The proposal Kormos wants voters to accept is something called "mixed-member proportional" representation. Or as those in the know like to call it, MMP.

It's billed as a way to improve democracy and bring a greater sense of fairness to Queen's Park.

While it doesn't sound exciting, it might be the most important decision voters make this fall, said Joe Murray, president of Fair Vote Ontario.

"Under the system we have now, the party that gets the most votes might not get the most seats in the house," Murray said.

"The situation is that a majority government can be formed with, say, 45 per cent of the vote," Murray said.

"Can we honestly say that 45 per cent of the people can thwart the will of the other 55 per cent?"

The MMP system would mean the number of seats a party has in the house will closely mirror the number of votes it receives provincewide.

Murray promotes it as an evolutionary leap forward for voting and democracy in Ontario.

The proposed change is receiving only a lukewarm reception from Niagara's incumbent and would-be MPPs, though.

"I think Canada is the greatest country in the world and our system of government has served us very well," said Conservative candidate Bart Maves, who will attempt to regain the Niagara Falls seat he lost to Liberal Kim Craitor in 2003. "I see no reason to change it." Erie-Lincoln Conservative MPP Tim Hudak said the new system creates a less democratic parliament because it allows for 39 MPPs to be selected by political parties rather than being personally elected by voters.

"Because these MPPs would not be elected by a riding, they would not be accountable to the voters. They would be beholden to the party bosses who appointed them," Hudak said. "I don't think that is a good thing at all."

St. Catharines MPP and Tourism Minister Jim Bradley said he won't offer a public opinion on the matter.

"I think that it's something that should not be a partisan issue and the voters need to make this decision on their own," he said.

Even Kormos, who is urging voters to accept the proposal, isn't entirely pleased with the process.

He is critical of the fact the referendum is not legally binding upon the next parliament. That is, whichever party forms the next government is not obligated to enact the change.

However, he said, voting for MMP is the best chance to have the issue brought to the floor of the house and discussed.

Murray said it's true the MMP proposal - created by a provincial citizens committee - doesn't force the next government to enact it. However, the Liberal government, which promised the referendum during the last election, passed a law that said if the proposal receives 60 per cent popular vote, along with half the vote in at least 60 per cent of Ontario ridings, the government must bring a bill before the house.

The government or opposition parties are free to relegate such a bill to the dust bin, but Murray thinks that is unlikely.

"If the proposal has that 60 per cent level of support, I think it would be very hard for a government to ignore it," he said.

"Any government that turned its back on the will of the people expressed like that would be in very serious trouble."

So what is mixed-member proportional representation?

Under the current "single-member plurality" system - sometimes called first past the post - the number of votes a party receives in an election may not be reflected in the number of seats in parliament.

Take the 2003 provincial election as an example. The Liberals won 69.9 per cent of the seats at Queen's Park with only 45.5 per cent of the popular vote. The New Democratic Party, on the other hand, captured 6.8 per cent of the seats with 14.7 per cent of the vote.

Murray said MMP would change the system so the number of seats a party has more closely reflects the number of votes they garner.

To accomplish this, voters would make two choices on election day. The first would be a ballot for local candidates. The other would be for their party of choice.

"Often voters will like a local candidate but not their party, or the other way around, and they feel stuck," Murray said. "This gives them more choice."

Because the number of seats won by parties will often not reflect the popular vote, there would be 39 so-called "list candidates" that will be used to even things out.

The 39 MPPs would not be personally elected. Rather, they would be chosen by the party from a list presented to voters before the election.

"So what happens is that if a party wins 25 per cent of the vote, but their candidates only get them 20 seats, they will use their list candidates to top them off," Murray said. "On the other hand, if your candidates win the same number of seats as the popular vote for the party, that party does not get any of the list candidates." The end result of this process is that parties like the Green party, which receives thousands of votes provincewide, would have some seats in the house, even if none of their candidates won at the riding level.

This is what Hudak said is the problem. The 39 MPPs will not be personally elected and will be more interested in what their party leaders want than the needs of voters, he said.

Murray dismissed Hudak's complaint as "fear-mongering."

"If a party's candidates did not win many seats in, say, Toronto, they would likely choose a list candidate from Toronto to represent the voters who cast a ballot for their party," Murray said. "In addition, the process by which the list is created by each party has to be transparent, documented and sent to Elections Ontario for scrutiny."

And because their seats are the result of the provincewide vote totals, they are just as accountable to voters as riding candidates, he added.

Brock University political science professor Garth Stevenson said most democratic nations - with the notable exceptions of Britain, Canada and the United States - use some form of proportional representation.

"Germany, for instance, uses something very similar (to MMP) and it has worked well for them for some time," he said. "It does increase the chance of minority or coalition governments, but I don't think that is a bad thing at all."

But Murray said the trouble is that most voters know next to nothing about the decision they will be asked to make.

Consider, he said, a similar referendum in British Columbia in 2005. After a $3.5-million public education campaign, only half of those who showed up to vote knew about the referendum at all. And of that half, few understood the choice on the ballot.

The education effort was too short and too limited, Murray said.

It is for that reason Fair Vote Ontario wants Elections Ontario to follow the lead of New Zealand.

In 1993, New Zealand spent $13 million on a governance referendum education campaign, which resulted in increased voter turnout and a high level of voter knowledge of the issue.

"This is not something that can be done in a single television ad, or a brochure or a flyer," Murray said. "It's a process and it takes time. The sooner it starts, the better."

Ontario Chief Elections Officer John Hollins did not return a message left by Osprey News.

However, an Elections Ontario spokeswoman said the public education plan is still being developed and will be unveiled next week.

She would not comment on how much money will be spent.

Referendum details

On Oct. 10, Ontario voters will be making two choices.

The first will be to cast a vote for a local candidate to represent them at Queen's Park and the second is a referendum on electoral reform.

The referendum will allow voters to maintain the current system at Queen's Park or select a mixed-member proportional representation system that will see the number of party seats in the house linked to the popular vote.

A citizens committee was struck by the government to study the issue and bring forward an alternative to the current "first past the post" model.

The results of the referendum are not legally binding. The next government is not obligated to alter the electoral system if Ontarians vote for a change.

However, if the proposed change is accepted by 60 per cent of Ontario voters, and half of all voters in 60 per cent of ridings, the government will have to bring a bill before the legislature for debate.

© 2007 Niagara Falls Review (ON). All rights reserved.