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St. Catharines Standard

Historic opportunity for Ontario voters

Western democracies thrive with proportional representation models
Dennis Pilon
Special to The Standard

St. Catharines Standard (ON)
Viewpoint, Tuesday, July 17, 2007, p. A6
Guest column

It may be the most important vote in Ontario's history. On Oct. 10, Ontarians will have the chance to vote in a provincewide referendum on whether to keep the province's traditional plurality voting system or adopt a system of proportional representation.

If provincial voters say yes, Ontario will become the only jurisdiction in the world where the key democratic institution linking voters and their representatives has been designed by citizens rather than elites and politicians. This would be a major step forward in fixing our ailing democracy, one where voter turnout is plummeting and the public is increasingly losing interest in politics, particularly young people. If Ontarians say yes, the decision could reverberate across the country, influencing democratic reform efforts in other provinces as well as the federal level.

The backstory to this historic vote is the legacy of ridiculous election results produced by Ontario's traditional voting system, single member plurality.

Remember the NDP majority government that had gained only 38 per cent of the popular vote? Or how about the "strong" governments of Mike Harris, another regime that was rejected by a majority of Ontario voters twice but nonetheless won a majority of seats in both contests? Or how about the postwar dominance of the old provincial Conservative party? In power for 42 years but never with the support of a majority of the voters. Such results make a mockery of one of the key tenets of democratic government, that the majority should rule. But with plurality voting Ontario is almost always dominated by a minority of its voters.

To its credit, the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government recognized that this state of affairs needed to be examined and last year created the Citizen's Assembly of Ontario, 103 randomly selected average people from across the province. These citizens spent eight months using their free time and weekends to examine our present voting system and the alternatives to see if Ontario could do democracy better.

These are people with no axe to grind and no political masters to serve - they just want what is best for Ontario. And they have decided that our present system mostly serves our political class, not the voters. As a result, they have proposed a proportional voting system as an alternative, called mixed member proportional (or MMP). MMP would retain 90 single member ridings, just like our current system, but would then add 39 seats that could be awarded to parties to make sure the overall election results work out proportionally.

The adoption of MMP would make for a dramatic improvement in Ontario democracy. First, MMP would assure that nearly every vote cast would count towards the election of someone. Conservative voters in downtown Toronto, Liberal voters in Barrie and NDP voters in Mississauga would finally see their vote make a difference.

Second, MMP would make the political system more competitive. Our present system functions like a cartel, protecting the existing parties and making it difficult for new competitors to break in to the system. The citizen's assembly proposal would establish a threshold too keep out very small parties but beyond that their model would make our system more responsive to what the public wants.

Third, MMP would more accurately represent what voters say with their votes about all parties. If 40 per cent want Conservative representatives, then 40 per cent of our legislators would be Conservatives, no more, no less. Finally, MMP would do a better job of reflecting our social diversity by making it easier for parties to elect more women and visible minorities.

But just getting a vote on the question isn't enough. Over the coming months the proposal has got to get a fair hearing if voters are to make an informed decision. Here we run into some difficulties, as many of the organized political forces in the province oppose change. It is not surprising that politicians might be against reforms to make them more accountable or that the existing parties want to keep the system rigged in their favour. Yet there appear to be many in the media who don't seem to want to present a balanced discussion of this exciting new proposal either.

For instance, a host of newspaper columnists have speculated that this new MMP system would balkanize the province, possibly allowing religious extremists to gain election, while others have raised concerns about the role of the politicians that would be elected from the list of extra seats. But most of these concerns are empty and uniformed. It's not like PR is a new voting system, untried in the western world. In fact, most western countries similar to Canada have been using PR for a nearly a century. MMP specifically has been used in Germany for over five decades, with excellent results. There is little evidence, either from voter surveys in Canada or comparative experience with this voting system, that supports these absurd predictions. The facts are if you want extreme governments and unaccountable politicians, you need look no further than Ontario over the past few decades.

The adoption of MMP would be a historic triumph for the people of Ontario and the quality of their democracy. In the months ahead we can only hope that our politicians and media serve the public interest by helping citizens with this important question, rather than fear-mongering and serving their own interests.

Dennis Pilon is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Victoria. His book, The Politics of Voting: The ElectoralReform Debate in Canada, will be released by Emond Montgomery this month.

Wednesday: Niagara Voices columnist Daarla Groocock.

© 2007 St. Catharines Standard (ON). All rights reserved.