The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly On Electoral Reform tabled its final report May 15, detailing the electoral system that will be put toward Ontario voters in a referendum Oct 10.
The proposed system is a radical overhaul of the current first-past-the-post system and it is unclear what impact the proposed changes would have for minority Ontarians and members of the queer community.
Under the current system, voters cast a single ballot for an MP who represents their riding. This system creates MPs who are directly responsible to their local constituents but tends to create a legislature in which opposition voices are underrepresented relative to their share of the vote.
The report calls for a mixed-member proportional system in which each voter will cast two ballots; one for a local representative and one for the party of their choice. The number of ridings in the province will shrink from 107 to 90, while an additional 39 members will be added from lists drawn up by each party to address any shortfall between a party’s share of the party ballot and its share of seats in the legislature.
A super-majority of 60 percent of votes in favour of the change, as well as a majority of votes in at least 64 ridings, is required in the referendum for the system to be changed.
Under the proposed changes, an independent commission will redraw riding boundaries to leave fewer ridings. That means Toronto Centre-Rosedale, which includes the Church-Wellesley gaybourhood, will expand to incorporate nearby neighbourhoods that may be less connected with the gay community. Any queer voting bloc effect could be diluted because of the larger ridings.
Toronto Centre-Rosedale MPP George Smitherman, who supports of the proposed changes, is not worried about that.
“If you expand to the east or to the west, it’s not like you’re going into areas where there’s not a strong gay population,” he says.
Joseph Murray of Fair Vote Ontario, a nonpartisan group that is lobbying for proportional representation, points to greater problems with the current system’s means of representing minority communities.
“What hasn’t happened under this system is representation based on true numbers in society,” he says, pointing to the fact that only three openly gay MPPs currently sit in the legislature and other minority groups are similarly underrepresented.
Smitherman suggests that the current first-past-the-post system makes it more difficult for some minority candidates to get elected when their population is spread thinly across multiple ridings. He points to the fact that there are no First Nations MPs as evidence that the system under-represents minorities.
Under the proposed system, parties may include more minorities in their list of candidates to make up for a underrepresentation among riding MPs.
“There’s an opportunity for gays and lesbians, especially in communities far away from Church and Wellesley to vote for their people,” says Smitherman.
But some members of the assembly wanted the recommendations to go farther. While queer assembly member Darcie Beckley supports the proposal, the London-based artist pushed the assembly to attach rules requiring party members to achieve targets for representation of women and minorities.
“I’m expecting that women’s representation and representation of minorities and other groups will be much better under this system, but I suspect there may be some ways to go before it’s truly equal,” she says. “At this point in the assembly, other people were not willing to go that far. It was certainly discussed and the strong consensus seemed to be that they didn’t want to make any kind of fast rules.”
Another possible consequence of the new electoral system is that parties may spring up around minority groups or radical parties outside of the traditional system. Under the current system, fringe parties are unlikely to gain enough concentrated support to elect MPs from any single riding, but in the proposed system, if a party wins at least three percent support across the province, it is entitled to at least three seats in the legislature. Parties could theoretically spring up around queer or sex-positive issues or any other special interests.
But assembly chairman George Thomson says the three percent threshold will prevent nontraditional parties from breaking into the legislature.
“The experience in other countries is that’s not what happens,” says Thomson. “Nobody other than the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP has ever gotten over three percent in Ontario.”
“I think you have to take into account the political culture and context in Ontario. We don’t have a tradition of narrowly focused parties compared to big-tent parties,” says Murray. “In other systems, you see maybe two parties arise [when an MMP system is introduced]. Here we have two-and-a-half parties [Liberal, PC, and NDP], but we may see the NDP and the Green Party become full parties.”
The proposed system will likely result in more minority governments, a prospect which has Smitherman excited, despite his seat on the government side of the legislature.
“I was an observer of the last minority government in Ontario [under David Peterson]. As a progressive, those were very heady days,” says Smitherman. “There are lots of people who look back on those times as good times for Ontario.”
Similar referenda on demo-cratic reform were put before the electorate of British Columbia and Prince Edward Island in 2005 but they failed.
While a majority of British Columbians voted in favour of electoral reform, they did not meet the 60 percent supermajority. Many speculated that British Columbians were confused by the complexities of the proposed single transferable vote system, in which voters elected multiple members for each district and ranked their choices.
The Ontario government has pledged to spend more on advertising to educate the public on the proposed system than British Columbia did.