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MMP a missed opportunity for queers

How electoral reform is a recipe for progress

Ontario queers missed out on a great opportunity when mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation was rejected in the Oct 10 provincial referendum on electoral reform.

The proposal to change Ontario’s electoral system was overwhelmingly defeated, with 63 percent voting against the change. Only five ridings in the province — all in Toronto — showed a majority in favour of the new system.

The result is a defeat for progressive politics in general and for minority groups, including queers, in particular. There also remains an unanswered question: How many voted against MMP simply because they don’t know much about the proposed plan?

Under the proposed system, voters would have chosen both a specific candidate and a political party. The number of seats in the legislature would have increased to 129. Ninety of those would have been filled, as they are now, by MPPs who earned the largest share of votes in their ridings. The other 39 seats would have been filled, based on the votes cast for specific political parties, by party leaders from lists of party candidates. In order for a small party to win a seat based solely on party votes, the party would be required to earn at least three percent of the popular vote.

If MMP had been in place for this election, the Liberals would have won 59 seats, the Progressive Conservatives 39, the NDP 21 and the Greens 10. Instead of winning a majority the Liberals would have had to form a coalition government, most likely with the NDP.

The NDP would have been able to earn certain concessions, almost certainly including cheap and easy-to-fulfill measures such as relisting sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) as an OHIP benefit and adding trans rights to the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Under MMP coalitional politics would become normal. Strong majority governments — like the one the Liberals won — would be the exception rather than the rule. The system would greatly strengthen smaller parties which would have meant more influence for the NDP and the Green Party.

Some critics of MMP worry that the system would allow small far-right parties to gain power but the biggest of them, the Family Coalition Party, didn’t come close to the three percent threshold that would have earned it a seat in the election.

NDP voters clearly recognized this, which is why of the five ridings supporting MMP, four — Beaches-East York, Parkdale-High Park, Toronto-Danforth and Trinity-Spadina — are all strong NDP seats. In the fifth, Davenport, the NDP ran a strong second.

Toronto Centre, which includes the queer village and in which gay Liberal health minister George Smitherman handily won reelection, did not vote to support MMP.

The lack of support for MMP in Smitherman’s riding is a shame. People voted for him for one or more of several reasons: he’s a high-profile gay man and politician, he’s a longtime gay activist and he’s done a half-decent job of pushing gay rights even though his party hasn’t. In this last election people were afraid the Tories would win or that their votes would be wasted if they voted for the NDP or a party other than the Liberals.

Under MMP those fears would factor less because of the likelihood of minority governments. People would be less likely to worry that by voting for the party they actually like, rightwingers could take power.

Voters might still have worried that voting against Smitherman would be wasteful because of his personal popularity but they would probably be more willing to do so under MMP.

Even if they did vote for Smitherman because they thought he personally does a good job for queers, under MMP they would have had a chance in the second party vote to send a message to the Liberal Party. So a queer voter might choose to vote for Smitherman as the MPP but then vote NDP in the party selection vote.

The result would have been that the Liberals would have to stop taking the queer vote for granted in Toronto Centre or in similar queer-heavy ridings. The Liberals would have been motivated, at little cost, to pledge to relist SRS and add trans people to the human rights code in the last election campaign.

As well the new system would probably have worked to increase the presence of minority groups in the legislature. Parties would have almost certainly listed their potential appointees before the election. Those lists would have probably included members of minority groups, including queers, simply to appeal to minority voters. Even Smitherman, to his credit, supported MMP on those grounds, arguing that the new system could have increased the numbers of aboriginal MPPs.

MMP may have been soundly defeated in Ontario and similar systems may have been rejected in the other provinces but electoral reform may not be dead.

British Columbia defeated a different form of MMP in 2005 but electoral reform will be voted on again in that province in 2009. It took New Zealand two referenda to adopt an MMP system.

Queers will likely get another chance to vote for MMP but to ensure that happens they ought to keep up the pressure on politicians and government. Show our elected representatives that there is still a taste for change.