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Ontario referendum has deck stacked against it

Proposal could fix ailing system, supporters say

You won’t just be voting Oct 10 for a new government, but also on a new way to elect the government. It’s a landmark referendum, the first one in this province in almost 80 years, but most voters have no idea it’s happening, or what it’s about.

You might have noticed the full page newspaper ads Elections Ontario started rolling out in September — a guy with a confused expression and a thought bubble saying “First-Past-The-Post or Mixed Member Proportional?” Or you might have turned the page to something more stimulating, like the weather forecast.

And if you hadn’t been paying close attention to the editorial section of your newspaper, there’s probably no chance that you’ve heard of the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, a revolutionary democratic process that gave 103 regular Ontarians the task of changing the way our province’s democracy works.

They spent a year learning about different systems of counting votes and electing representatives, and they came up with a recommendation: Ontario should ditch its 200-year-old first-past-the-post system (FPTP) that we’ve all learned to hate and many of us have stopped turning out for. Instead, they concluded, we should adopt a mixed-member proportional system (MMP), like the ones used in New Zealand and Germany, that would give each party a number of seats based on their percentage of the vote.

It’s intended to address voter alienation by giving us a system that better reflects who we actually voted for. It’s a democratic renewal, a proposal to change to a system that voters in other countries like more than we like our system.

But this talk of democratic renewal, proportional representation is enough to make the average person’s eyes glaze over. And who can blame them? No one thinks about how their votes are counted they’ve done their duty if they show up and vote. Most people don’t give a second thought to how their vote is counted and how the winner is elected. They just know that things don’t seem to change no matter whom they vote for.

What most people probably don’t realize is how our current system can distort election results to give majority governments to parties that received less than half the votes.

In 2003, for example, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals won 70 percent of the legislature’s seats with only 46.5 percent of the total votes cast. That hefty majority came at the cost of smaller parties like the NDP, which won only seven percent of the seats though its share of the vote was almost 15 percent.

The proposed MMP system would, in theory, correct that imbalance. Voters would cast two ballots: one for a local representative in their riding, and one for a party. The 90 local MPPs would be directly elected the same way it’s done now, and the remaining 39 seats would be filled by candidates from party lists to reflect each party’s share of the vote.

Peter Black, the chairman of the Vote For MMP Ottawa campaign, says the system would more accurately reflect the wishes of the voters, get people more engaged in the political process, and give smaller parties a chance to have a voice in government.

Critics such as Graham Sproule of the No MMP Ottawa campaign say the change would destabilize Ontario with constant minority governments and allow small parties with radical agendas to highjack the government.

Still, experts such as Carleton University professor Jon Pammett say switching systems won’t radically change the makeup of governments.

“I don’t think this would be regarded as all that radical of a change, since the existing single member district system would still be in place,” says Pammett. “It would simply be a matter of proportionalizing the results a bit.”

The most radical change that could occur, says Pammett, is more frequent coalition governments.

Despite the doom and gloom perspective extolled by critics of MMP, history has shown that minority governments have been good for queer rights a Liberal-NDP coalition added sexual orientation to the Ontario Human Rights Code in 1986. And let’s not forget that minority governments at the federal level gave us universal health care, old-age pensions, and unemployment insurance among other popular legislation.

Nathan Hauch, longtime political activist, says that minority governments limit the ability of social conservatives to scale back gay rights.

“The politics of divide and conquer, which can have very negative ramifications for [queer] voters, will be far less attractive for political elites” in minority governments, says Hauch.

Political pundits are foaming at the mouth for a chance to see political history being made.

But reality sinks in when they acknowledge the slim odds that Ontarians will care, or know enough about the referendum to vote “yes.”

“I think the chances are small,” says Pammett. “But I think the chances of it doing well enough to stay on the agenda and to perhaps be brought forward again may well be high.”

“The irony is that political disengagement is partially caused by our flawed electoral system,” says Greg Laxton, the Green Party’s candidate for Ottawa Centre. Laxton studied electoral reform for his master’s thesis.

People simply don’t think their vote counts, says Laxton, and that’s why people are turned off politics.

“Politicians and the media have cried wolf too many times,” says Laxton. “People are always being told that issues are important, so they don’t know why this particular issue is important.”

A similar process of electoral reform in British Columbia three years ago whetted political scholars’ appetites for change. But the 57 percent who voted in favour of adopting a new system called single transferable voting was just shy of the 60 percent “super majority” threshold the government insisted on. The referendum didn’t pass, but 57 percent support was enough to make sure the issue didn’t die. British Columbians will have another vote on the issue in 2009.

The same super majority rule applies to Ontario’s referendum, and observers say it’s the factor that might prove to be the nail in the coffin for MMP in Ontario at least this time round.

“I don’t think there is a justification [for requiring a 60 threshold.] If they’re going to do that, they should do it for all sorts of votes, but they don’t,” says Pammett.

But with polls showing that at least two-thirds of Ontarians don’t understand the referendum, a more pressing issue is public education.

Pammett says Ontario could have learned from BC, where the government’s public education campaign was slammed for being insufficient.

In Ontario, public interest and media attention around the Citizen’s Assembly and the referendum has been low. Even Elections Ontario didn’t start rolling out its $4.2 million advertising campaign, coined “Your Big Decision,” until early September.

So it’s not surprising that when the Toronto Star polled 50 people on the street recently, only one had even heard of the referendum. More ominously, only a couple people were willing to listen to information about the referendum.

Elections Ontario itself admits many voters don’t know about the issue. Their most recent poll showed that only eight percent of Ontarians have a “comfortable” knowledge of the referendum question.

Deputy chief electoral officer Loren Wells says Elections Ontario feels it’s headed in the right direction, and it’s not planning to reassess its campaign unless it’s clear they’re not “resonating” with the public. The question remains how loud do they need to be resonating?

Laxton, Ottawa Centre’s Green candidate, says we should cut Elections Ontario some slack.

“Elections Ontario has never been in a position where it has to inform the public about an issue that a significant number of Ontarians know nothing about,” says Laxton. “They’ve done their damndest.”

But others say their damndest isn’t good enough.

The education “just isn’t sufficient,” says Pammett. “They’re not reaching the public.”

“This is a historic opportunity,” says Black of the Vote For MMP Ottawa campaign.

“It’s not going to come back every four years.”