Despite the efforts of a lot of hard-working individuals, most Ontarians remain unaware of the “other” election that will be held in the province on October 10.
On that day, as well as voting for the politicians who will lead us, we will be voting on whether to change our voting system. The choice is between our current, riding-based first-past-the-post system (FPTP), and a new system called mixed member proportional (MMP). Those in favour of changing the system have a tough climb ahead of them. For no real reason that I can see, the proposed change must pass by 60% of the popular vote, and by a majority of votes in a majority if ridings, in order to become law. Not only that, but the lack of any publicity for this referendum works against the proponents for change, since opinion polls suggest that those who know more about the proposal are more likely to vote for it. Those who oppose it have an incentive to keep the wider electorate ignorant of its existence.
What is this mixed member proportional system? What does it do? Does it improve the democratic process? Why am I voting in favour of it?
The first thing you need to know is how the current system works. Right now, both federally and provincially, our legislatures govern areas that have been divided into smaller geographical areas called ridings. Each riding is represented by a seat. Ontario has 107 of these seats. The voters in each riding cast ballots to pick an individual who will represent them in parliament. Many can run, but only one can win, and there is only one vote to determine a winner. Under our current system, most of the candidates running for election in ridings across this country run under partisan banners. Once all 107 riding elections are completed, the party that has the most number of representatives elected under its banner forms the government.
Sounds simple, right? Sounds democratic? But remember what I said: many can run, but only one can win. At present, there are four parties capable of running full slates of candidates across this province (Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green), plus a handful of smaller parties (Family Coalition, Freedom, Libertarian), and any number of independents. When an election is held, the election results in individual ridings more often than not come to this:
John Liberal - 20,000 votes - 40%
Jane Conservative - 17,500 votes - 35%
Joe NDPer - 10,000 votes - 20%
Frank Green - 2,000 votes - 4%
Others - 500 votes - 1%
The results are usually quite clear, riding per riding, that there is a candidate that most voters favour, but only rarely are there candidates within each riding that the majority favour. But despite 60% of voters voting for candidates other than John Liberal, John Liberal ends up taking the seat.
This design flaw of FPTP can twist the results of elections in a number of bizarre ways. Consider an election where one party wins 40 percent of the vote, another party wins 35 percent of the vote and various other parties win the remaining 25% of the vote. It’s entirely possible, if these numbers are spread consistently throughout the province, for the party taking 40% of the votes to win 100% of the seats.
Now, I ask you, is that democratic? Our legislatures are supposed to represent all the voters, and it strikes me as a problematic task if a party that wins a plurality but not a majority of votes wins a majority of seats. Under our democratic system, our representatives under a majority government have little incentive to consult with the parties representing underrepresented voters. All bills, all committee decisions, even the decision to continue debate, are decided by simple majority vote. Parties that have won only 40% of the popular vote can tell the representatives of the remaining 60% to essentially shut up, and invoke closures on debates. This has already happened. We have seen plenty of majority governments act arrogantly in disregarding the will of the public.
Already, we have had an instance where a strange gathering of votes has silenced all official opposition, by awarding 100% of the seats of the victorious party — this occurred in 1987 when Frank McKenna’s Liberals swept all the seats in the New Brunswick legislature with 60% of the popular vote. On the basis of the popular vote, however, the defeated Tories, still deserved 29% of the 58 seats. To McKenna’s credit, he allowed the opposition leaders to voice their questions from the press gallery. It was either that, or erect a mirror in his legislature.
And while that is an extreme example, it’s not unusual. In 1990, 1.5 million Ontarians, or 37.6% of voters, decided that they’d had enough of the Liberals and Conservatives, and voted NDP. A swing of just 12% of the vote was enough to give the New Democrats 74 seats in the 130 seat legislature, giving them their first ever majority government in the province, despite not being the first choice of 63.4% of Ontarian voters.
Neither of Mike Harris’ majority governments were supported by the majority of Ontarian voters. In 1997, the Jean Chretien Liberals were able to retain a majority in Ottawa despite taking just 38.46% of the vote. Indeed, other than the McKenna sweep, the last time a government won a majority of seats based on a majority of the popular vote was in the 1984 federal election, where a popular vote of 50.03% was sufficient for the Mulroney Conservatives to take 211 out of the 282 available seats. In Ontario, we have to go back to the 1937 provincial election before we find a provincial party winning a majority of the popular vote. The rule of thumb today is that a party only needs to take 40% of the popular vote in order to win the majority of seats in an election.
Proponents of the old FPTP system ask, why criticize the system now? Why were there no complaints when the Liberals were in power federally, or the Tories in power in Ontario? Well, for starters, complaints about the flaws of this system are not new. As far back as 1980, if not before, politicians in Western Canada felt that the Liberal Party was able to ignore Western interests because the huge number of seats available in Ontario that were elected under the FPTP system. Some politicians, including the premier of Saskatchewan, suggested a proportional representation system be used so that this big regional block wouldn’t dominate, giving voices to minority groups in Ontario, as well as bringing Western Canadian seats back into play federally.
Secondly, criticism of this old system was muted for as long as the federal Liberals or the provincial Tories were able to hug the centre, building an illusion of legitimacy by staring across at a divided opposition, half of whom would criticize the government for going too far, while the other half claimed the government was not going far enough. By playing one side against the other, they could give the appearance of working for the majority of voters. The illusion was rendered for what it was when the NDP won Ontario, and faced an opposition, half of which said “you’re going too far,” while the remainder screamed “Woah, Nelly, you’re off the map!!” And with the federal Liberals in particular operating under this illusion of legitimacy, they were able to secure their place as the natural governing party of Canada, and thus became complacent and arrogant after years of unfettered power.
But as bizarre as these minority-majorities are, the FPTP system produces some even weirder results when votes are not spread evenly throughout the province or the country. With FPTP caring only for votes within small regional elections, a political party which manages to speak for the interests of a particular region can often be assured of a seat, while a party that is able to attract the interest of a similar number of voters across the province or country finds it difficult to express their voice in parliament.
Already the list of political accidents is lengthening. In the 1993 federal election, 2.6 million voters favoured the western-based Reform Party, while 1.85 favoured the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Over 2.1 million favoured the reigning Progressive Conservatives. Because of the concentration of their votes, however, the Reform Party took 52 seats and the Bloc Quebecois took 54 — both slightly more than their popular support theoretically should have allowed within the regions they were campaigning in. What was most startling, however, was the Conservative vote; spread fairly evenly across Canada, the party that was still able to command the loyalty of 16% of the electorate could only won just 2 seats in parliament (less than 1%). Even the New Democrats, which won a near historic low of 939,575 votes, managed to retain 9 seats thanks to the way that vote was concentrated geographically. (Parenthetically, the Green Party took 665,940 votes in the 2006 federal election, 4.49% of the vote, and won no seats in parliament).
The 1993 election and the ones that followed illustrated how the FPTP system favoured regional parties in a supposedly national parliament at the expense of parties with a national interest. Conservatives struggled to get back into government for the next thirteen years for this reason. The Bloc Quebecois continues to win a sizable number of seats, despite only running in Quebec — and more seats within the Quebec portion of parliament than their popular support in the province should theoretically grant them. There is a misapprehension throughout the country that Ontario is a Liberal bastion, and why wouldn’t people think that after the party took over 100 seats in the 1997 election? But half of the voters of Ontario voted against the Liberals. Not only was their voice ignored in parliament, it didn’t exist in the minds of people in the rest of Canada.
Even though Ontario has fewer regional differences than the whole country, the regionally polarizing aspect of the FPTP system is becoming clear here too. In the 2003 provincial election, the Conservatives took 20% of the vote within the City of Toronto, but did not win a single seat. In that election, the focus of the campaign was on the suburbs surrounding the province, where seats where theoretically in play for both the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Ernie Eves government brought forward policies which explicitly favoured voters in the 905 area code of the province at the expense of 416 Toronto and commentators today accuse the Liberals of ignoring Toronto’s interests because no other party is competitive (this situation has only changed with the rise of the New Democrats in the region). Similar scenarios exist for the North where Conservatives are out of the running, and the fight is between the Liberals and the NDP.
The First Past the Post system has been the traditional system of Canada and the United Kingdom for centuries, and there are good reasons for that, but FPTP works best only when the politicians running for office place the interests of their riding above the interests of the partisan banner they’re running under. It also works best when only two or three candidates run in each riding, so that the winner is more likely to win the support of the majority of voters. Neither assumption has been an accurate reflection of the political reality for decades, now, and the latter assumption isn’t even particularly democratic. The FPTP system is antiquated and needs to be replaced in order to reflect the diverse and changing realities of this country.
We are not well served by a political system that produces a parliament that is not representative of as many political views of the regions of the country and the province as possible. Western Canada is not overwhelmingly Conservative and Ontario not overwhelmingly Liberal. Conservatives deserve seats in Toronto as much as New Democrats deserve seats in Alberta, and the Greens deserve seats… well, anywhere.
During the 2003 election, Dalton McGuinty promised to examine the issue and, upon forming the government, set up a citizens assembly of representatives picked from across the province. These average citizens looked at the options and have proposed a new system called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). This proposal now goes to the electorate on October 10. Despite receiving support across the political spectrum, the leadership of both the Liberals and the Conservatives seem lukewarm to the proposal. I suspect this is because these established parties have too much interest in maintaining the current system. All the parties’ majority governments since 1937 have been built from the support of less than a majority of voters, and the current system makes it easier for an individual party to win unfettered power for four years. Like junkies on a drug, it’s easy to see how these parties would be loathe to give up their easy high.
But the system is supposed to serve voters, not the parties they elect. We complain bitterly about the state of politics in this country. So many of us are disillusioned that voter turnout has drifted to historic lows. We hate the way the system works, but we haven’t been able to do anything about it.