Ontario has a majority government, securely ensconced in power for four years, thanks to the support of one-fifth of the people who could have voted on October 10. That is plainly not democracy. Nevertheless, most Ontarians doubt that there can be any- thing better. Even fewer than a fifth voted in favour of the alternative electoral system proposed by a citizens’ assem- bly, a system that would align election results much more closely with votes.
Among the reasons why this was rejected, one stood out. Discussion was rooted in the widespread public distrust of political parties. People suspected that in practice the pro- posed reform would be used simply to make the parties yet more remote and powerful.
The Ontario election and referendum therefore have two major implications for Canada’s national affairs. One is about how to revive public involvement in political parties. The other is about how the competition of parties could yield more constructive government. They are closely con- nected. The two big parties owe their turns in power to the present electoral system. They are likely to succeed in main- taining it unless and until their centralized organizations are shaken by revived democracy within.
On the first need, this article will propose that financial control be moved from the headquarters of parties to their local associations. On the second, it will suggest that, after a year or two for discussion, there should be a national ref- erendum on another electoral system: not the mixed-mem- ber-proportional (MMP) system rejected for Ontario, but transferable voting in multi-member ridings, a reform that has already come very close to being accepted in British Columbia.
People today have more reason than ever to be involved in their public affairs. The doings of government impinge more upon them. There is good evidence that they would like more say in it. Certainly they belong as never before to countless organizations aiming to steer this or that govern- ment action. What is lacking is political expression of the public concern.
The instrument for that is widespread involvement in democratic political parties. We no longer have it. The instrument is broken. Party memberships are small. Federally and in most provinces, the two parties that can form governments are political machines run from the top. There is a degree of democracy greater than pretence only in their occasional determination of the person at the top. And while that determination may turn on a fierce clash of ambitions, it is studiously divorced from any setting of pol- icy for government.
This is not to say that public opinion no longer counts. The machines are devoted to polling opinion. Governments are thereby sometimes deterred from doing what they might wish. For example, even the most right- wing of them dare not make any major, overt move toward dismantling medicare. But no party firmly embraces measures that would make medicare viable for the long term. It is patched in small ways and allowed to fall increasingly short in big ways.
That has become sadly typical. For most of its first century and more, the development of Canada was among the outstanding achievements of nations. The country is still enviable for its wealth and much else. But the foundation is no longer being strengthened. Our public policies have become remarkable chiefly as improvisations for today and opportunities not taken for tomorrow.
This was not in the stars. It per- haps arose chiefly because many peo- ple were, for a time, doing so much better in their personal affairs that they became indifferent to public affairs; politicians would make a fair mess of those anyway. In the usual vicious spiral of consequence reinforc- ing cause, indifference has become harder to correct. As the participation of people has diminished, the power of party machines has become more entrenched.
Breaking it now will require a sharp blow of the kind that will hurt most: loss of money.
That blow would be easy to deliv- er to federal parties. Their money now comes largely from the public treasury. It goes to the party as such. Riding associations can do hardly any fund- raising of their own. The strength of their campaigning, the prospects of their candidates, depend almost entirely on being in the good books of party headquarters, of the leader of the day or perhaps of the rival likely to succeed him or her. A contemporary political party is not a place where peo- ple with minds of their own can make much difference.
However, a simple legislative amendment could set democra- tization in motion. The public funding due to a party could be paid not to its head office but to its local asso- ciations, in equal per capita shares according to membership. Much of the money would not stay there. The associations would want to subsidize the services of an informed, compe- tent headquarters. But the balance of power would be shifted. The party would cease to be an apparatus dis- pensing fertilizer from above. It would become an organism fed from its grass roots.
There would not today be a parlia- mentary majority for such legislation. There is, however, no need to wait pas- sively for it. One party could take the initiative. It could amend its own con- stitution to require that its local associ- ations have first claim to treasury funding. Well presented, such a reform would impress the public and stir rum- blings, or more, of revolt in the mem- berships of more authoritarian parties. If the NDP took the initiative, giving meaning to the middle word of its name, it might not be long before other parties were driven to follow. Jack Layton likes to claim that his tac- tical moves are inspired by determina- tion to make a difference. If he led by example, he could succeed in moving party politics as a whole to greater democracy.
A political party should be the vital organism of democracy, a coming together of people with some common view about the kind of government they want. It is from their discussions that policies should develop, that opinion leaders and parliamentary candidates emerge.
It is not so. The Liberal Party’s task force on its constitution and organization, in preparation for the 2006 convention, recognized that the party had become ”œdisconnected from the grass roots,” that its renew- al had to begin with a ”œreturn to rid- ings.” That isn’t happening in any of the established parties. It could hap- pen quite quickly. There is now little shortage of people who want to make a difference. Many such people used to belong to political parties. In recent decades they have found far more effective outlets, far more purpose- ful involvement, in other organizations. But it is in politics that the big deci- sions are taken or missed, the future shaped or lost. Many people would be turning to politics if parties were democratic organizations wanting participants, not machines in need of mechanics.
Financial control at the local level would do much to renew dem- ocratic participation in federal poli- tics. In itself, however, it would not soon bring back the voters. The indifference prevailing throughout Canada was fully illustrated on October 10. Of the votes cast, 42 per- cent went to Liberal candidates. But of the people on the voter’s lists, less than 53 percent made their way to the polling stations. That is, the Liberal majority in the legislature comes from only 22 percent of the people registered to vote. They are fewer than the people with the right to vote, because some names are always missed from the list. It is safe to say that Ontario now has a gov- ernment that owes its power to bare- ly a fifth of its citizens of voting age.
It is, however, a government that can conduct the public business as it pleases. It has almost twice as many seats in the legislature as the two opposition parties combined, 71 against 36. It is entirely secure. It can afford to lose some by-elections. It can even afford the humiliation of some backbenchers crossing the floor. It will not fall, though the two opposition parties together are the parties of 30 percent of the people, while all the power of government belongs to the party of 20 percent.
This is not democratic govern- ment. But the evidence of October 10 is that most people are content to shrug and put up with it. Again, this is largely a silent majority. While 63 per- cent of the referendum votes cast were for staying with the present first-past- the-post system, the low turnout meant that this was only a third of the people who could have expressed an opinion.
The alternative offered in the ref- erendum, an MMP legislature, has excellent credentials. Federally, it was recommended years ago by the distin- guished Pepin-Robarts task force on national unity, and more recently in an excellent report by the Law Commission.
Nevertheless, those of us who desire a more democratically efficient politics will be wise to recognize that for the present the Ontario referendum has put MMP off the table, both provincially and fed- erally. The reason is paradoxical. The fault of the present system is that it commonly confers power on a party without the support of a majority of voters. Yet most people reject change precisely because they dislike and distrust the power of parties, because they fear that MMP would strength- en party bosses and their hangers-on, would make politics even more remote from people.
Our electoral system originated in the days when gentry from the English shires went to Westminster to defend local interests against authoritarian kings. Representation was gradually democratized, and the parliamentary system worked well enough, in Britain and in Canada, as long as the role of government was relatively small and differences of political opinion were thereby limited enough to be expressed through two political parties.
That changed in Britain with the First World War and in Canada soon after. With three or more parties, our familiar electoral system fails in its democratic national purpose of estab- lishing a parliamentary majority that reflects majority opinion. But the other purpose, pre-dating democracy, survives. Rationally, we all know that in our complex society the role of MPs as local representatives is trivial beside their participation in the national policies of their parties, in serving or opposing the sitting gov- ernment. Emotionally, however, the role with long roots in the past still matters. Our MP is still our person in the capital, the human face of poli- tics. That may now matter little in fact, and yet it has grown to feel more important as the parties have become centralized machines, human if at all only in the leader’s face on TV.
This is the rock on which MMP foundered. The ”œlist” members that it would have added to the legisla- ture were seen as mere cogs in party machines, remote from the concerns of the people called to vote for them.
That negative view could change if the parties become less centrally con- trolled. But the chicken does not come before the egg. An electoral reform has to be acceptable with the parties as they are. At present MMP is not.
Those of us who supported MMP therefore have to swallow our disap- pointment and consider alternative routes to a more constructive politics. The best federal reform is, however, unavailable. It would be to elect sena- tors from single-member constituen- cies. They could appropriately become the valued representatives of local and regional interests in federal business. MPs could then concentrate on national policy, in government and in opposition. A more proportional sys- tem for their election would come to seem natural.
But that is an idea for some beau- tiful future. The present snag, of course, is that the required redistribu- tion of Senate seats would require a constitutional amendment that is far out of sight. The electoral reform that is now on offer is the single trans- ferrable vote (STV). Its strength is that it does not introduce members nomi- nated by the parties centrally and unidentified with a particular con- stituency. Its weakness is that it requires bigger constituencies.
The version of STV recommended in 2004 by the Citizens’ Assembly in British Columbia was much better liked than MMP was in Ontario. The referendum vote of 58 percent in favour was so close to the required 60 percent that a repeat referendum is promised for 2009. The enlarged con- stituencies would elect a varying num- ber of members, from seven for the most urban, with many voters in a small area, to two for a thinly populat- ed region; ”œrep-by-pop” would be at least as close as it is now.
In multimember constituencies, the single transferable vote is not a cross but a marking of the voter’s order of preference among the candi- dates. If a candidate gets more than enough first-preference votes to be elected, his or her excess votes are transferred to other candidates in ratio to the second preferences marked, and so on. The outcome is better aligned with public opinion than first-past- the-post voting in single-member con- stituencies, but how much better depends on the size of the constituen- cies. To get closely proportional repre- sentation, all the constituencies would have to have 10 or so members. Outside thickly populated areas, that would destroy the role of the MP as a community representative.
However, as the BC example illus- trates, the merit of STV is its flexibility. MPs are not sent to Ottawa to be voices for Eglinton-Lawrence or Beaches-East York; their local identifi- cation is with the interests of Toronto as a whole. Federally, some constituen- cies with as many as 10 members could be acceptable in the most thick- ly populated areas. At the other extreme, the territories could remain single-member constituencies, though with transferable voting, so that the elected member has a majority, not a mere plurality of first preferences.
Between the extremes, rep-by-pop could be respected with a variety of constituency sizes. Some of the idealis- tic energy that has been devoted to campaigning for electoral reform could well be turned to working out appropriate electoral maps.
Such a system would be unlikely to align party strengths with votes as closely as MMP might. Some loss of proportionality is the nec- essary price for sticking with constituencies for all members rather than introducing ”œlist” candi- dates. It is a price that most people seem willing to pay. Multi-member constituencies in a good mix of sizes would still give us a House of Commons in which the strengths of parties are much closer than they are now to their popular support. It would therefore be a par- liament of four or more parties. Probably none would have a majori- ty. Party power as such would be reduced. Government would be by coalition or by cooperation. So it should be, unless the public remark- ably reverts to liking two parties only, to some new version of Grits and Tories as the sole combatants for power.
The disfunction of our present politics is not only that one-party gov- ernments do not represent majority opinion. It is also that only one party at a time is involved in the practical business of government. The others together have more, often much more, public support, but their only power is to threaten an election.
The purpose of electoral reform is to build a politics of more constructive competition and more cooperative government. That would be the true reflection of public opinion. The strat- egy for realistic reformers is to find whatever way will get us there with the speed the good of Canada requires.