Ontario’s election results produced one party, the Liberals, with 42.2 percent of the vote and almost 70 percent of the seats in Ontario’s parliament; the Green Party, with 8 percent of the vote, received zero seats; the Progressive Conservatives, the only party to, in the last hours of the campaign, take a clear and formal position against electoral change, received 31.6 percent of the vote but only 26 seats (see figures 1 and 2).
The reform they actively opposed would have yield- ed them 39 seats in an enlarged legislature at Queen’s Park ”” 13 more than the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) sys- tem produced. Fifty-eight percent of Ontario voters who cast a ballot voted against their local McGuinty Liberal candidates province-wide. That sizable majority will have just 30 percent of the seats in Ontario’s parliament at Queen’s Park. And, to complete this picture of distortions and dilutions, only 53 percent of eligible voters showed up at all. Meaning that Dalton McGuinty’s ”œmassive majority” was actually put in place by 22 percent of Ontario’s eligible voters; John Tory’s 26 Conservative members were chosen by 17 percent. Mandates, while technically clear, are far from robust. If anything they might be called la démocratie minceur.
But to be fair, Ontarians were afforded a chance to vote for a new mixed-member-proportional system that would have selected 70 percent of MPPs under the existing system, a vote cast for a local MPP and 30 percent propor- tional representation ”” where all voters get a chance to choose their preferred party to govern. And of those who did vote on the referendum question, in excess of 63 percent voted against the idea of change (see table 1). Thirty-seven percent voted in favour of the change ”” this would be 6 per- cent more than voted for the Progressive Conservatives in total, and only 4 percent less than those who gave McGuinty his historic back-to-back Liberal majority.
The reform initiative fell decisively short of the dou- ble majority required to carry the day ”” 60 percent of all votes cast, and a majority of the 107 ridings in the provin- cial legislature. Besides winning only 37 percent of the vote, the reform proposal carried in only five ridings.
For those of us in favour of MMP (the proposed mixture of local seats and proportional MPP allocation) the referendum was a political out-of- body experience. People worked across party lines and together. The media explained little ”” although some papers, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Kingston Whig Standard and other Osprey papers devoted a lot of space to trying. Strange interpretations of electoral expense laws meant that political parties that might have supported the proposed change (NDP, the Greens) were prohibited from spend- ing campaign dollars on the referen- dum because they were collected under election tax credit provisions. The highest votes for change came from the urban ridings which, because of a lagging redistribution and broadly decoupled rep-by-pop equation, have seen their relative power, and its alleged equality with other voters’ power decline. A rural Liberal voter may have as much as one and a half times the impact (or 150 percent) of an urban Green Party or NDP voter. Add to the rep-by-pop dilution the fact that tens of thou- sands of Tory voters provincially in Metro Toronto, and hundreds of thousands of Tory voters in the Greater Toronto Area, in area codes 416 and 905, have not one MPP at Queen’s Park, nor a single MP in Ottawa, and the depth of the demo- cratic disconnect is profoundly apparent.
Where the opponents of change succeeded most impressively was in creating a huge Dracula-like ”œdemocracy- noshing monster” out of the so-called ”œproportional” or list members. The locally elected and nominated MPPs became symbolic of every accountabil- ity, humility, decency and good house- keeping virtue known to humankind. Whereas the ”œlist” members (those who would be elected by the second ballot on party preference) were typi- fied as backroom, corrupt, crony, insider, hack, no-good Charlies who would be devoid of all personal virtue, democratic intent or sense of public duty. They would be simple tools, proxies, fronts, bagmen and unelected stooges for dark party forces (add cigars and martinis anywhere here you like!). And of course the young Queen’s student (a Strategic Counsel- Globe and Mail poll said that on the eve of the referendum 67 percent of young people preferred the new pro- posed system) who was in favour of change was alleged to want to secretly turn Ontario into Israel or Italy ”” could anything be worse?
That being said, the anti-MMP, pro- FPTP proponents campaign suc- ceeded in raising their fears and concerns and played into the inertial predisposition of a majori- ty of those who voted. That the numbers as between Liberal and PC totals (42.2 percent and 31.6 percent respectively) were only slightly ahead of the anti- MMP vote (63 percent) likely reflects the older/younger split in those voting groups. As neither party is awash in youthful support, the over-50 crowd in both parties had a good night in quashing this change. New Democrats, Greens, Family Coalition voters and young Liberals and Conservatives probably combined to produce the 37 percent pro-MMP vote that was registered. This figure, by the way, was almost the same as the share of electors that put majority Liberal (Chrétien) and NDP (Rae) governments in power in 1993 and 1990, respectively, nationally and provincially ”” so pro-MMP forces should not, this first time out in Ontario, feel any shame at all. In fact, with less than $200,000, little infra- structure and no time to really work long and hard together for the preced- ing four years, they outpolled the ven- erable Tory party at 31.6 percent. In fact, had the MMP coalition of Red Tories, union leaders, young Liberals and Conservatives, family, urban and feminist activists been their own polit- ical party, they would have come sec- ond and denied McGuinty his majority. It’s an unfair transposition of referendum to partisan choice frames ”” but interesting nonetheless, as a point of reference.
Premier McGuinty, in that mono- tone for which he has become known, indicated in a way that Cicero would have loved that ”œwe’ve had that debate” in response to a question about some continuation of the dis- cussion on electoral reform. Clearly any kind of ongoing infrastructure maintenance for Ontario’s democracy is of far less importance than the other parts of its social and economic infra- structure. Medical science, technolo- gy, demographics, city life, agricultural practices, pedagogy, even government best practices can all be changed and improved ”” but not the infrastructure of democracy itself. If it was good enough in 1793, it is clearly good enough now. To be fair to the Premier, many established Liberal and Progressive Conservative voters would concur in his charming complacency ”” if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, espe- cially when it works to your advantage. And it is clear that when massive majorities are elected by only one in five eligible voters, and in most rid- ings close to 60 percent of the votes cast counted not one whit for any pur- pose, it is unfair to suggest that the system is in any small way even a tiny bit broke ”” or is it?
The Premier deserves immense credit for allowing a non-partisan Citizens’ Assembly to work at our sys- tem and see whether and how it could be improved, and his minister, Maria Bountrogianni, worked hard and in good faith to facilitate a careful and balanced process. That the referen- dum was sandwiched in an election, with no time for broad consideration of the arguments afforded to either side, may have produced benign con- sequences or encouraged suffocating neglect. The government and the Chief Electoral Officer probably do deserve the benefit of the doubt on the process. But to suggest that the debate is now over is to add the 37 percent of those who voted for change to the (no doubt) overlapping 58 percent of those who voted against the government candidates and argue that their votes matter not at all ”” in and of itself, not a very democratic sort of pro- nouncement.
There will of course be other issues on the provincial agenda in Ontario ”” energy deficits, hospitals that can’t meet payroll, the public (maybe Catholic, maybe not) school system, collapsing infrastructure and excess taxation on the poorest of taxpayers ”” and the Premier may well be pru- dently trying to avoid undue clutter. But the future representativity of democracy is clutter only to politi- cians and bureaucrats who think less democracy, lower turnouts, reduced legitimacy and a collapsing belief in democracy by young voters are, in and of themselves, good things. There are many public policy mat- ters on which I would disagree with Premier McGuinty and his rather doctrinaire Liberal government. But he is no less a democrat than those who supported or opposed MMP for honourable and strongly felt rea- sons. Public engagement with MPPs, all political parties and the media is the best way to ensure that he has little if any incentive to leave an anti-democratic impression of his intent and purpose.
Modern democracies worldwide have almost uniformly chosen a mixed local-seat and proportionally elected system. Mature northern democracies like Sweden and Germany, have been there for decades. They have more multi-party coalitions, more women in their parliaments and stability levels every bit as compelling as ours. Germany, which has had 16 federal elections since 1948 (the same number as Canada), has faced only postwar famine, massive re-construction, the Berlin Wall, the European Union and the reunification with the East. Our own challenges seem somewhat less daunting in comparison.
But MMP proponents (the author included) were clearly outgunned by the 33 percent of eligible voters (63 percent of the 53 percent who showed up) who simply and clearly preferred no change. For those voters the risks of illegitimacy, vote distortion and false majorities appear less compelling than the risk of system change. And that is precisely the core risk/trade off propo- nents of change have yet to address.