Thursday, October 11, 2007

A few thoughts on lastnight's Ontario referendum

Well, as you probably know by now, Ontario's first referendum in 83 years failed by a significant margin lastnight (the "YES to MMP" only garnered 37% of the vote and outpolled the status quo in only five Toronto ridings). Though I would have liked to see it pass, I have a few conclusions to why it came up short.

1. Status quo rules. Because central Canada has been the political beneficiary of government involvement via FPTP over the years, it was difficult for pro-MMP advocates to convince voters that a "reform measure" to the system was something that would benefit them in the long run. I think this ethos can be best explained in Sophie Holyck comments where she said, “Just leave well enough alone. Why do we need something different?” Nuff said on that front.

2. Lack of connection between voters and list candidates perceived as undemocratic. Having 39 MPPs who would be drawn from party lists instead of directly voted on by the public [riding MPPs] was a big reason why people opposed MMP. In other words, it gave people, who were already on the fence and a bit confused by the measure a reason to take the easy way out and vote NO.

STV or straight up PR with open lists would have garnered much more support. Furthermore, cutting the ridings down to 90 meant that directly elected MPPs would have even bigger geographical areas to cover. I brought this subject up a few times on the fact that list voters weren't drawn from a regional pool. More importantly, there wasn't a strong enough arguement out there on the actual jurisdiction of list candidates during an election to reduce voter anxiety on this matter. As I saw it, there [list candidates] duties were much like a federal MP from a safe riding like Medicine Hat (Monte Solberg) campaigning in Ontario during a general election. In other words, even though they are both representing the same party, only one is directly linked to the voter in that region.

3. Too many generals and not enough foot soldiers. I think Dennis Pilon, assistant professor of political science at University of Victoria and author of The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada's Electoral System said it best, "I don't think ever so much money has been wasted in educating people so poorly." I mirror his criticisms as I found there were too many conflicting arguements from pundits, bloggers, journalist and academics. I know it's easier said than done, but it would have been much better for the public, in this case Ontarioans, if the YES side could have settled on one arguement. However, because they failed to do so, I found the message became more and more undisciplined and confusing the closer the referendum date drew near.

4. Lack of choice or a single option did the YES side in once again. No, I don't mean that's what Ontarioans would have received if MMP had passed. Quite the opposite. What I mean when I say 'lack of choice" is if voters were offered "a preferential referendum" with more systems to chose from, then it wouldn't become a war pitting one side against the other. Let MP Scott Reid explain:
...we could avoid the BC situation if we were to establish a Citizens’ Assembly not for the purpose of pre-selecting a single option to be placed on the ballot in opposition to FPTP, but rather to design several options, which would be placed on the ballot in competition to one another. Voters would then have the option of ranking the competing models.

I am advocating that Canada should use a preferential referendum whereby voters would place a “1” on the ballot beside their preferred option, a “2” beside the option that they like second-best, and so on. If no single option won a majority of the votes, the least-favoured option would be dropped from the ballot, and the ballots of voters who had chosen this option as their first preference would be redistributed to the options that had been their respective second choices. This process would continue until a single option achieves a clear majority.

Under a preferential referendum, voters would have the option of indicating their preference for the option of which they most approve, without having to make FPTP the default option. Advocates of all options could aggressively campaign in favour of their preferred option without having to become de facto champions of the status quo, as occurred in British Columbia.

Preferential balloting is the best way of arriving at consensus outcomes, when no obvious majority exists; this is why it is used by many political parties, including my own, for selecting their leaders. Moreover, the idea of using a preferential referendum for selecting a new electoral system is not new. The process was advocated as long ago as 1997 by the Reform Party’s task force on electoral reform, for which I was the researcher. More recently, Fair Vote Ontario has taken stock of the strengths and weaknesses of BC’s Citizen Assembly process, and made the following recommendation:

The BC Citizens’ Assembly was instructed to work with the current number of seats in the BC legislature and to recommend only one system. We believe such restrictions should be removed to allow the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly to recommend whatever they believe best for Ontario .... If they cannot reach a general consensus on the single best alternative voting system, the OCA should be allowed to present two alternatives, with voters using a preference ballot in the referendum to choose among the alternatives and the status quo.

I support the application of this approach at the federal level, and would take it further: The Citizens’ Assembly should be mandated to place several options before the people of Canada, designing each of its alternatives to be as complete as possible, as appealing as possible, and as reflective as possible of the values that Canadians would like to see encapsulated in their electoral system. Then the decision should be turned over to the voters, who will—as Canadians always do—choose the wisest and most generous compromise, from among the available options.

Anyway, I know many are trying to sully the efforts of electoral reformers in Ontario and around the country today, but make no mistake, we have not seen the last of these types of referendums, measures and efforts. As I said to many who ask me about the possibility of this measure passing on the first try: "in a country like Canada where change doesn't come very easy (circa senate reform), it will probably take one or two tries before this thing seriously gets on peoples radar screen, especially in regions like Ontario, Quebec and the maritimes where the status quo is sometimes viewed as a good thing.


At Oct 12, 2007, 1:20:00 PM , Anonymous mikel said...

Keep in mind also the wording. I know many who voted yes, but still found the wording seemed to indicate the status quo. Most people know little about it, and the press never helps. THe media goes on about what a huge victory it is for McGuinty when he only got 10% more votes than tory. Like I blogged, its ironic that Tory told people to vote against it, and his party is the worse for it.

But it really is the devil you know. It's hard to talk to people because you always feel the need to say 'don't you see how f*&^ed up this is?' Humans are very illogical creatures and many quite seriously prefer to be screwed over again and again versus a new scarcy system.

BUt again, it comes down to education and media. It was almost never seriously discussed, and of course older folks who make up most voters don't have internet as much. The only truth I've seen about this is that the more exposure people have to discussions about it, the more willing they are to accept, even prefer it.

However, the point about closed lists is a good one, but I"m not sure even open lists would have made much difference. Of course it is not the last we've heard of it, that would be silly, but it won't be on an ontario ballot again for a long time.

At Oct 12, 2007, 2:11:00 PM , Blogger NB taxpayer said...

You're right, mike. Not sure how much a drop in popularity (42.19% down 4.3 % from '03) and increased voter apathy (52.8% voter turnout down 4% since from '03 and breaking the previous low set in 1923) can be touted as a clear victory for the province.

Plus, as you said, the ballot question seems to be a bit scewed as voters are under the impression that the alternative system [MMP]was concocted by a few (citizens assembly). When in retrospect, FPTP was born from less open discussion and accountability.

Though judging from what Gerard Kennedy said on the CTV panel, voter turnout doesn't matter as long as the Liberals win. I think his words were "foregone conclusion". Or better yet, I think he said, don't argue with the voters, they're always right. Ummm Gerard, fifty percent didn't vote. Oh yeah, they stayed home because it was a foregone conclusion. That's it Gerard. Yeah, that's it.

At Oct 12, 2007, 2:33:00 PM , Blogger NB taxpayer said...

The only truth I've seen about this is that the more exposure people have to discussions about it, the more willing they are to accept, even prefer it.

Good point. That was proven during a discussion at Queens where at the end there was a swing vote in favour of electoral reform.

Although, you have to think that ppl debating electoral reform on a friday night aren't exactly apathetic or socialites, if you know what I mean?

Access the video here.


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