Does Ontario have electoral dysfunction?

Sara French, a member of the Queen’s Vote for MMP campaign, distributes pamphlets about the benefits of electoral reform. Supporters of MMP say it will give voters the sense their vote counts.
Sara French, a member of the Queen’s Vote for MMP campaign, distributes pamphlets about the benefits of electoral reform. Supporters of MMP say it will give voters the sense their vote counts.
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Luke Field, Kingston co-director of No MMP, says a mixed member proportional system won’t bring with it the benefits its supporters claim.
Luke Field, Kingston co-director of No MMP, says a mixed member proportional system won’t bring with it the benefits its supporters claim.
Photo: 

After researching proportional representation for a group project in a second-year politics class, Luke Field, ArtSci ’08, came to a clear decision.

“I wrote a paper in second year in which we were asked to investigate whether we thought MMP [mixed member proportional] or proportional representation was a good idea,” Field said. “And so I investigated, did a lot of research and decided it wasn’t that good of an idea for Canada at large.”

For most students, a well-written paper stating that point may have been the end of the matter. But when he heard about the Citizens’ Assembly and the potential for electoral reform in Ontario, Field decided he couldn’t stay quiet on the issue.

The Citizens’ Assembly proposed Ontario switch from the first-past-the-post electoral system to a mixed member proportional system. On Oct. 10, Ontarians will vote on whether to accept the Citizens’ Assembly’s proposal or maintain the status quo.

Canada uses a first-past-the-post electoral system, in which the candidate in each riding who receives the most votes wins the election and represents that riding in the provincial legislature. The party that wins the most ridings forms the government.

In the proposed MMP system, each voter in the province votes for a local representative and for a party. The proportion of party votes each party gets determines the number of seats that party receives in the legislature. If there aren’t enough local representatives elected from a party to fill their allotted proportion of legislature seats, parties draw from a pre-made list, which must be made public before the election. “When they announced their assembly proposal [in favour of a change to MMP], I created a Facebook group called ‘Queen’s Students Against PR’ and a number of people joined and we started getting into some conversations about it,” Field said.

Things started heating up over the summer as Field got in touch with others around Ontario who were similarly unconvinced of the proposed systems’ merits.

“We eventually formed a group for all of Ontario called No MMP for Ontario,” he said. “I took the position of Kingston co-director. I also simultaneously started up a club at Queen’s called No MMP Queen’s.”

The club has been meeting on campus, canvassing the Ghetto and holding information booths around campus.

“We’re just having conversations with as many students as possible, to one, let them know about the issue and two, let them know why we think it’s a bad idea,” Field said.

It’s a bad idea, he said, because changing the system won’t necessarily bring the benefits supporters claim it will.

“Essentially it seems to me the advocates of MMP … describe it as kind of a cure-all. It’s not only going to increase proportionality, it’s going to get more women in, it’s going to raise the vote count and it’s going to get more minorities serving in government,” Field said.

“In my research I found that none of that was true.” The higher vote count recorded in countries with MMP, he said, isn’t due to the electoral system.

“That just means that these countries also happen to have a higher vote count. It doesn’t necessarily mean that MMP is the reason why they have that higher vote count.” And although he recognizes the need for increased female and minority representation in the government, Field said changing the electoral system isn’t the way to achieve that goal.

“It’s something that should happen, but I don’t think that changing our entire electoral system is necessary,” he said.

Overall, Field said, the proposed electoral system would have too many negative consequences.

“I don’t want to see endless minority governments. I don’t think they’re a good thing. I don’t think they’re productive. I don’t like how they reduce politics to endless partisan bickering and a non-stop showmanship game where each party’s trying to one-up the other in competition for the election which is inevitably around the corner, and I think we’ve seen that at the federal level in the last few years and I don’t want to see that constantly in Ontario.”

Field said the idea of a “list system” is also undemocratic.

“I don’t give up the right to choose my own leaders and I don’t trust political parties enough to choose them for me,” he said. “They’re not a democratic institution. They’re going to choose people who are loyal to the party, not to the people of Ontario.” Field said he has encountered some people who have put in time on their own to learn about the electoral systems.

“They take the time to come out to our meetings or events and get our side of the opinion and they come out to [the other side’s] events to get their side of the opinion, which is really rewarding to see. It’s great to talk to those people.”

However, Field has also encountered individuals who aren’t as interested.

“There are people who have told me, ‘I don’t know what it is and I’m not voting because I don’t know what it is and I’m not going to take the time to know what it is,’ which is really disheartening.” Chris Horkins, one of the leaders of the Queen’s Vote for MMP campaign, said he has encountered the same range of responses to the referendum.

“The biggest challenge that we face is awareness. There’s very few people who realize that there is a referendum going on and some people don’t even know there’s an election going on. It’s our challenge first and foremost to let people know this is happening and that they can vote on it,” he said.

Horkins and other members of the “yes” group have also been campaigning in buildings across campus.

“Some people are really interested to know once you start engaging them on it. Some people will just take the flyer and walk away,” he said. “You hope that when you put the information in someone’s hands they’re going to take the time and read it, but it’s really up to them.” Horkins said he has been interested in electoral reform since he learned about the advantages and disadvantages of the different systems in his first-year politics class.

“I kind of always thought that MMP was the right one … The system we have now is actually throwing away votes to create a majority,” he said. “You’re getting majority governments that aren’t based on a majority of the votes yet they have absolute control of the province.

“I’ve just thought for a long time that that’s unacceptable. That’s not democratic.” When he heard about the Citizens’ Assembly, Horkins immediately wanted to get involved. In addition to forming the Queen’s Vote for MMP group, Horkins spoke at the public consultation in Kingston about the advantages a switch to MMP would give to students.

“One of the problems we face as students as an interest group is we’re so dispersed. We’re not concentrated within any constituency district. As a voting bloc, we could never have the effect that would really want to make politicians act on the demands and the things we’re interested in seeing reflected in policy,” he said. “If you had a proportional system like MMP, people are able to band together across constituency lines and be a more effective voting bloc that way.”

The system also gives voters the sense their vote counts and isn’t being wasted or thrown away, Horkins said. This will encourage voters to get involved and vote for parties or individuals whose platforms reflect what they want to see happen.

“When students can see that their vote isn’t being wasted, isn’t getting thrown out, then we’ll see people take a lot more interest in the political process.” He said fears of endless minority governments are misleading.

“Admittedly, it would make a majority government a lot harder to form than under the current system,” he said, adding that the current system creates fake majorities and is too adversarial. With the MMP system, Horkins said, Ontarians would see the formation of coalition-based governments.

“People right now are just downright nasty to each other because it’s adversarial, it’s me against you, everyone’s going for the winner-take-all majority government.”

With MMP, he said, politicians will be more willing to co-operate across party lines.

“Once you take out that distortion that’s being created by our government I think you’ll see politicians willing more to work together and incorporate the views and the policies of other parties that a good number of people in the province have voted for.” Party co-operation has already begun within the Vote for MMP campaign, Horkins noted.

“We’ve got people that are not party affiliated­—Greens, New Democrats, Liberals, Tories—the whole spectrum is really represented because it’s an issue that is not a partisan issue.”

NDP, Liberal and Conservative governments in Ontario’s recent history have all been elected to a majority without a majority of the vote and all have been short-changed by the system, Horkins said.

While Horkins and Field disagree on electoral reform, they both said Elections

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