Electoral reform: how much is really needed?
ONE OF THE SILLIEST THINGS we've witnessed since the Ontario Liberals came to power in the 2003 provincial election was the appointment of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, with a mandate to propose changes in our traditional "first past the post" system of electing members of the Legislature.
But silly as that might have been, sillier yet is the proposal the 103-member Citizens' Assembly has come up with, which we shall all be asked to consider at the Oct. 10 general election.
Formally called a Mixed Member Proportional system, the proposal would involve adding new seats to the Legislature that whose occupants would be elected indirectly - or more likely appointed - and would not represent any constituency.
The objective is to give more representation to small parties in a province that for many decades has had just three with any meaningful number of MPPs, but which in the last two decades has seen all three parties form majority governments while typically garnering less than half the 60-odd per cent of eligible voters who bother to cast ballots.
Under the scheme, one in four members of the Legislature - 39 of a total of 129 - wouldn't be elected. They would, instead, be nominated by their respective parties, in all likelihood appointed by party managers.
Supporters of the scheme say the parties would be able to nominate representatives of under-represented groups such as women, visible minorities and ethnic groups. And smaller alliances, such as the Green, Christian Heritage and Communist parties would be guaranteed seats if they managed to get 3 per cent of the popular vote.
But while there would be some representation for most, if not all, political parties, those groups perhaps most in need of being represented at Queen's Park - the poor, the homeless, the under-educated, the mentally disabled - won't benefit.
However, that's not our only concern about the proposal, which we fervently hope will be shot down by the electorate or at least not implemented by whatever party wins the election.
Although we were skeptical at the time, it's now clear that one of the most astute moves by the Mike Harris Conservatives was the "Fewer Politicians Act" of 1996, which sharply reduced the number of seats in the Legislature by adopting the federal constituency names and boundaries.
Although that initially cut the number of seats from 130 to 103, a federal redistribution since then has increased the number to 107 and a proposed new one would add another handful of ridings.
But the big bonus has been that in Ontario (alone among the provinces) we have both simplicity and consistency.
Locally, we are finally bidding adieu to what must be one of Canada's "most gerrymandered" ridings, that of Dufferin-Peel- Wellington-Grey, and come October our MPP and MP David Tilson will both be representing the 115,000 residents of Dufferin County and the Town of Caledon.
Not so if the Citizens' Assembly has its way!
Under the proposal, the provincial constituencies would actually be far larger than the federal ones - totalling just 90!
Locally, we might find ourselves residing in the new riding of Dufferin-Caledon- Wellington-Grey-Simcoe, containing about 150,000 residents - about 10,000 more than live in the province of Prince Edward Island. (Interestingly, P.E.I. has a 27-member legislature, with five members being elected by Charlottetown's 32,000 residents.)
The proposed "reform" would see everyone casting two ballots, one for the local member and one for a party. Once all the votes had been tabulated, the 39 "at large" seats would be awarded based on the extent to which any of the parties happened to be under-represented, the aim being to have a Legislature where each party would have roughly the same percentage of seats as their percentage of the over-all popular vote.
Interestingly, one potential result of this Mixed Member Proportional system would be parties all of whose members would enjoy the luxury of not having to represent any constituency.
Whatever the present systems failings, one of its strengths lies in the constituency system, which allows an individual candidate to get elected on the basis of his or her personality and work for the riding rather than the political banner being carried.
As we see it, a vastly preferable approach would involve maintaining the existing constituencies and their boundaries while adding a much smaller number of "at large" seats - perhaps 20 - which would be divided up among all the parties based on their share of the total vote.
Although such an arrangement would fall well short of "proportional representation," it would give splinter groups a real chance of having their views represented in the House, since a party getting about 4 per cent of the popular vote would get one seat.
Experience with voting systems in Europe and New Zealand similar to that now being recommended has shown that almost any form of proportional representation will lead to the creation of new political parties and the splitting up of existing ones. Since it quickly becomes virtually impossible for any one party to attain a majority of seats, the major parties are forced to form coalitions that become an excuse for not carrying out the individual party's campaign promises.
When this happens, the only real victors are the bureaucrats, who gain control over the elected politicians just as effectively as is already the case with our school boards and many municipal councils.
As we see it, a small touch of electoral reform is really all that thoughtful Ontarians should be prepared to stomach.
And we still see wisdom in the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."