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Keeping the Fair Vote Flame Alive

Photo of June Macdonald by Jerad Gallinger.
Proportional representation fans have got to be disappointed this election.
Less than a year after Ontario’s mixed member proportional representation referendum and with only months to go before British Columbia’s second crack at single transferable vote, hopes were high that the issue would finally come to the fore on the national stage. But in a campaign dominated by two other E’s, the economy and the environment, electoral reform has been shoved aside once again.
Cue Fair Vote Canada, the nation’s most prolific advocate of proportional representation. FVC’s network of grassroots volunteers is working hard this election to spread the word on why changing the way we choose our leaders is critical to the future of Canadian democracy.

“I think the viability of our country depends on it,” says June Macdonald, Past President of Fair Vote Ontario, a member of Fair Vote Canada’s national council and co-founder of FVC’s Toronto chapter. “I truly believe our country is not doing as well as it should if we had a proportional system. People are becoming disengaged, less and less people turning out to vote.”
20081009fairvoteposter.jpg“The system also depresses the number of women running,” Macdonald continued. “In most proportional countries more women run and get elected. And that means that issues of interest to women, and of minorities as well, don’t get the same kind of clout when decisions are being made.”
“This is one of the most disproportionate systems in the world. So a change has got to be an improvement over what we have. We don’t have a true democracy.”
With three of the four major national party leaders—Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton, and Elizabeth May—in favour of some kind of proportional representation, Fair Vote’s job should theoretically be pretty simple. So, aside from a single mention by Elizabeth May in the English leaders’ debate, why is electoral reform completely off the radar during the current campaign? Self interest, explains Macdonald. “[Politicians] don’t really like this idea because, of course, you can get a majority with 40 percent of the votes. So they don’t like it. It’s not in their interests to change the system.”
Even if politicians were to take action on electoral reform, Macdonald believes the direction of change should be determined not by parliamentarians, but by the people. “We are very suspicious of politicians setting their own job description,” she said. “That doesn’t seem to work very well from other evidence in other countries.” Although the recent Ontario and BC referenda failed to establish proportional representation at the provincial level, as far as Fair Vote is concerned, citizens’ assemblies are still “a good way of going.”
As for the prospect of sweeping electoral reform being implemented in Canada in coming years, Macdonald is realistic but hopeful.
“Near or medium term, I don’t know,” she said. “But I sense in this election an upswell of anger. People are really annoyed by this. We’ve had three elections in four years. Proportional countries’ governments are not that unstable. People are getting angry, and I think things are going to happen sooner than we think.”
“I hope so, anyway.”
Photo of a Fair Vote Canada poster by Neal Jennings.


  • friend68

    As you say, it is “less than a year after Ontario’s mixed member proportional representation referendum.” I think the people spoke pretty clearly in that one. Now, who’s not listening?

  • Mark Ostler

    Except that only a third of the population of the province voted in the referendum.
    4,284,336 votes versus a population of 12,891,787. The First-Past-the-Post system got 2,704,652 of those votes. Granted not everyone in the province is eligible to vote, but the numbers still don’t amount to a really resounding endorsement of the status quo.

  • rek

    Elections Ontario also did a pretty terrible job explaining MMP and informing people there was a referendum going on.

  • friend68

    Wow, that is some creative use of numbers to try to make a point — at least use the number of eligible voters.
    How many of the population voted for the Mixed Member Proportional system? 1,579,684. 12%. Hardly a resounding endorsement, as you say.
    And people who can’t be bothered to show up to vote have abdicated their right to be heard on an issue.

  • joelphillips

    I’m slightly optimistic about electoral reform in Canada. With the centre-left vote split between 3-4 parties across Canada, a lot of electors will have had to think about strategic voting and, since both proportional representation and preferential voting eliminate the need to vote strategically, people may be in a mood to think about them more positively.

  • McKingford

    Picking up on what TRek says: the parties that have traditionally benefited from FPTP (ie. Tories & Liberals) have zero interest in changing the system. Whereas McGuinty can get a massive majority – exactly the same number of seats he won in the previous election, but with 4% points less popular support (thereby getting a large majority with 42% of the vote), what possible interest would he have in changing the system?
    And thus, there was zero promotion of the issue and referendum until the very campaign itself. Leaving aside that the mechanics of the referendum were already gamed to insure its defeat (requiring 60% approval, and at least 50% in 2/3 of the ridings), when people are confronted with something new and unfamiliar they tend not to vote for it. I can’t tell you the number of intelligent people I talked to during the election who had absolutely no idea what the MMP question was or meant.

  • Mark Ostler

    It’s not so much creative as it is just stating the facts. I was going to write about the failure to explain the referendum to the public, but forgot. See rek and McKingford’s comments. It was designed to fail from the start.
    I fully agree that people who didn’t vote in the referendum shouldn’t complain about it failing, but I also think that the referendum wasn’t meant to be effective. Neither side won a significant number of votes so perhaps it’s more fair to say that Ontarians don’t really care what our electoral system is like.
    I couldn’t find the number of eligible voters quickly. That’s why I didn’t include them, but I believe the number should be higher than what it is. It’s not just citizens over the age of 18 that have a stake in what our governments do. The voting age should be lowered and should be extended beyond citizens to residents who have lived here for a certain length of time. Some countries say 3 years, though perhaps 5 years would be better.

  • Svend

    I remember Jack Layton said Prop Rep was on the top of his need-to-have list when he had to work with Paul Martin and his newly elected minority government.
    It was quickly forgotten, I guess.

  • PickleToes

    I’m for democracy, so of course I would support MMP. But it would really suck knowing that it would involve permanently turning power over to the left of centre parties.

  • Mark Ostler

    Nothing is permanent, PickleToes. Germany’s had MMP for a long time and the centre-right Christian Democrats won the last election, taking over from the previous governing coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens. If Canada had MMP, with current poll numbers, the Conservatives would still have more seats than any other party.

  • friend68

    I think the number of voters vs. the size of the population thing is irrelevant — I think to win in a referendum that proposes a major change to an established system there should be more than just 50% + 1, and MMP certainly didn’t get that.
    I think that perhaps MMP didn’t get the publicity it could have from Elections Ontario, but I think that certainly those who really wanted bear the onus of changing people’s minds. I think it was also a much more complicated and confusing system, and I even think that the (very funny) sketch on Rick Mercer’s show just before the election might have had an effect on some undecideds.
    You raise some other big issues — the voting age and voting rights for non-citizens. I can understand some of the arguments for the voting age — though I also worry about coersion and a lack of fully understanding the issues. As for non-citizens, I’ve got to say that I think that citizenship is a good minimum.

  • Mark Ostler

    “As for non-citizens, I’ve got to say that I think that citizenship is a good minimum.”
    Sort of leaves recent immigrants, especially those from countries that don’t allow multiple citizenships, in the lurch. They don’t get a say in who runs the government in the country/province/city that has become their home.
    “I think to win in a referendum that proposes a major change to an established system there should be more than just 50% + 1, and MMP certainly didn’t get that.”
    FPTP didn’t get that support either. I only got the most votes that were cast in the referendum. If proper funding was allotted for voter education the resulting votes cast in the referendum would have been far greater and the percentages would likely have been far different.
    “I think that perhaps MMP didn’t get the publicity it could have from Elections Ontario, but I think that certainly those who really wanted bear the onus of changing people’s minds.”
    Elections Ontario failed to provide one mail-out per household, which I would think should be a minimum requirement if a referendum is being held. This means that there was a failure to effectively inform the public. In my mind this throws the legitimacy of the referendum into question. The onus for providing basic information is on the government and the elections body. The task of arguing pro and con is on the various interest groups that took part. Basic information and explanation was not provided. It’s as simple as that.
    “I think it was also a much more complicated and confusing system”
    I disagree. It’s actually pretty straightforward and can be easily explained.

  • x_the_x

    There is a lot of sore-loserism in this post and the comments. The issue was put to Ontarians and British Columbians and soundly rejected. We might quibble over informational resources made available and the like, but there was adequate coverage in the media a well-funded “yes” committee. Why do we resist the conclusion that it is just an unpopular idea, either a response to a problem that doesn’t exist or a response that creates more issues than it solves?

  • DaveH

    The MMP advocates simply didn`t get it done, nor did I feel like there was any shortage of information.
    I also think that citizenship is an adequate minimum requirement for voting rights.

  • PickleToes

    There is a lot of sore-loserism in this post and the comments
    Even though I support the change, I agree with you on that.

  • joelphillips

    Anyone that thinks that a system that allocates representatives on the basis of support for one out of only four or five platforms should be described as “proportional” has a very limited idea of the extent of possible diversity of political opinion.
    In fact, the whole idea of proportionality is flawed. When ensuring that the makeup of the parliament is “proportional”, what characteristics should we choose to check that we are indeed proportional? Gender? Ethnic background? Age? Educational achievement? Party affiliation? Sexual orientation? Wealth? Transit preference? Entertainment preferences? Religion? Racial prejudices? I can’t see how one can possibly design an electoral system that’s properly “proportional” without having referenda on everything.
    So I prefer the more modest objectives: I want to be able to vote honestly, i.e. not have to consider other people’s vote when casting mine, and if a politician is particularly awful, I want to have a fair chance of getting rid of them. FPTP delivers on the latter and PR/MMP delivers on the former. Preferential voting delivers on both.

  • Wilf Day

    What is the NDP’s strongest area in Ontario? The North.
    In what region of Ontario did MMP get the lowest support in last year’s referendum? The North, despite the NDP’s long-standing support for proportional representation.
    Why? Because the Citizens’ Assembly started about six months too late, and ran out of time before they could reconsider the question of closed province-wide lists versus regional open lists. Its chair, George Thompson, said this May that they would likely have reconsidered this point if they had had a few more weekends for deliberation. An open list model where all MPPs face the voters, and a regional list model where the North lost no MPPs and was guaranteed that northern votes would elect northern MPPs, would have been far easier to sell.
    And if there had been an extra five months to discuss and work through the Citizens’ Assembly proposal, it would have been a very different ball game. The NDP, which has promoted MMP since 2002, did not even have time to come up with a position on how it would have nominated the provincial-list candidates.
    And if, as in BC, every household had received the Citizens’ Assembly Report, instead of it being embargo’d by Elections Ontario as “not neutral” — excuse me, it was the alternative we were to vote on — then voters would have understood it. A study after the vote showed that, among voters who understood it, it had majority support.
    Finally, the need for PR at the federal level is far more obvious than it was in Ontario — except to those who read only the Toronto Star.

  • Mark Ostler

    There might be some sore losers, but it’s not a softball game. It’s about democracy.

  • Skippy the Magical Racegoat

    Exactly, Mark. When we’re talking about something as critical as the future of our democratic system, one should be anything but concerned with how they come across to the so-called “winners.” What we’re trying to do is promote a fair electoral system that all voters can understand and agree upon, making us — forgive my cheesiness here — all winners.
    Yes, my side lost, and while it was painful, I still see it as an opportunity. The MMP system proposed was flawed. We could do a lot better.
    Of course, some of you out there will claim that because the reform vote lost once, we can never again challenge our perfect system. We must never again inconvenience our long-suffering voters with the hardships of checking off an extra “yes” or “no” on the ballot! But of course, there’s such thing as a sore winner…

  • x_the_x

    18 and 19, doesn’t this commitment to democracy you wax so eloquently about entail respecting the results, democratically arrived at, of a referendum that is less than a year old?
    my sore loserism comment related not incidentally to the commonly made complaints, renewed here, that the referendum wasn’t fair or didn’t reflect opinion or wasn’t given enough press, etc. It is sore loserism to lose and claim it was only because the result was fixed.

  • friend68

    “Sort of leaves recent immigrants, especially those from countries that don’t allow multiple citizenships, in the lurch. They don’t get a say in who runs the government in the country/province/city that has become their home.”
    Yes, that is exactly true — with the reasoning that they should not have the same voice as those people who are citizens, be they born here or anywhere else. It is that hard-assed to say that if you want that voice in the system, please become a citizen. In the case of what I can only imagine to be a small minority of situations where someone is from another country that doesn’t allow multiple citizenships… make a choice.

  • friend68

    I’m usually the negative guy, but despite my opposition to the previous MMP system (some of which were stated above, but also include the fact that it meant even more MP’s — how many of these people to we have to pay? — the idea does intrigue me.
    I think that the detractors of our current system as unfair don’t seem to address its basis as a balance of popular vote and geographical proportionality.
    I wonder if you looked back over the elections of recent history, what the results would have been, and if the governing party and/or coalition would have been significantly different.

  • markgreenan

    It’s great to see you cover the issue of electoral reform, but I must disagree with your assertion that “three of the four major national party leaders [are] in favour of some kind of proportional representation.”
    While it is true that Dion gave lukewarm support for PR in an interview with a Liberal blogger during the last leadership and included something about electoral reform in the statement released when he made the Dion-May deal, to my knowledge (and I’m pretty plugged in on this issue), he has not made any positive comments about PR since.
    And considering that in the meantime, he allowed his caucus to vote overwhelmingly against an NDP motion to study electoral reform, I think it is just plain wrong to classify Dion as a PR supporter – although I’d love it if he could prove me wrong in the future.
    There are Liberals with a record of support for PR (Carolyn Bennett and Maria Minna to name some off the top of my head), but I would not put Dion in that group.
    I would love if it the next Liberal leader supported PR (and Rae supported MMP in the Ontario referendum). I hope electoral reform activists can work to make PR an issue in the Liberal leadership race.

  • Jerad Gallinger

    Mark: I’ve posted a response to your comment on the Layton interview comment thread.