A Small Start for Big Reform
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A Small Start for Big Reform

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Dedicated reformers even rally in the rain.

As the last federal election day drew to a close and the spectre of a Stephen Harper–led Conservative majority that had been haunting many in the country for years suddenly became real, one tweet best summed up what so many Canadians were thinking: “The Conservatives are like Nickelback. I don’t know anyone who likes them, but they always seem to do well.”
Thanks to our first-past-the-post federal electoral system, in place since Confederation, the Conservatives’ 1.8 per cent increase in share of the popular vote resulted in 24 additional seats in Parliament and locked us into a Conservative majority for the next four years. After the votes were tallied, the ruling party had attained their status on the strength of only 40 per cent of the popular vote. Though the Nickelback analogy makes this weird photo-op a little bit funnier, the lack of proportional representation in our country’s electoral system is no laughing matter to a growing number of Canadians.

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Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett.

“It just strikes us as bad math,” says rally organizer Susanna Fournier. “How can that happen? How can 60 per cent against something equal 40 per cent majority?” Fournier is one of the organizers of last Saturday’s National Day of Action for Electoral Reform at Queen’s Park. Just eleven days after the election, organizers across the country sprung into, well, action, and put together rallies in at least 10 cities across the country. From Whitehorse to Vancouver to St. John’s, Saturday afternoon was filled with speeches and signs with pie charts on them.
Toronto’s Day of Action was small but determined (about 80 protesters in all), filled with umbrellas and soggy shoes, as a misty rain set in just as the event was getting underway. Organizers came prepared with ponchos and plastic bags. A petition being circulated came with its own makeshift raincoat. Still, the rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of the ralliers who came out in support of proportional representation in Parliament. Trudging on despite the weather were speakers from the federal Liberal and NDP parties, the provincial Green Party, Fair Vote Canada, and LeadNow, plus seasoned activist and rabble.ca founder Judy Rebick. Supporters of Toronto’s very own electoral reform organization, RaBIT, could also be seen hopping amongst the crowd distributing buttons.

Journalist and activist Judy Rebick.

Multiple attempts have been made to reform first-past-the-post electoral systems where they’re still in existence, including failed provincial referendums in Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, and Ontario, and a nationwide referendum in the U.K. just last week. As a spokesperson for the reformer campaign in the U.K. put it, “it is difficult to sell a solution when the British people don’t see a problem.”
Recently re-elected Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett (St Paul’s) echoed this frustration in a chat with us before the rally got underway. She blames the failure of referendums not on a lack of support for electoral reform, but on a lack of understanding of the issue. In Ontario, for example, a citizens’ assembly recommendation that we switch to a mixed-member-proportional voting system was being put to referendum in October of 2007. Elections Ontario was mandated to launch a public education campaign, but they didn’t formally do so until August of that year. By the end of September, almost half of Ontarians still didn’t even know there was any proposal to change the system, let alone the benefits of such a change.
“Until you can get regular citizens to come in and discuss the problem, you end up being defeated. You end up with alphabet soup that just confuses everybody,” Bennett told us, referring to the acronyms used for popular electoral systems (FPTP is first-past-the-post, MMP for mixed-member proportional, and STV, or single transferable vote, for another option some jurisdictions have considered).”And it’s difficult to move forward because people will choose the devil they do know instead of the devil they don’t know,” says Bennett.
The devil we know in Canadian federal elections is the first-past-the-post system. The other devils—the ones we don’t know as well—National Day of Action organizers and activists want people more acquainted with are proportional representation systems, like party list proportional representation or the others listed above.
Voting based on proportional representation, say its supporters, would ensure that every vote counted equally, parties would get the number of seats they deserve, and government would be accountable to the majority on major issues of national interest, like the environment and taxes. Under the current model, national interests are often trumped by regional ones due to the breakdown of seats. Compare, for instance, the Green Party—a national party with candidates in the majority of Canada’s 308 ridings and a platform built on principles that would ostensibly benefit all Canadians—and the Bloc Québécois, a party that runs only in Quebec and pushes a separatist agenda. In 2008, the Greens got 6.8 per cent of the popular vote but no seats. The Bloc, with 10 per cent of the popular vote, secured 49 seats and a loud voice for Quebec’s concerns, while many national issues were left unaddressed.
“When we developed the system, we didn’t have the media that we have, we didn’t have the internet. The fact that you can have a nationwide rally happen in ten days thanks to things like Facebook and email and Twitter speaks to the fact that we’re plugged in on a national scale, and yet our system still suggests that we live in these isolated communities,” says Susanna Fournier.

Small in numbers but not in ambition.

Despite a hearty turnout from activist groups and political parties, there was one notable absence from Saturday’s action. The Conservatives, it seems, were there only in spirit.
Fournier told us MPs from every party were approached to participate, but they didn’t hear back from any Conservative members in time. It probably wasn’t just the rain or the short notice that kept the Conservatives away—there’s another likely reason no one from the ruling party went out to a rally to reform the electoral system that had just days ago gifted them a majority in Parliament with only 40 per cent of the popular vote.
In a 1996 essay on the need for political reforms, including electoral reform, Stephen Harper and Conservative strategist Tom Flanagan spoke of the problems with Canada’s comparatively rare (save for its parent government, the U.K.) concentration of political power and the need “update our political structures to reflect the diverse political aspirations of our diverse communities.” Harper added, in what can now be seen as a cruel bit of foreshadowing, “But it is seldom in the short-term interest of the party in power to carry out electoral reform; by definition, the system worked admirably for those now in power and changing the system might benefit the opponents next time.”
Electoral reform has had some interesting political bedfellows in the past. Most notable among its current companions is the federal NDP. The newly minted official opposition party have supported proportional representation reform in recent motions and in their election platform. But as every speaker at Saturday’s rally said, reform will ultimately have to come from the people.
“We need a system made by the people, not the politicians,” Wayne Smith, the executive director of Fair Vote Canada, told the crowd of soggy ralliers.
For those skeptical about the effects of rallies such as these to enact tangible change, know that rallying is half the battle. For all the years electoral reform has been bandied about, veteran activist Judy Rebick said, to her knowledge, this rally was the first truly grassroots, street-level action she’d seen on revising our 144-year-old electoral system.
“The biggest thing about changing anything is educating people, reaching out, and speaking one to one,” says Susanna Fournier.
Just prior to the rally, she had a debate with a passerby who didn’t agree with the cause and accused her and organizers of just being upset that the party they voted for had lost.
“Yeah some people were upset that they lost,” says Fournier. “And they chose to try and do something about it.”
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist