Ontario voters will consider their first-ever referendum on electoral reform on October 10th, as part of a provincial election campaign. The referendum is actually a no-brainer, but you’d never know it from most of the media coverage. Partially as a result of this coverage, the proposal to adopt a system of proportional representation (PR) will likely fail, and the long battle for a democratic system in Ontario will continue.
For one thing, comparisons with elsewhere have been left out of the debate, except to note the “instability” and frequent elections in places like Italy, or Israel. Well, if you just want stability, a dictatorship is your best bet. Democracies are messy and subject to change, because they require responsible government: so we can throw the rascals out.
A form of proportional representation has been used in Belgium since 1899. Besides Belgium, Italy and Israel, some form of PR is used in Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Venezuela and many other countries around the world.
Indeed, the only major developed countries clinging to the first-past-the-post system are: Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, and India.
(You can see a list here: http://www.idea.int/esd/world.cfm )
What do others know that we don’t?
Well, they know that the winner-take-all system in use here, is fundamentally undemocratic. For instance, federally in Canada there has been only one government elected since 1960 with a simple majority of the votes cast. One government in almost a half-century!! Provincially, you have to go back to 1937 to find a true majority government. In 1987, the Ontario Liberals won 73 percent of the seats with just 47 percent of the votes. In 1990, the New Democratic Party won 57 percent of the seats with just 38 percent of the votes.
Because “democracy” is best defined as “majority rule,” this illustrates why our system is undemocratic.
This has happened because under the current system, numerous candidates run in each riding, (I’ve seen up to ten) and the winner has more votes than the others (a plurality) but usually not a majority. The Party with the most votes usually totals around 40 percent—which means about 60 percent actually voted against the “winning” Party.
The Liberal and Conservative Parties which have governed Ontario and Canada as a whole almost without interruption, like things the way they are. They like governing as a majority, with about 40 percent of the vote. Who wouldn’t?
There are various systems in use around the world, but the idea behind PR is to have the number of seats allotted to each Party align with the proportion of electoral votes received. Representation proportional to voting.
The problem is not that this system is “too complicated” for the public to understand, as alleged by the media and politicians. The problem lies with media coverage, or lack thereof.
Earlier this year, Toronto Star reporter Ian Urquhart called proportional representation “radical.” He wrote, “The system can lead to permanent minority governments and a proliferation of fringe parties.” Urquhart overlooked the fact that democratic minority governments are preferable to undemocratic ones. As for the “fringe parties,” they won’t proliferate unless they have the votes.
The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system which was proposed in Ontario by a citizen’s assembly after a year of study, is just common sense, and it would avoid ridiculous situations. In the 2004 federal election, for example, the Liberals won 13 out of 14 seats in Saskatchewan, even though they only received 42 percent of the votes there.
In the elections in Quebec in 1998, British Columbia in 1996, and Saskatchewan in 1986, the Party which won a majority of seats placed second in the electoral vote. How democratic is that? Shades of Al Gore in 2000. Without the chads.
When British Columbians voted on PR in 2005, it received 58 percent approval, but failed, because legislators required a “super majority” of 60 percent, to pass it. This absurd reasoning means the system currently in use in B.C. has the support of just 42 percent of voters. Sadly, they’ve made the same mistake in Ontario: more evidence the powers that be have little or no interest in democracy.
There’s a lot more electoral reform needed in Ontario and the rest of North America, but the MMP system is a good place to start.
Dr. James Winter is a professor of media studies at the University of Windsor. This column is adapted from material in his latest book, Lies The Media Tell Us, published earlier this summer by Black Rose Books in Montreal.