Ontario’s Cure for Flawed Democracy Worse than Disease?

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

When Ontarians elect a provincial government on Oct.10, they will get a second ballot.

The second ballot represents one of those all-too-rare events in Canada, a genuine referendum. Ontarians will decide if they want to keep their traditional “first-past-the-post” (FPP) system of provincial representation, or switch to a new “mixed-member” system.

This is to address that vexing and persistent dilemma, how can we call ourselves a democracy when so many members win multi-party constituency races with less than half the votes (and often considerably less)?

“Mixed-member” does not refer specifically to the mentality of the MPPs (the Ontario term for MLAs). If it’s approved, the provincial Paliament (the Ontario term for Legislature) will henceforth get its MPPs from two distinct sources.

As proposed, 90 “local members” would still be elected in the normal FPP way (down from the present complement of 107).

But 39 “list members” would be added to the House, selected by the various parties, enough to bring each party (any with 3% of the vote or more) up to its share of the popular vote.

This is a variant of what’s called “proportional representation” (PR). It’s common in other democratic countries, but is not used in Canada, Britain or the U.S. The proposal was put together by a randomly-drawn Citizens Assembly of 102 Ontarians.

Considerable doubt is being expressed in Ontario that voters will accept it.

I’m not sure I would support it myself. But I don’t like FPP either, so if I lived in Ontario, I’m not sure how I’d vote. Probably “no”.

The advantage claimed for PR is that it gives small parties with new ideas and different priorities – Greens, Christian Heritage, etc. – entry to the Legislature. Typically they lack the numbers to win any riding, but some do draw a significant minority of votes province-wide.

The other advertised plus is that it stops parties with, say, 39% of the popular vote from forming a majority government; it requires them instead to coalesce with smaller parties.

That said, there is a glaring disadvantage to PR, namely this: that 39 of Ontario’s seats would henceforth be filled by individuals selected by parties rather than by voters.

Party discipline is already too strong in our system; this would make it worse. To become – and remain – a “list member,” an MPP must account to his party leader, not actual constituents.

The whole theory of parliamentary democracy is that a member represents everyone in a geographic region. This encourages both candidates and voters to move as much as possible to the middle, not to doctrinaire extremes.

There is a much simpler and sounder way to solve the problem of pluralities masquerading as majorities. It’s called the “Preferential Ballot.”

Voters under this system simply fill out the standard ballot differently. Instead of marking one “X” in one box, they write “1” beside the name of their favourite local candidate, and “2” beside their second-favourite.

If no candidate gets 50%-plus on the first count, the second preferences of all but the top two candidates are then counted. One will have more than 50%.

Granted, this is not useful to the smaller special-issue parties. But, with all due respect, why would we care?

Our representatives are supposed to represent us, not some self-selected group of party bosses.

Link Byfield is an Alberta senator-elect and chairman of the Citizens Centre. The Centre promotes the principles of personal freedom and responsible government.