Publication: Toronto Star
Title: Beware citizens' assemblies on electoral reform: Giving back power to MPPs would solve problems
Date: September 9, 2006
By: Ian Urquhart
For the article, click here.
Ontario is about to take a leap of faith into electoral darkness.
At a lecture hall today on the campus of York University, a "citizens' assembly" of 103 randomly picked individuals (one per riding in the province) begins its deliberations on proposals for a new way of picking MPPs to fill the seats in the Ontario Legislature.
In a series of weekend sessions, the assembly will spend the next couple of months getting up to speed on the issue before holding public hearings, with the aim of making a recommendation next spring.
The recommendation is to be put to the voters in a referendum, probably coincident with the next provincial election in October 2007.
What the assembly will recommend is anyone's guess, but bet on a call for radical change from our centuries-old system, inherited from Britain.
Two years ago, a similar assembly in British Columbia recommended a loopy new system called the "single transferable vote," which hardly anyone understood.
British Columbians were saved from the fate of an incomprehensible electoral system only because the government required a super-majority (60 per cent) for the measure to be approved in a subsequent referendum. The proposal fell barely two percentage points short of that threshold.
(An aside: The Ontario government has not yet said whether a super-majority will be required here. This week, Marie Bountrogianni, the minister responsible for electoral reform, promised an answer to that question in a bill to be put before the Legislature soon after it resumes sitting on Sept. 25.)
The Ontario government says it has learned from some of the mistakes made in B.C., where, among other things, the research director for the assembly was an individual who was already predisposed toward the single transferable vote.
Accordingly, steps were taken to avoid the appearance of bias as the Ontario assembly was put together.
The government appointed as chair a man with impeccable credentials — George Thomson, a former judge and senior bureaucrat. He, in turn, appointed a secretariat headed by Jonathan Rose, a Queen's University professor of political science with no published record on the issue of electoral reform.
Both men say they are approaching their tasks with their minds open to every possibility, including the status quo.
"We're talking about the strengths and weaknesses of all systems," Rose says. "I don't think it's a slam dunk that one system will come out ahead of the others."
Nonetheless, there are reasons to suspect the playing field is already tilted against the status quo.
First of all, the citizens' assembly itself — culled from an initial appeal for volunteers mailed out to 123,000 Ontarians — is comprised mostly of retirees, part-time workers, students, homemakers and computer nerds looking for some excitement in their humdrum lives (not to mention a stipend of $150 a day).
In quotes supplied for distribution to the media, many of the assembly members talk of their desire to be a part of "making history," "something that would be groundbreaking," or "something that could effect great change."
They won't make history or break ground by recommending the status quo.
Secondly, the assembly will be advised by a 13-person panel of experts, which, with one or two notable exceptions, reads like a who's who of advocates of proportional representation.
That is the system whereby candidates run on party lists, rather than in constituencies, and are selected to the Legislature in proportion to that party's share of the popular vote.
It is the system favoured by most critics of our constituency-based, first-past-the-post system, which has been blamed for a range of calamities, from the Mike Harris regime to the low proportion of women in the Legislature to the declining voter turnouts in elections.
But the proposed cures, including proportional representation (a recipe for permanent minority government), are worse than the disease, and they do not address the real problem in politics today.
That problem is the presidentialization of our system, with power being centred in the office of the premier, and other MPPs, even cabinet ministers, being pushed to the margins.
The solution to the problem is not electoral reform but legislative reform, with ordinary MPPs being re-empowered.
The governing Liberals used to call for legislative reform, when they were in opposition. But now that they are in power, that option has lost its allure.
Meanwhile, they had another one of their ill-advised election promises to keep — the creation of a citizens' assembly to study electoral reform. Where the process will take us, no one knows.