Wednesday, October 25, 2006

PR in Ontario

So the McGuinty government is moving - slowly - on electoral reform in Ontario. Yippee. But a few people seem genuinely angry that the law as proposed would require 60% approval before we adopt any changes. I don't get it - we aren't tinkering around here, we're talking about a major change to the way we do democracy in Ontario - one that, if it gets even close to electoral justice, would probably add the Greens to the Ontario legislature, increase the seat count for the NDP, and deny the Liberals and the Tories majority governments for the rest of time.

It's understandable that the Liberals are not wild about that idea, but I think people need to understand how big a change this is, especially for it to occur in Canada's most important province (take that, everyone else!) This should require a super-majority of some kind, and 60% support is at least more likely to occur than 66%, or 75%.

And frankly, the Westminster system is so antiquated I will all but certainly vote for whatever proposal is actually made - almost anything would be better than what we've got now.

One thing I would really, really like not to see the Libs and Tories (or their helpers) engage in FUD tactics when the referendum comes around - that's what we've got the Globe and the Post for. In BC, Wikipedia says the government stayed neutral in the referendum, something that makes no sense to me - Campbell ran on reform, announced the referendum, then stepped back? If you're serious about reform, then let's see something as radical as advocating the position you've already said you support. Dimwits.

Memo to McGuinty: If you actually support reform in Ontario, let's see you come off the sidelines and endorse the proposal when it's made. As I said, it's bound to be better than the status quo.


North of 49 said...

Hi, john.

I was in BC for our referendum and I was pretty pissed at the 60% threshold, like a lot of others. To add insult to injury, the referendum passed with a majority in all but a handful of ridings, yet because the popular vote was only 57%, it failed.

When under the FPTP system it is possible to get a "majority" in the Legislature with under 40% of the vote, the 60% threshold seemed disgustingly cynical.

As for Campbell stepping back from the debate, well, that puzzled me too. I think it was complicated for him: he'd run on the reform plank, as you note; he had to deliver something, so he did, though I doubt he really wanted to; crossing his fingers, he stacked the deck against change and then, perforce, had to pretend neutrality. In practical terms that meant letting various third-party attack dogs confuse the voters (lie) and muddy the issue enough that we didn't hit the magic Sixty.

The Citizen's Commission that studied this issue had a couple of obvious chains around their ankles right from the start. They were only allowed to recommend one choice, not several, and they couldn't change the number of seats in the Legislature. Given those constraints, which needn't have been imposed if the government was truly looking for the best system, they chose STV with multi-member ridings, which actually made the most sense given the inital constraints and BC's weird electoral map, with its dense-packed south-west corner and huge empty ridings in the North.

Much of the opposition to the STV system came from Prop-Rep people who were furious that the commission hadn't picked their particular pet system (MMP, for example). The rhetoric from some of these folks was hysterical (in the spittle-flecked and screaming sense), and really helped the No side a lot. Disgusting. As you say, almost any form of PR is better than no PR, and in any case, what has once been modified can be remodified in an election cycle or two if it turns out to be less than ideal. But no, the Yes-to-PR-but-not-this-kind crowd seemed to think STV would be cast in stone for all eternity, or something. Hysterical.

As this unfolds in Ontario, expect much vitriol as the PR proponents sort themselves out into cheerleading squads for their favourite system, and cast folks who favour a different system as, well, Satan. While the FPTP gang gloats.

My feeling is that if McGuinty really supports this thing, he'll show it by not setting any artificial walls around citizens' commission mandate the way Campbell did. If he's secretly against it, he'll set up more roadblocks than just the 60% threshold.

Declan said...

Yeah, what North of 49 said.

For comparison, the EU set a threshold of 55% for Montenegro's recent independence vote. With a 60% threshold they would still be tied to Serbia - and there would likely be a huge mess as the 55% who voted in favour wondered why their votes counted for less than the 45% who voted against.

The sovereignty referendums in Quebec have had 50% thresholds as well.

Referendums on electoral reform in other countries (Ireland, New Zealand) have used 50% thresholds.

No Canadian referendum (other than the BC vote) has ever had a threshhold as high as 60% (including referendums on Newfoundland joining Confederation, conscription, and the vote on the Charlottetown Accord.

Also, the constitution doesn't consider the electoral system important enough to require any kind of special super majority protection like human rights get. In fact, a majority government elected with 37% of the vote could change the system entirely if they wanted (and they might do something just like that in Quebec).

I mean, the electoral system is fairly important, but is it so much more important than decisions on independence, forcibly sending people's kids overseas to fight in a world war, changing the country's frickin' constitution?

Especially considering that changing the electoral system can be easily reversed (and has been in our history) as well.

I am angry about the threshold, in part because I had the same naive reaction that you are showing - back when the 60% threshold was set in B.C.

North of 49 is right. Setting a 60% threshold is the cynical action of someone who wants to be seen as a reformer while cementing in place the system that helps them gain and retain power.

Consider what happened in B.C. - we held a vote on how we should count votes and the majority - a clear majority - was outvoted by the minority. 60% is BS.

- Also, as North of 49 notes, Campbell couldn't be seen to actively campaign against change, so he did the next best thing, which was to do nothing, while throwing up whatever procedural roadblocks he could along the way. Expect McGuinty to do the same.

If you want to convince me that 60% is legit, explain to me just what could change with a new elecoral system and how that change is more dramatic than, say, changing the constitution, breaking up the country, adding new provinces to the country or instituting a draft.

john said...

"If you want to convince me that 60% is legit, explain to me just what could change with a new elecoral system and how that change is more dramatic than, say, changing the constitution, breaking up the country, adding new provinces to the country or instituting a draft."

Well, seeing as the electoral system is the process through which we would do all of the other things you've just mentioned, I think you could, in fact, reasonably argue that tinkering with it should be done more carefully than other parts of government. Just to quickly respond to some your specific examples:

-The PQ may have set a 50%+1 threshold in the last referendum, but Chretien clearly said he required something more, but was extremely vague about what the "more" was. It's possible that if Ottawa used the Montenegro standard, the PQ would never win a referendum in the future, and would be screaming about how unfair that was. Does that make it wrong?

I'm essentially trying to argue the virtues of small-c conservatism when it comes to fundemental aspects of out government.

I should also say that as a general rule - and in this case as well - I'm against referenda entirely. They're too often used by governments not to appeal to the public, but to either a) give legitimacy to decisions already made, or b) create the illusion that the government is trying to do something. If governments want change, then bring change about. Referenda are cop-outs.

I'm certainly willing to concede that McGuinty hopes and expects this referendum to fail - that doesn't mean it will. If, for example, the inter-PR fratricide that NO49 talks about can be kept to a minimum, I would be shocked if 60% wasn't actually achievable.

Declan said...

Fair enough, although I'm not sure how you can reconcile not wanting a referendum - which would leave the decision up to the Liberals, who were elected with 46% of the vote, and in the case of a referendum wanting the threshold to be 60% instead of 50%.

john said...

"I'm not sure how you can reconcile not wanting a referendum - which would leave the decision up to the Liberals, who were elected with 46% of the vote, and in the case of a referendum wanting the threshold to be 60% instead of 50%."

Umm. Good point. Damn. What I'll say is that there are plenty of things I support the Liberals doing despite their lack of 50%+1 support, because they ran publicly on them, and won an election where everyone knew the rules going in. That the rules are unfair was acknowledged by everyone going in, but everyone still agreed to play the game.

The issue of PR has a much greater appeal than the Liberal's 46%, so this is one of those cases where I think the govt should simply go ahead, pick a system, and use it in the next election. I concede this is an unlikely prospect.

adam said...

I'm curious - what reason would a person have to be pro FPTP, if they weren't a Liberal or Conservative MP, or one of their supporters? I presume that anyone who voted against a PR system would most likely be a voter for one of these parties who doesn't want to see their number of seats drop. Is there any serious drawback that I can't think of?

I've personally been itching for a change for years, but had pretty much given up on it happening any time soon, since it doesn't aid the most popular parties. I'm cynical enough about Canadian politics that I wouldn't have expected any of them to put party politics aside long enough to go for a more properly democratic system.

john said...

Is there a non-self-interested reason to oppose PR, or some variant of electoral reform? I personally don't think so.

The closest I would say would be the editorial pages of major newspapers, who worry about all the "instability" PR causes in politics. Why newspapers would be upset at the creation of more, y'know, news is beyond me. But then, I'm just a lowly blogger.

adam said...

Ah, but you see, editors and columnists are not weighed down by petty selfish interests, like you and I. They, in their great and impartial wisdom, see above our self-centred strife, and implore us to look with them at the truth that would benefit us all, if we only could be as objective as they are.