Provincial initiatives on electoral reform

Low voter turnout, backed up by polling data, is sending an unmistakable message: Canadians are not satisfied with their electoral institutions. Federally, our electoral system allows the Green Party to win hundreds of thousands of votes and receive no seats, the NDP to get half the seats its votes entitle it to, the Bloc to get two thirds of the seats in Quebec with 42 per cent of the vote, the Liberals to be frozen out of Alberta and the Conservatives to be frozen out of the three largest cities in the country. Most people do not think that is right.

But Stephen Harper has other fish to fry besides changing the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system – though, to his credit, following the lead of British Columbia, Ontario, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, he has established a fixed date for the next federal election: October 19, 2009. On electoral reform, it is definitely the provinces – five, to be exact – that are taking the lead.

British Columbia started the ball rolling. Its Citizens’ Assembly produced a detailed plan for a Single Transferable Vote system (like that used in Ireland), which was endorsed by 58 per cent of the province’s voters in a referendum – just below the required 60 per cent threshold. It will be resubmitted to the electors at the time of the next scheduled election (May 12, 2009). Prince Edward Island held a referendum on a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system, based on the Scottish model and proposed by an appointed commission. In contrast to B.C., the political leaders took part and succeeded in having it turned down in November 2005 by an almost two-to-one margin. The government not only set a 60 per cent threshold, but also provided few polling stations and suggested it would ignore the result if turnout was low.

New Brunswick also set up a commission, but with a wide mandate: “To identify options for an enhanced citizen-centred democracy in New Brunswick building on the values, heritage, culture, and communities of our province.” On the question of the electoral system, it too proposed a version of the Scottish MMP model. In June 2006, Premier Bernard Lord announced that this proposal would be put to a referendum on May 12, 2008 (thus coinciding with municipal elections), to be decided by simple majority. Ironically, as if to underline the need for electoral reform, the Lord government lost power on September 18 despite winning 1,500 more votes than the victorious Liberals. And it appears that the new Premier, Shawn Graham, has no intention of proceeding with the planned referendum.

Ontario prospects

Canada’s two largest provinces have also been active on electoral reform, and this section features two articles that contribute to the current discussion in each of them.

In Ontario, successive elections produced majority governments that were ideologically more extreme than the majority of voters – first Bob Rae’s NDP on the left, then Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservatives on the right, neither of whom won anywhere near the support of 50 per cent of the voters. It was thus the victory of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal Party in October 2003 that opened the door to a potential reform of the province’s FPTP voting system. A Liberal policy document promised a “full, open public debate on voting reform.” The party campaigned on a promise to turn the question of voting system reform over to a “citizen jury,” a process that might ultimately result in a referendum on a new electoral system. The new Premier, on the same day as his cabinet appointments, announced the establishment of a Democratic Renewal Secretariat, headed by the Attorney General. First on its list of tasks was “spearheading a public consultation and referendum on Ontario’s voting system.”

Both the provincial NDP and the Greens went into the 2003 election with specific policy commitments for PR. For the NDP, which had sunk to new lows in support at the end of the 1990s and like its federal cousin was now resigned to third-party status, there was no partisan reason not to endorse reform. More surprising, perhaps, is the decision of the Liberals – who often, as now, benefit from the current majority-inflating FPTP system – to raise the issue of voting system reform.

In fact, the Ontario Liberals, like their counterparts in B.C., are not as interested in changing the electoral system as such as they are in overcoming popular dissatisfaction with, and thus regaining legitimacy for, democratic institutions – and thus for themselves as governing party. In making a commitment to a public debate about Ontario’s voting system and a possible referendum about replacing it in their November 2001 Democratic Charter, they were reflecting widespread concerns among policy experts and opinion leaders about a “democratic deficit.” Electoral reform was being advanced as a remedy in the media and by various organizations across the political spectrum.

The government proceeded cautiously, paying close attention to the B.C. experience. The Select Committee on Electoral Reform of the Ontario Legislative Assembly consulted experts and travelled to B.C. as well as to Scotland, Ireland and Germany before issuing its report in November 2005. It did not take a position of substance but rather recommended a number of procedural principles that should guide the government in setting up the citizen jury (now Citizens’ Assembly) and holding a referendum, seeking to avoid perceived problems in the B.C. experience.

On August 15, the government named 52 women and 51 men as members of the Citizens’ Assembly, each representing one of Ontario’s ridings. Citizens had been selected at random from the Permanent Register of Electors by Elections Ontario, contacted by mail, and drawn from those who had expressed interest in serving by attending one of 29 selection meetings that were held across the province. The members of the Citizens’ Assembly are attending two weekend meetings each month at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto through the spring of 2007. The meetings are open to the public, and the assembly will also be holding public consultations to hear Ontarians’ views.

The assembly will issue its final report next May 15, outlining its recommendation as to whether Ontario should keep the current first-past-the-post electoral system or adopt a new one to be implemented for Ontario’s next election. Since the election is scheduled for October 4, 2007, this is an unlikely prospect given the time involved in establishing new electoral boundaries and related measures. If the assembly recommends a change in the electoral system, that recommendation will be put to a referendum within the government’s current mandate.

As it examines various electoral systems, the assembly is expected to take into consideration the values of Ontarians, which include fair representation but also political stability. Moreover, the assembly has been asked to come up with an electoral system that will promote voter participation and engagement with the broader democratic process. A tall order. The 103 men and women will be hearing many proposals for a new electoral system for Ontario – but none, we can be sure, is more sophisticated and comprehensive than the one set out in Wilfred Day’s article in the following pages.

At the time of writing, the government has introduced legislation requiring 60 per cent support in the referendum for the recommendation to be adopted, despite advice to the contrary from the Select Committee of the legislature. It was the 60 per cent threshold that sank the British Columbia proposal in 2005, and the Ontario government’s decision has sparked criticism that it is setting the referendum up for failure.

Quebec developments

Electoral reform has been a public issue in Quebec at least as far back as the 1966 provincial election, in which the Union Nationale won a majority of seats even though it received only 40.9 per cent of the vote, compared to the Liberals’ 47.2 per cent. Yet for many years the Liberals ignored the issue. Instead, it was taken up by the Parti Québécois under René Lévesque, who had left the Liberal Party not long after the 1966 defeat.

Lévesque, however, was unable to win sufficient support – including from within his own caucus – for his 1984 proposal, although he led a majority government at the time. After that the issue was off the Quebec political agenda for 15 years. Then in the November 1998 election, as in 1966, the “loser” won. The PQ gained a 76-seat parliamentary majority with 42.9 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals, with 43.6 per cent, won only 48 seats. The Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) received 11.8 per cent of the vote but captured only the seat of its leader, Mario Dumont.

This time the Liberals took notice and in May 1999 added an endorsement of MMP to their program. The party had come to understand that it would benefit from ending what political scientist Louis Massicotte called a “linguistic gerrymander,” in which the Liberals “waste” many thousands of votes in non-francophone ridings.

In June 2001, the new Mouvement pour une Démocratie Nouvelle (MDN), a nonpartisan coalition designed to promote voting-system reform in Quebec, presented a petition signed by 125 prominent citizens – among them former PQ cabinet minister Claude Charron, former Liberal leader Claude Ryan and ADQ cofounder Jean Allaire – calling on the government to hold public hearings immediately. In March 2002, PQ Premier Bernard Landry named pro-reformer Jean-Pierre Charbonneau minister responsible for the reform of democratic institutions and hired André Larocque, who had been a key architect of Lévesque’s proposal, as deputy minister. Charbonneau’s office began organizing an “Estates General,” in which electoral reform would be featured among a wide range of democratic reforms.

When the Estates General met in Quebec City in February 2003, more than 90 per cent of the 825 voting delegates supported some form of PR – though only 24 per cent preferred a pure PR system. The post–Estates General report’s effect was muted by the fact that Quebec was already in the midst of an election campaign. However, in response to a request from the MDN, most candidates, including all the major party leaders, declared their willingness to act on electoral system reform in the first two years of the next government’s term.

The election resulted in a majority Liberal government under Jean Charest. In his inaugural speech, Charest included a promise to introduce a bill to change the electoral system in 2004. Finally, the reform movement had an ally in power in Quebec. But the alliance was certain to be rocky: the reform movement was dominated by left-wing activists, whose political culture could not be more different from that of the right-of-centre Liberals. Moreover, two years is a short time to engage in wide popular consultation and change the electoral system. It soon became clear that the two-year commitment would not be met.

The minister in charge, Jacques Dupuis, embarked on a wide series of consultations with interested parties. A notable exception was the PQ opposition, which refused to participate because of its dubious claim – after 22 years of on-and-off public debate culminating in the Estates General – that the government had failed to consult the people.

It was not until December 2004 that the government proposal was tabled. As expected, it was a form of MMP, with 75 representatives from individual ridings and another 50 at-large regional representatives chosen from lists to compensate for the distortions in the local results. The 75 individual ridings correspond to the number of federal ridings in Quebec, while the 40 per cent of regional representatives approximates the ratio that is used in Scotland and has become a kind of accepted wisdom. However, unlike under MMP elsewhere, voters would cast only one vote: their vote for a candidate would count toward the distribution of the PR seats in the region. Moreover, instead of something like the nine district and seven compensatory seats in each region as in Scotland, the proposal envisaged 26 regional districts, with each district, as a general rule, composed of three single-member seats and two compensatory list seats.

Longstanding proponents of electoral reform, many of whom sympathized with small parties of the left, reacted with dismay. Because many voters could be expected to continue to vote strategically, unaware that their vote for a candidate incapable of winning their local riding could still help their preferred party win a compensating seat, the absence of a second list vote could be said to favour the larger parties.

But the real disadvantage the proposal placed on small parties resulted from the small regional districts with short lists for compensation. One can reasonably justify a limited number of such districts in rural regions, but these produce only one fifth of Quebec’s members of the National Assembly. The great majority come from more populated regions, which could be well served by larger regional districts with levels of compensation that gave small parties some hope of winning representation.

After the government tabled its draft bill, nothing happened until March 2005, when Charest announced that the democratic reform portfolio would be transferred to Benoît Pelletier, a lower-ranked minister and one who had expressed some skepticism toward the idea at an earlier stage. On the plus side, there was finally a minister in place who could make the dossier a priority, in a way that Jacques Dupuis, who was also House Leader and Minister of Justice, could not.

On May 31 Pelletier announced that public consultation on the draft bill would, at long last, begin at the end of the summer and that the parliamentarians would be joined by a group of citizens. The commission would travel throughout the province to consult the citizens and make use of information technology to disseminate information and widen participation. In a widely noted op-ed piece in Le Devoir, Pelletier showed an openness to amending the bill that had not been in evidence in the public statements of his predecessor.

After a PQ filibuster was lifted, it was agreed that the commission would consist of nine parliamentarians (five from the Liberal Party, three PQ and one ADQ) along with eight citizens. These were to be drawn by lot from volunteers in such a manner as to reflect the composition of the population. In late August announcements appeared in the Quebec media soliciting these volunteers; more than 2,300 people presented themselves, from whom four men and four women of diverse age groups and regions were chosen.

The first round of public hearings consisted of two weeks of appearances by 14 experts and representatives of seven political parties. Overall, a clear majority of the presentations favoured change, though in a form at least slightly if not significantly different from the government’s draft bill. The commission’s hearings resumed in late January 2006 in 16 different locations throughout Quebec, and ended in early March. While attendance was often sparse, more than 369 briefs were tabled and the commission heard 360 presentations by groups and individuals. In addition, more than 1,100 people responded to the questions posed by the commission. The great majority of briefs and presentations favoured reform; most called for two votes and larger regional districts, or even Quebec-wide lists. Among these were a number that reflected an explicit feminist perspective, represented here in the article by Jackie Steele and Emmanuelle Hébert.

One negative note was sounded in several outlying regions where local town and regional councillors rejected any change that would diminish their region’s clout. One surprising added wrinkle came in the position taken by the PQ which, apart from reiterating its insistence on a referendum, added that its preferred compensatory mechanism would leave the current total of 125 single-member districts. While it would not commit itself on the numbers, if the 60-40 ratio were maintained, this would mean a National Assembly of more than 225 members.

In April, the Citizens’ Committee released its report, signed by six of its eight members. It called for an MMP system with larger electoral regions conforming to Quebec’s administrative districts. The committee was innovative in calling for the use of a formula which would allocate a number of regional compensatory seats in proportion to parties’ overall percentage of the popular vote (subject to a 5 per cent threshold). This is the principle that Wilfred Day has developed into a concrete proposal for Ontario. The committee surprised many by adding that the reform should proceed only with the support of a two thirds majority in the National Assembly, effectively giving the opposition a veto.

Finally, at the end of May, the MNAs on the commission issued their report. In language reminiscent of the Ontario Select Committee, they achieved minimal consensus by drafting a text vague enough to allow for almost any outcome – essentially throwing the ball back to the minister.

One option open to the government is simply to shelve the proposal. After all, the reality remains that caucus support is lukewarm, the regions are wary and the PQ opposition will continue to drag its feet. The downside of this option is that a draft bill has been submitted to the National Assembly, and the minister and his government have promised a reform. To do nothing amounts to a flip-flop – hardly a way to strengthen the government’s image as the next election approaches.

If the government does act, it will need to spend political capital on efforts to mobilize support. How much will be needed will depend, first of all, on what its new bill is going to look like. How open to compromise will the government have proved itself to be? From the signals sent out, the likely broad outlines of the bill can be discerned. A number of amendments can be expected in an effort to please all sides – or, more accurately, to give the players seeking change a stake in the reform going through while reducing opponents’ incentive to go to great lengths to block it. I foresee that the number of single-member constituencies will be increased by, say, 10 to 12. This would ensure that no region could claim it was losing seats, and would also go part way toward accepting the PQ’s latest proposal.

As long as no referendum for ratification is included in the bill, the PQ will certainly oppose it on democratic grounds. But though nothing has yet (October 2006) been promised, the plan may in fact provide for such a referendum. The Liberals may find it desirable to have the plan, if and when it is adopted by the National Assembly, ratified in a referendum at the time of the next provincial election simply because it would make it much harder for a new PQ government to rescind it.

For supporters of reform, ratification by referendum is a two-edged sword. A referendum victory gives an electoral system more legitimacy, but a referendum also makes it easier for vested interests to block the reform. In PEI, incumbent politicians and their supporters were able to say that they were against this proposal, without explicitly endorsing the status quo.

Adding a few seats will somewhat dilute the proportional/compensatory element, but what will matter more is whether regional districts are carved out so as to result in lists long enough to significantly improve the chances of representation for small parties, women and ethnocultural groups. I anticipate a redrawing of the regional district map to conform more closely to the administrative regions. Since their strength tends to be in the urban areas, the potential for the left-wing Québec Solidaire and Green parties to actually win a seat will thus be much enhanced – even if, as still seems to be the case, the government is unprepared to allow for two votes. I see no chance for a Quebec-wide list – the feminist case for which is presented by Steele and Hébert – since it denies the regional realities of the province, to which MNAs are hypersensitive.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the pro-reform groups, with their predominantly left-wing and feminist sympathies, to such a proposal. The feminists in particular will be inclined to reject it as inadequate – but the fact remains that, compared to the status quo, it improves the chances of parties sympathetic to their views. The shoe, when it comes to openness to compromise, will be on the other foot.