The Death Of My Electoral Reform Idealism

Perhaps one of the most over-analyzed and oft-criticized campaign promises the Liberals broke from the 2015 campaign was the one on electoral reform – that the 2015 vote would be Canada’s last under first-past-the-post.

I knew it was an empty promise from the moment it was spoken, and I would know. I have inside knowledge on electoral reform from my experiences participating in the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform from 2006-2007.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was created by the Report of the Select Committee on Electoral Reform of the Ontario legislature in 2005. I was one 12,000 Ontario residents invited to to put my name forward and accepted, I was then invited to a selection meeting in Ottawa. I put my name into the draw and was selected as an alternate. Eventually 103 Ontarians were chosen, and I was eventually picked to attend as alternate.

From September 2006, to late April 2007 we met nearly twice a month to examine our current electoral system, and investigate what possible changes and improvements could be made. I attended a number of public forums, and consulted with the public through information sessions and written submissions. It was a fascinating process, lead by George Thomson and Queen’s University Professor of Political Science, Jonathan Rose. We examined electoral systems worldwide, the processes involved in changing electoral systems, and the experiences of jurisdictions that changed electoral systems.

I have worked in politics for years, as a volunteer, at the riding level, and in the national office of a political party – but I have never received an education in democracy like the one I obtained participating in the citizen’s assembly. With each subsequent meeting we felt the burden of what we being asked, and some meetings were we worked like a well oiled machine, other meetings devolved into anarchy. We truly did our best to achieve consensus, not only to represent what we wanted on a personal level but also to find an option that could be easily explained and understood by fellow Ontarians.

It was an impossible task, with a tight deadline. The work of the assembly ended with the submission of the final report in May 2007. The assembly recommended a mixed member proportional system similar to the ones used in Germany and New Zealand. As an alternate, I did not have a vote or collaborate on the final report. My preference then and now is the ranked ballot, but I agreed with the findings of the Citizen’s Assembly.

The recommendation of MMP (mixed member proportional) was to be voted on by referendum in the 2007 Provincial election. The referendum result was binding if passed by 60% of the vote overall – simple, right? Nope. In addition to the 60% threshold, 50% of the vote was required in at least 64 of the 107 electoral districts. These changed were made by the Ontario cabinet, despite the recommendation of the Select Committee of the Citizen’s Assembly that it require only 50% support in 71 of the 107 ridings.

I also knew that our recommendations would be dead on arrival.

Elections Ontario failed in it’s education campaign, it was confusing and underfunded. Our work as the Citizen’s Assembly was underreported by the media, and the MMP option was completely misrepresented by the media. There was no meaningful debate, and it felt like the McGuinty Liberals abandoned the idea. We needed a electoral reform champion, and none was forthcoming.

Our proposal was rejected by 63% of Ontario voters.

I have no regrets about my participation in the Citizen’s Assembly, but the failure of the 2007 referendum has served as a warning to our Federal and Provincial governments about the complicated nature of electoral reform.

It has to be done by referendum, there is no other choice. Conservatives want the status quo (first past the post), Liberals like myself and centrists generally support a ranked ballot, and the NDP have long called for straight proportional representation. Trying to find a national consensus from these disparate groups will be next to impossible, especially without the benefit of education that I received from participating in the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.


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