Current electoral system needs review
Published November 26th 2004 in  Ancaster News
If a proportional representation electoral system was in place during the 2003 provincial election, the Ontario Liberals would have formed a slim minority government.

However, under the current first-past-the-post system, the candidate who receives the most votes in a riding wins and the party with the most seats almost always forms the government.

Dalton McGuinty's Liberals earned 46.6 per cent of the popular vote in the 2003 election, but won 72 of the Legislature's 103 seats or 70 per cent of the House.

With 34.6 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives took just 24 seats while the NDP's 14.7 per cent of the vote translated into seven seats. Smaller parties received 4.1 per cent of the popular vote but won no seats.

Had a proportional system been in place for last year's vote, the Liberals would have been allotted only 48 seats, the Conservatives 36, the NDP 15 and other parties four.

In Canada, we're used to premiers and prime ministers being elected without clear majorities. In 1990, the provincial NDP won an overwhelming majority at Queen's Park with only 37 per cent of all votes cast. They governed, however, as if they had a clear mandate from the people.

The Mike Harris Tories fared better in the 1999 provincial election, winning a decisive majority with just over 40 per cent of the vote. They wielded their majority as though it were a divine right ñ even though the majority of voters opposed them at the polls. The same is true for the ruling federal Liberals.

Canada continues to apply the first-past-the-post principle to a multi-party system. To win a riding, a party needs only to earn more votes than its rivals, rather than the majority of all votes cast. The party with the most seats forms the government, with or without a majority of actual votes.

Achieving a majority of seats, and the near absolute power that comes with it, is easier in Canada than in most industrialized countries. Most mature democracies employ some form of proportional representation. Canada has lagged behind its democratic colleagues in modernizing its parliamentary system.

In the 2003 provincial election, the Liberals promised a referendum on proportional representation, following a full public debate on a variety of alternatives. It appears this was a promise the Liberals will actually keep.

Last week, McGuinty set in motion a process that could almost certainly give him less power in the future than he enjoys today.

He did so by announcing that a "citizens' assembly" of randomly selected voters will consider a province-wide referendum on adopting proportional representation to replace Ontario's traditional first-past-the-post electoral system.

One argument in favour of the current system is that it produces political stability. Majority governments have the luxury of being decisive and are more likely to follow through on their election promises. But when majority governments do not reflect the will of the true majority, we have to question the efficiency of our electoral system.

Too often in Canada, majority governments stop listening to voters the morning after the votes are counted. As our political spectrum becomes more polarized, the need for a government that truly reflects the public will is greater than ever.

British Columbia recently undertook a Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform (similar structure to what McGuinty is proposing). Their recommendations are to move toward a hybrid system of proportional representation.

Is proportional representation the answer to democratic problems inherent in the first-past-the-post system? We believe it could be a start.

Proportional representation would more accurately reflect Canada's urban-centred population and lead to more minority or coalition governments that reflect the diversity and not the single-party dominance that we currently have.