Lessons for Ontario from B.C. on election reform

By Larry Gordon
Published May 20th 2005 in Toronto Star
On Tuesday, British Columbians stunned Canada's political elite by voting strongly in favour of adopting a proportional representation voting system. While the Yes vote fell just short of the 60 per cent threshold set by the government, the implication is clear: Significant amounts of Canadians are ready to scrap our dysfunctional first-past-the-post system and adopt Canadian versions of proportional representation.


This historic vote was just the first in a series of upcoming provincial referendums on new voting systems. Ontarians should pay particular attention, because Premier Dalton McGuinty has pledged to follow B.C. by convening a randomly chosen citizens' assembly on electoral reform.


The assembly will study voting system alternatives and hold public hearings. If the assembly concludes Ontario needs a new system, their recommendation will go to a referendum, probably held with the 2007 provincial election.


Despite the referendum result, British Columbians will still have to fight to have their decision implemented.


The government imposed an approval threshold for citizens far higher than what they set for themselves. Legislatures across the county routinely make far-reaching, binding decisions based on a simple majority. Voters across the country must tell governments they will not tolerate this double standard with voting-reform referendums.


The B.C. referendum provides other lessons. First and most important, any citizen engagement process can be severely compromised if underfunded.


The B.C. government failed to provide adequate funding for public education on the referendum question. Just days before the vote, polls showed a majority of voters were still poorly informed or unaware of the issue.


This contrasts with the 1993 electoral reform referendum process in New Zealand.


The New Zealand government provided substantial funding for an independent, arm's-length commission to handle public education. New Zealanders voted to adopt a mixed-member proportional voting system.


A post-referendum study found the vast majority were well-informed when voting. Ontarians should demand their government follow New Zealand's, rather than B.C.'s, example.


Without denying credit to Premier Gordon Campbell for his pioneering role, his government unduly restricted the B.C. assembly in two key areas. Both B.C. and Ontario have a relatively low ratio of provincial legislators to their respective populations. Nonetheless, the B.C. assembly was instructed not to consider any voting system requiring even a modest increase in seats.


That eliminated two potentially attractive options. A mixed proportional system could have been developed by adding some at-large, or party list, positions with only minimal, or no change, to current riding boundaries.


Alternatively, extra seats could have been added to the single transferable vote system proposed by the assembly to provide even better and more diverse representation for all regions. The Ontario assembly should not be restricted from considering all options before making a recommendation.


The other major restriction on the B.C. assembly was to make a single recommendation. Unlike New Zealand, where voters had an opportunity to consider four alternatives, the B.C. assembly was told to come back with only one option.


The Ontario assembly should be allowed to present voters with more than one option. In that case, voters would simply rank the options to determine the most popular, whether it be the status quo or a new system.


Canadians must learn from the groundbreaking referendum in British Columbia. The electoral reform process must be kept in the hands of citizens and continually improved.


Despite the immense difficulties in reforming major institutions, citizens do have the power to make it happen. Just watch us.


Larry Gordon is executive director of Fair Vote Canada, a national multi-partisan citizens' campaign for voting system reform.