Quest to make every vote count

By Carol Goar
Published January 8th 2007
A cynic might describe George Thomson as a sucker for thankless causes. An optimist would call him an inveterate believer in the intelligence, decency and fair-mindedness of Ontarians.

Either way, the amiable family court judge has fought some uphill battles in his 40-year career.

In the late 1980s, he led a two-year review of Ontario's welfare system, which recommended far-reaching improvements in the way the province treats its poorest citizens. Almost none of his proposals was implemented.

In the mid '90s, as deputy justice minister in Ottawa, he had the unenviable task of extricating Jean Chrétien's government from its ill-advised vendetta against Brian Mulroney. On his watch, the Airbus affair ended as civilly as possible: with an apology to the former prime minister and a $2 million out-of-court settlement.

In 2004, Thomson was asked by the Ontario government to find a way to break down the barriers preventing foreign-trained professionals from getting work in their field. He came up with a comprehensive plan. A few of his ideas found their way into Immigration Minister Mike Colle's Fair Access to Regulated Professions Act.

Now, Thomson is chair of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, which will advise the government on whether to jettison Ontario's 215-year-old voting system in favour of a new model. Its report is due on May 15.

The assembly, made up of 103 randomly selected citizens, has been meeting in relative obscurity since September.

It is not for lack of outreach on Thomson's part. He has made speeches, issued Internet updates and thrown open the doors to journalists, community activists and anyone else with an interest in how democracy works.

But coverage has been sparse. Public participation has been modest. Most Ontarians have no idea what's being discussed or why.

This doesn't dim Thomson's enthusiasm for the undertaking. He is bolstered by the dedication and thoughtfulness of the assembly members; impressed by the high quality of their deliberations and sustained by his own belief in the importance of civic engagement.

But the gulf between the 103 Ontarians meeting at Osgoode Hall every second weekend and the roughly 8 million voters they're supposed to represent does raise unsettling questions:

- Will Ontario end up, as British Columbia did two years ago, with a blueprint for reform that the electorate does not understand and isn't prepared to endorse?

- Can a radical change in the electoral system – such as proportional representation in which a party's share of the popular vote determines how many seats it gets in the Legislature – be properly debated in 4 1/2 months? That's how much time Ontarians have between the tabling of the assembly's report and next October's referendum.

- Are there priorities Premier Dalton McGuinty should have addressed before launching a review of the electoral system? Campaign financing, for instance, badly needs a cleanup. Open government is an oxymoron. A small clique of unelected officials in the premier's office sets the provincial agenda, while MPPs watch from the sidelines.

- Is this initiative designed to fail? McGuinty waited until the third year of his mandate to set up the Citizens' Assembly, gave it a shorter timeline than its B.C. counterpart, then announced midway through its deliberations that any change in the electoral system would require a 60-per-cent vote of support. "That caught us off-guard," Thomson acknowledged. "The assembly members were a bit rattled by the threshold."

While he sees what could go wrong, Thomson is determined to focus on what's going right. A minority of Ontarians is following the assembly's work assiduously. The Internet allows direct two-way communication. Fair Vote Canada, an advocacy group pushing for proportional representation, has agreed not to dominate the debate. And the newsworthy part of the exercise still lies ahead. "Right now, we're a process, not a result."

Throughout January, the assembly will hold 20 public meetings across the province (five of them in Toronto) to give interested individuals a chance to present their views, ask questions or just listen and learn. Every submission will be taken into account in the drafting of the final report.

Between mid-February and the end of April, the 103 assembly members will weigh the pros and cons of the various options: the existing system, proportional representation and variations such as preferential balloting in which electors rank the candidates and their vote is transferred to their second choice if their top pick can't win. Then they will thrash out a consensus.

From May to October, Thomson and his colleagues will work tirelessly to explain what the assembly is recommending, why it matters and what the consequences of changing the electoral system would be.

If he finds the prospect daunting, it isn't apparent.

Thomson has battled apathy, ignorance and inertia before. He hasn't always prevailed, but he has always raised the level of democratic decision-making.

(More information is available at