Change is a-comin' to Ontario

By Peter Robb
Published May 31st 2007 in Ottawa Citizen

Welcome to Ontario, the epicentre of democratic renewal in Canada. What an unexpected description this is, for a province once known for the stifling power of the Family Compact and the one-party domination of the Big Blue Machine. But this October, Ontarians will find themselves at the frontier of political reform as they decide whether to revise how people vote in this province.

When a commission of citizens surfaced this spring with its recommendation for a "mixed member" proportional system, to replace Ontario's existing first-past-the-post system, a few naysayers were quick off the mark. In letters to the editor and in columns, the essential message was that our current system is just fine, thank you very much. And for that matter, it is bred in the bone, so you can't change it. So there.

Talk of "proportional" representation provoked immediate warnings that Ontario could become like Italy or Israel, where government coalitions appear to rise and fall on the whims of a very few people. Nothing will ever get done, the critics say.

Italy, it is true, has gone through a lot of governments in the 62 years since the Second World War ended. And Israel's system accords too much clout to single-issue religious parties. But both, I note, are still very successful modern countries despite these "problems." And there is no reason why Ontario, if indeed it does introduce electoral reform, couldn't learn the lessons of others' mistakes.

There are also critics who warn that proportional representation produces a proliferation of political parties, with New Zealand being a case in point. Electoral reform in New Zealand made it difficult for the big parties to hold power, and the rise of small parties has made coalition-forming the norm. Hmm. Parties co-operating to deliver policies to the people. Nah, that'll never happen here.

The sanctity of established political parties seems a surprising thing to lament given the disdain that many Canadians already have for them.

Parties, from the first, were essentially composed of those who supported the King because they were on the payroll, and of those who didn't and weren't. Parties were always fluid coalitions that papered over internal differences. As parties evolved, principles continued to be watered down in the pursuit of power -- the end result being a situation in which winning seems to be the only goal, and principles be damned. That is not a good situation (although Oscar Wilde claimed to adore political parties because "they are the only place left to us where people don't talk politics").

Parties, as recent Canadian history shows, are not carved in granite. The Mulroney Conservatives disintegrated into three pieces after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and it took many years to put the component parts mostly back together again.

Some would argue that the emergence of the Reform movement and the Bloc Quebecois was a natural reflection of the regional nature of our federation. Others would say that the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives created an artificial and unhealthy situation that allowed three consecutive Liberal majorities. Both are right.

But the country is still here. Our democracy has survived this blip. Democracy bends and reshapes itself like mercury. It can weather strange results, as happened in the last German election, in a country that uses a mixed member proportional system. Germany saw a virtual tie between the leading parties, out of which emerged Angela Merkel, the woman to serve as chancellor.

Of course, electoral reform won't help much if you've got low-quality people running for office. Proponents of MMP in Ontario are probably too earnest in their conviction that the new system would cure what ails Ontario's democracy. Even so, it's clear that the current model of first-past-the-post breeds cynicism and apathy. Think about it: Majority governments are formed with less than half the popular vote, usually from barely more than half the eligible voters. Democracy can handle reasonable change, but I'm not sure it can easily withstand cynicism and apathy.

So, no, I'm not afraid of a discussion about changing how Ontarians vote -- and it's not just because I live in West Quebec and like a good joke at Ontario's expense.

I think Ontario can cope and adjust, and that along the way the rest of the country might learn a thing or two. At the very least it will make this fall's election much more interesting.

Peter Robb is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.