Election reform bill deserves attention

By Rudyard Griffiths
Published March 20th 2005 in Toronto Star

Having dominated news reports for the last two weeks, the controversy swirling around the McGuinty government and its dealings with developer Silvio DeGasperis shows little sign of losing political steam.

This is unfortunate, not because the issues being raised aren't serious, but because the media frenzy over the confluence of high-stakes land speculation and rapacious political fundraising has obscured a watershed moment in Ontario politics: The introduction of a sweeping electoral reform bill.

Without so much as a harrumph from the Queen's Park press gallery or the opposition parties, the government of Premier Dalton McGuinty has introduced legislation that sets out one of the most ambitious and, if successful, revolutionary programs for electoral reform in the history of Ontario.

The legislation contains three major elements. The first two deal with housekeeping issues such as real-time public disclosure of political donations and the preservation of 11 northern ridings.

The seemingly innocuous but groundbreaking part of the bill mandates the government to select volunteers to take part in a "Citizen's Assembly." This independent body will be tasked with recommending a new way to elect MPPs and, based on the proposed change, a referendum will be held before the next election. So, what's the big deal?

To skeptics, the "Citizen's Assembly sounds like another government public relations exercise. Conventional wisdom is that any serious proposal for electoral reform coming from this government will be "blue-binned" by strategists nervous about McGuinty's re-election chance prospects and the implications of the new fixed election date of Oct. 4, 2007.

It is a mistake to underestimate the effectiveness of citizen-driven models for electoral reform. Internationally and in Canada, constituent assemblies have been adept at prompting sweeping change. Such assemblies — whether in Scotland, South Africa, Australia or British Columbia — derive authority and effectiveness from their citizen-led, as opposed to elite, deliberation process.

The grassroots quality of constituent assemblies creates both the political momentum necessary for reform and a real public legitimacy.

The ability of citizen-led deliberations to effect electoral reform lies in the hardwiring — as the McGuinty government has done — of their final recommendation into a binding referendum process.

Despite considerable rancour with the B.C. citizen assembly's recommendation for a complete overhaul of how MLAs are elected, Gordon Campbell is proceeding with a referendum. To back out of a process after involving hundreds of citizens would be political suicide for the reform-minded B.C. Liberals.

Where this gets interesting for Ontario is that citizen-led deliberations on electoral reform, in Canada and abroad, unanimously end up championing some form of proportional representation.

Proponents of "PR" see most popular votes cast having an impact on who is elected. This contrasts with the existing system where the MPP who receives the most votes in their riding wins; all of the remaining ballots have no effect on the distribution of seats in the Legislature.

It is hard to see how the proposed legislation can but trigger a domino effect leading to the adoption of proportional representation in Ontario.

Once empanelled, the citizen assembly will have immediate legitimacy and momentum. The assembly will inevitably recommend moving to some form of proportional representation. The referendum pledge will ensure that government puts the "PR" option to the public before the next election.

In effect, the train leading to "PR" has already left Union Station with a majority referendum (polls show consistent 60 per cent-plus support for electoral reform) the only remaining hurdle.

Set against the deteriorating state of our democracy, real electoral reform along the lines the Liberals have set in motion could not come soon enough.

Despite a huge "get-out-the-vote" campaign in the last provincial election, only 57 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot, an all-time low.

The average age of the fewer than 1 per cent of Ontarians who actually belong to a political party is a positively geriatric 60 years. Women only account for 21 per cent of the provincial Legislature, half the level of representation in Wales, Scotland and other western European democracies.

While we need to be ever vigilant about the corrupting influence of big money on politics, the De Gasperis affair is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what ails our democracy.

McGuinty has shown real leadership in taking the decision about the future of democracy away from partisan politics and placing it in the hands of our fellow citizens.  Now that's a news story.

Rudyard Griffiths is director of the Dominion Institute.