Only electoral reform can save us now

Ontario’s democracy is broken. Get ready for four more years of crushing austerity, climate denial, and state violence
Photo: Ryan Kelpin via Flickr
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We’ve reached a point where people in Ontario need to seriously question if we even have a functional democracy or not. There is a strong argument to be made that we actually don’t.

It’s certainly not a functional democracy when only 18 per cent of potential voters handed Doug Ford and his PCs a commanding majority government: a majority he will use to pave over the Greenbelt, privatize health care, and continue to make his developer friends even richer — and he’ll try do it all with even less public accountability.

Sure, Ontario is technically a democracy. We cast a ballot every four years or so. But when you consider the baked-in voter apathy, engineered through policy and a rigid adherence to the status quo, over generations, it looks less and less like a healthy one. It also doesn’t help that the messages from all three main political parties are, in some ways, so close together that some voters can easily flip between the Conservatives and the so-called “social democrats.”

In some ridings, longtime NDP MPPs went down to PCs candidates. The lie that Ford pushed during the campaign, that he supports unions and workers, went largely unchallenged.

The Ontario election was mostly ignored by Ontarians

Sixty per cent of Ontario voters did not vote for Ford.

The numbers are a reflection of where we are, how we got here, and how much worse things will likely get.

It’s also a reflection of what’s happening around the world — demagogic strongmen who weaponize division to get away with imposing austerity on struggling people.

This is what we are facing over the next four years.

In a tweet, failed Liberal leader Steven Del Duca called Ontario’s voting system an “incredible and vibrant democracy.”

He must be living in a different reality than the rest of us.

Because the real picture is incredibly bleak. A minority of voters, only about 41 per cent, elected a majority government. And the loudest voice came from those who did not vote at all — 57 per cent — at a time when so much is at stake.

Embarrassingly, Ontario actually recorded the lowest voter turnout in provincial history, with just about 43.5 per cent of eligible voters participating, according to Elections Ontario. Of the just over 10.7 million registered voters in the province, this equals just over 4.6 million who voted.

It’s hard to blame people for disengaging in politics. Why participate if the system is broken?

The truth is there would far be more engagement in elections, and politics generally, if the people we elected came close to representing the actual electorate.

“Any election system should strive to give us the parliament we asked for. The big lie in Canada that we’re told is that we use a normal, modern voting system, and we don’t... It’s actually our current system that is more likely to lead to extremism."

Make no mistake, Ford ran a very good campaign, strategically, not ethically — campaigning is what he does best. Ignoring media scrutiny, lying, and buying votes really does in fact work.

But it’s the electoral system that actually handed Ford the massive majority.

Under a proportional system, the PCs would likely still have won the most seats, but it’d be far from a majority. And that makes sense. Fewer people voted for them than in 2018, and their share of the vote was almost the same as the NDP and Liberals combined.

Ford also benefited from an increase of funds from wealthy donors after doubling political donation limits a year ago, as explained in this new report from Democracy Watch.

But again, all parties would have a fair chance at the ballot box if we had a fair voting system. First-past-the-post deliberately disempowers the public from doing anything to change the status quo.

Proportional representation is widely used around the world

Canada is actually one of the few countries in the world that still uses this undemocratic electoral system. Roughly 90 countries use some form of proportional representation, according to Fair Vote.

Years ago, Ontario started to discuss switching to a mixed-member proportional system. In 2007, there was even a referendum on the issue. It was unfortunately unsuccessful, not because it was a bad idea or bad timing; it failed mostly because it was set up to fail.

Simply put, it hasn’t happened anywhere in Canada because the Liberals and Conservatives benefit from the current system, and therefore they have no incentive to change it.

The media must do a better job of explaining it.

Electoral reform needs to be a top issue

The left in Canada must now rethink its strategy. It is time for the NDP — and broadly the institutional left (unions, activists, academics, volunteers, non-profit workers, students, and anyone frustrated by the system) — to champion electoral reform, nationally and in every province. And sustain the campaign, each election, keep talking about it, don’t let it drop. It is critical that Canadians understand that nothing will improve, and everything will get exponentially worse, as long as the status quo remains.

[Full disclosure, I have at various points in my career, worked for the Ontario NDP, both as a staffer to two MPPs and as a campaign volunteer.]

While democracy activist Dave Meslin gives the NDP a “B” on this issue, I would’ve been a tougher marker. Having strong policies is one thing, but unless you are out promoting electoral reform, bringing the issue up at debates and during media interviews, and articulating to the public why it’s important, simply having the policy almost doesn’t really matter.

Electoral reform is not widely understood. Many people aren’t aware that moving to a proportional system would increase candidates from minority and marginalized communities and generally encourage more effective collaboration and creative policy-making among lawmakers.

Under first-past-the-post, the NDP will always be campaigning for second place, or it’ll be a fluke victory, easily toppled in the following election by a new strongman leader.

That’s what keeps happening in Ontario. Everyone knew Ford would win. Those who understand how the electoral system works never questioned what the outcome would be.

In a CBC interview after the last federal election, Meslin, creative director for Unlock Democracy Canada, explains the faults of first-past-the-post, and what the results of the election would have been using proportional representation.

“Any election system should strive to give us the parliament we asked for,” Meslin says.

“The big lie in Canada that we’re told is that we use a normal, modern voting system, and we don’t. A proportional system is used by the most stable, modern countries around the world, and everyone knows that.”

“It’s actually our current system that is more likely to lead to extremism,” he adds.

Many will remember back in 2015, when Trudeau vowed that the federal election of that year would be the last conducted under the first-past-the-post system. Then, in February 2017, as prime minister, he chose to walk away from that commitment.

Last year, he changed his mind again, and said he would potentially support a ranked-ballot system.

“One of the strongest benefits of a proportional voting system is that it encourages collaborative decision-making within parliament, the exact opposite of what we see now, which is 338 grown adults yelling at each other in between elections,” Meslin said.

With a voter turnout this low, it feels wrong to blame the electorate for not showing up. Electoral democracy is not at risk because people in Ontario didn’t show up to vote. People in Ontario didn’t show up because democracy itself is failing them.

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