Breaking The Cycle

Catherine Fife, NDP MPP
Catherine Fife, NDP MPP

One seat shy of a majority government after the 2011 Election, returning Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty enticed the undefeatable Conservative Elizabeth Witmer into resigning her provincial parliament seat and triggering a by-election.  Instead of gaining the extra seat needed to regain his majority, the Kitchener-Waterloo riding went handily to Catherine Fife.  During the campaign, Fife asked citizens to deny the Liberals another majority.  That was the first time in my life I heard any Canadian politician publicly take issue with the fallacy that majority rule  under our winner-take-all system is somehow a good thing.

After nearly a decade of a mind numbing Liberal Majority, Ontario voters were more than happy to hand the NDP’s Catherine Fife a resounding win in a riding that had been staunchly blue since Mike Harris devastated the province with his so-called “common sense revolution.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne, Liberal
Premier Kathleen Wynne, Liberal

Barely into the term, Dalton McGuinty stepped down from his position as leader of the Liberal Party and Premier of Ontario. Governing in a minority government is not at all like running the majority governments to which he was accustomed. He was succeeded by Kathleen Wynn, who became Ontario’s first female Premier.

In the year since, Premier Wynne took the job, the Liberal Party has lost a total of 5 seats. From my perspective, that’s a very good thing, because it widens the gap between minority and majority government quite nicely. Minority governments are the closest to democracy you ever get in a winner-take-all system. For years Canadian political propaganda has maintained the fallacy that majority government is a good thing, but voters are starting to appreciate we’ve been sold a bill of goods. The reality is that it’s not a good thing — for us.Sir Winston Churchill

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Sir Winston Churchill, addressing the British House of Commons, November 11, 1947.

Rhetoric vs Reality

They tell us our First Past The Post electoral system is a representative democracy… but is it?

We get to cast a vote, but some of our votes are worth more than others, because some votes elect an MPP, but most of them don’t. Who represents the majority of Ontarians that don’t elect anyone? Most of us have no representation in the Provincial Legislature.

They tell us majority government is efficient, and it is because it’s effectively a dictatorship.  A majority of seats translates to 100% of the power, which means the majority government can pass any law it likes.  The only thing that can stop it is public opinion.

At the Federal level we’ve been lately reminded just how undemocratic a majority government can be.  The Harper Government bundles together large numbers of disparate laws in so-called “Omnibus Bills.”   These massive documents are fast tracked though Parliament at such dizzying speed many of the MPs who vote for them haven’t actually even read them all the way through.  This is not a democratic process, it just gives the appearance of being one.  As a writer, I can’t believe any law that goes through our legislative process intact and becomes Law without so much as a change in punctuation can possibly have received proper scrutiny.

But that is why it’s efficient — because it is undemocratic.

Democracy requires hard work and negotiation, cooperation and consensus.     People have to actually listen to each other.   And it’s not easy to balance everyone’s needs and represent the whole constituency;  getting there takes time and effort.   Democracy is not efficient.

They tell us majority governments make for stability, but that simply isn’t true. While the Majority Party can make any law it likes, when it gets voted out the New Majority Party can change everything back to the way it wants things.  Far from being stable, this creates a policy pendulum swinging back and forth.

Although Ontario is wonderfully multicultural, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario is not. Although two major Ontario political parties are led by women, there are far too few women sitting in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.   Like most Canadian winner take-all legislatures, the seats in the provincial legislature are predominantly filled by old white men.   Which leaves a great many citizens feeling excluded.

Unrepresentative government is unaccountable government.  When a government doesn’t represent all of its citizens, it’s the public good that suffers.

An inequitable electoral system makes for an unaccountable government. When all of our votes don’t count, and those that do don’t count equally, only a few citizens have the power to vote them out.   And that’s not fair.  Or democratic.

what happens next?

There will be a new provincial election in the next year or two.

Tim Hudak (cc by laurelrusswurm)
Tim Hudak, Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader

Tim Hudak, the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, has made it abundantly clear he won’t be happy unless he gets a majority.   Consensus doesn’t seem to be a word appearing in his vocabulary.  In the past, Ontario has been governed alternately by Conservative and Liberal Parties. Mr, Hudak doesn’t believe there is a need to work with other parties because he’s certain his turn is coming.

Is it?  Or is it time to break the pattern of unhealthy electoral mood swings?

Kathleen Wynne assumed the Liberal Leadership because, unlike Mr. McGuinty, she understands government by consensus is a good thing.  Andrea Horwath’s NDP is well aware of the inequity inherent in first past the post electoral systems. That’s certainly why NDP policy supports electoral reform to Proportional Representation. 

There is a way to make a meaningful change to how Ontario is governed.  A way to upgrade our inequitable 19th Century electoral system to a stable proportional system that would elect a government to represent all Ontarians.

Proportional Representation is both fair and democratic.  And there is no time like the present for Ms Wynne and Ms. Horwath to come together and give Ontario a solid proportional system fit for the 21st Century.  It can’t come too soon.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath
Andrea Horwath, Ontario NDP Leader

Image Credits

Cathering Fife, Kitchener-Waterloo NDP MPP photograph by laurelrusswurm released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) License

Kathleen Wynn photographed by Joseph Morris amd released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) License

Public Domain photograph of Sir Winston Churchill found in Wikimedia Commons

Tim Hudak  Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader, photograph by laurelrusswurm released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) License

Andrea Horwath, Ontario New democratic Party Leader,  photographed by Ontario NDP and released under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

4 thoughts on “Breaking The Cycle

  1. Laurel, thank-you for this well-written piece. Your conclusion that Ontario needs to implement PR now is exactly what I wrote to the editor of the Toronto Star this week. Although by-election results may not be the best gauge of public support, I doubt that either the Liberals or the NDP would profit from an election at this time. Both parties have enough baggage (unjustly, in the case of Bob Rae, I think), that Hudak might get in. And that would be a disaster for Ontario and Canada.

    We desperately need PR governance in Canada to swing the tide back in the public’s favour. As you say, a PR government would pave the way for a PR federal government. Ontario is fortunate to have two women leading parties that have been able to work together thus far. This would seem to be an ideal time to implement PR.

    I do not know if you are aware of this. But Kathleen Wynne was on the government panel that set up the Citizens Assembly for Electoral Reform in 2006-7. So she is acquainted with the subject. Many politicians have little real understanding of PR. Unfortunately, the referendum was designed to fail. But the groundwork work done by the Citizens Assembly should help propel PR forward.

    There is some urgency in my mind because of the corporate rights agreements that Harper is entering into. CETA requires provincial consent and binds the provinces (and municipalities) to that agreement. I am aware that McGuinty already gave his blessing to CETA. So Ontario has been denied an opportunity to truly understand what CETA would do to our national sovereignty. FIPA and TPP are even more frightening, although I do not know what the provincial implications are for these agreements.

    I approached my own Liberal MPP, Vic Dhillon, last fall, to ask him to out on a PR town hall. When I returned six weeks later, he told me that he would be a laughingstock if he entertained PR – no town hall. But recent election results may have altered the outlook of the Liberals.

    There have been many discussions about how to achieve PR at the federal level. My understanding is that PR can be implemented by legislation at any time. Time would be required necessary to put all the election machinery in place to have PR elections. Canadian provinces have changed electoral systems in the past without consulting the public. But I would think that this is not advisable politically.

    The options presented federally are PR by Royal Commission or as a policy plank in an election. In either case, there would have to be extensive public education. No-one likes referendums which invite nasty attacks by deep-pocketed, entrenched interests.

    A really bold move would be for Wynne and Horwath to form a coalition and call an election on the basis that they will not run against each other in select ridings and that the coalition would survive the election. They could promise PR following the election in time for the next election. That would bring howls from every political corner – including their own parties. But the public might like it. I think that we are about to face desperate times. We need a government that will stand up for the people.

    Anyway, I think your idea is sound and important. I will help in whatever way I can to move this forward. Btw, I think we may travel in like circles.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you appreciated my article, Pat. This is something I’ve thought for a while, but a citizen nudge might be needed. It’s great to hear you’ve not given up on letting your MPP know what you want, as so many citizens have done from sheer frustration. I agree with you that we can’t afford to be complacent with all the ridiculous detrimental secret agreements our Federal Government can’t wait to sign.

      I think any single party unilaterally implementing Proportional Representation would get some public relations grief, but it would be something else entirely for two very different Parties to do it democratically. If this came after a real public consultation (none of these sham consultations we have come to expect) combined with a promise to revisit the issue in 10 years and a public education component, I don’t think it would be a problem at all.

      I wasn’t aware Kathleen Wynne was involved with the Citizens Assembly for Electoral Reform, but I agree, having her already informed can only help. This could be a huge win for Ontario.

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