Does someone have a responsibility to keep citizens informed?

After talking to friends and family about the upcoming provincial election in Ontario and the referendum too, I have realized that most people are ignorant and do not understand what is going on with our provincial government (and very likely with government in general). I do not normally stretch this blog into the political, however at this point I feel that it is necessary since it is likely that some of my blog readers do not understand about the upcoming referendum which is really important and whether or not a change is made this will affect all of us for a long time. Also, I would like to suggest that it is every citizen who must keep her/his self informed, but that I recognize that this can be really difficult when information does not appear to be readily available on this topic and does not seem to be easily understood by the average Ontarian.

“Why should we change the electoral system?” at school we were taught that it is fair.
If you are wondering this, my response is that “fairness” is a socially constructed concept. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) maintains “However fair and regular an election may be, its political outcome is evidently determined by the electoral system that is applied.” (IPU 1993: 1) Still, it is important to ensure that the virtues of an electoral system are shared with the society where it operates.

The IPU suggests that you consider the following questions when evaluating electoral systems:

Does our electoral system meet our democratic aspirations? Should we consider reforming the existing voting system? What alternatives could more accurately reflect the style of democratic government that we prefer? Are these systems adaptable to the constitutional and political landscape? What should the reform process look like? (IPU 1993:2)

Also, I suggest that you consider whether the current system balances the biases of the Ontario electorate, or whether another system would offer a better balance while maintaining and achieving the electorates objective of political stability.

The Ontario Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform was given a mandate by the provincial government “to assess Ontario’s current electoral system and others, and to recommend whether the province should retain its current system or adopt a new one. The Assembly was made up of 103 voters randomly elected from each of Ontario’s electoral districts, plus the Chair, George Thomson,
who was appointed by the government.” (Final Report, 2007, I) The Final Report states that members of the committee “read, researched, learned from one another, listened to experts and politicians, consulted with Ontarians, analyzed, debated, and deliberated. The Assembly worked independently of government and does not represent any political party.” (Final Report, 2007, I) Many people who came before the committee advised the Assembly that “sweeping reform” was not necessary. (Final Report, 2007, I) The committee took this advice to heart in weighing several options out there for electoral systems in a democracy and decided that “The Mixed Member Proportional system we have designed is a made-in-Ontario solution: It preserves the strong local representation of the current
system and adds new elements that will increase voter choice and produce fairer election results.” (Final Report, 2007, I) Still, as an informed citizen, one must be careful of the term “fairer” and must understand what our current system is and what this new proposed system would be as well.

There are two main categories of electoral systems: majority and proportional representation (PR). Majoritarian systems facilitate the efficiency of a majority government while PR favours equity and representation of as many members as possible. First Past the Post (FPTP) is a majoritarian system, while Mixed Member Proportion (MMP) is a Mixed system that contains an element of PR.

Ontario is a large province with many regional differences and interests. Thus, it is my opinion that Ontario needs representatives in government from all areas of the province. Also, in order to gain acceptance from the electoral base, an electoral system should not increase the burden to taxpayers. If MMP were implemented there would be short term costs including education of citizens about the new system, and internal reform of political parties. Still, the long term cost would remain relatively the same, provided that the number of representatives is not increased. Both MMP and FPTP accord with Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982 and the underlying principles of democracy.

Majoritarian Systems & FPTP

The main benefit of majoritarian systems include simplicity and stability. In majority electoral systems the goal of candidates is to attract the majority of votes within their district in order to win a seat. Majoritarian systems may be simple or absolute. Simple majoritarian systems like FPTP require a majority of the vote, but not that a party acquire more than 50 percent of the vote.

FPTP is the electoral system we currently use in Ontario. It is currently practiced by all Canadian provinces except B.C. FPTPs main virtue is its ability “to produce cabinet stability”. (Cairns 1998: 112) FPTP accomplishes this through distributing “seat bonuses” to the party which wins the majority of seats; therefore, coalition and minority governments rarely occur. The Law Commission of Canada explains that at the federal level “minority governments have lasted for a bit less than 20 months, compares to more than 50 months for majority governments.” (2004, 141). Ontario experienced coalition government from 1919-1923 with the United Farmers and Labour.

The main benefit of FPTP is that it gives rise to geographical representatives and is seen to create a sense of strong ties between representatives and constituents. (Cairns 1998: 57) However, with modern industry and the rise of big cities, many constituents in FPTP systems may no longer feel this connection to their Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP).

In any majority government there ought to be an opposition party strong enough to balance the power of the majority and to create an alternative government. This has not always been the case in Ontario since the remainder vote is often split among a number of parties. Thus, I feel that FPTP produces ineffective opposition by exaggerating the majority.

There are serious consequences to FPTP systems. About half of all votes do not contribute to electing a candidate and could therefore be considered “wasted” votes. (Gordon 2004:2) In fact, during the 2003 election, “half of all Ontario voters did not help to elect a MPP.” (Gordon 2004:2) Fair Vote Canada explains “between 1980 and 2003, an average of 51% of Ontario voters … cast wasted votes” (Gordon 2004: 2). This is especially relevant when consider the McGuinty Liberals’ landslide victory where “The Liberals won only 46 per cent of the popular vote, less than a clear majority. And fewer than half of Mr. McGuinty’s MPPs garnered more than 50-per cent support in their ridings. ” (Law Commission 2004: 7) Of particular note is the fact that this landslide victory came out of a 57% voter turn out rate. (Law Commission 2004: 7) Some experts link the recent decline in voter turnout with dissatisfaction towards the current electoral system (Gordon 2004: 8) Low voter turnout is a serious concern since it means that many voices go unheard. Many of these unheard voices belong to durable partisans (who are regular supporters of a particular political party) of political parties with broad base support (rather than close regional based support). Although these parties may receive a large popular vote, their vote does not translate well into seats under the FPTP system. In the October 2003 election in Ontario there is a clear discrepancy in value of votes:

Liberals: 1 MPP per 29,028 Liberal voters
Conservatives: 1 MPP per 64,966 Conservative voters
NDP: 1 MPP per 94,390 NDP voters
Greens: 0 MPPs for 126,651 Green voters (Gordon 2004:4)

The results from election to election vary, however this illustrates that each vote holds a different value.

Additionally, under FPTP the “diversity incentive is quite weak or even non-existent” (Gordon 2004: 7) Since the main goal of political parties is to win elections, political parties choose the “safest” candidates – the candidates most likely to win in their electoral district. (Law Commission 2004: 10) This has resulted in an unrepresentative legislature in Ontario and in Canada. Also, voters must choose between voting for a political party for Premier or for an individual candidate for local representative. (BC Citizens’ Assembly 2004: 3) This may be a conflicting interest since voters may wish to have different parties in power at the local and provincial levels. Still, the benefits of voting for a local candidate are not always realized. The BC Citizens’ Assembly notes that “Party discipline quickly turns members of the Legislative Assembly into party advocates rather than local advocates.” (2004: 3) In Ontario there is a strong feeling that local advocates are overpowered by party discipline in favour of the interests of cities. With all of these advantages and disadvantages of FPTP in mind, one may wish to consider whether or not Ontario ought to adopt a new electoral system.

Proportional Representation (PR) & MMP

PR systems are designed to allocate seats in proportion to votes in the hope that assemblies and governments will accurately reflect the preferences of the electorate. (MacIvor 1998: 25) Adding an element of proportionality to Ontario’s electoral system could have a number of possible benefits including less discrepancy between seats and popular vote; inclusion of underrepresented voices; co–operation and less vote disparity. (Law Commission 2004: 141) According to the ACE Project, PR systems are often used by democracies which face “deep societal divisions” to ensure that “both minorities and majorities have a stake” in the political system (ACE Project 1994) PR systems more accurately translate votes to seats and therefore avoid the “unfair” results generated by majoritarian systems.

PR systems may increase perception that it is worthwhile to vote since “when thresholds are low, almost all votes cast within PR elections go towards electing a candidate of choice.” (ACE Project 1994) Furthermore, “any political party with even a few per cent electoral support should gain representation in the legislature” unless “the threshold is unduly high, or the district magnitude is unusually low”. (ACE Project 1994) Thus, there is a strong element of inclusion and representation and since all votes count, political parties are pressured to produce lists “which appeal to a whole spectrum of voters’ interests” and which are more demographically representative of society. (ACE Project 1994) Also, PR systems may lead to longevity of government and improved economic performance since “regular switches in government between two ideologically polarized parties, as can happen in FPTP systems, makes long-term economic planning more difficult, while broad PR coalition governments help engender a stability and coherence in decision-making which allows for national development.” (ACE Project 1994) Another argument supporting PR is that it suggests a more inclusive government where decisions take into account all interests and are more publicly accountable.

PR systems are not perfect. There is fear that minority and coalition governments in Ontario would be short and costly. Additionally, there is concern over transition periods when governments change. However, this criticism could be applied to any electoral system. Some argue that cooperation which occurs in PR systems could destabilize governments since small minority parties could form coalitions and gain control. (Law Commission 2004) Coalition and minority governments could do away with party discipline allowing for better regional representation. Still, some argue that there may be “coalitions of convenience” instead of “coalitions of commitment”. (ACE Project 1994) Furthermore, it may be more difficult to remove parties from power in PR systems, due to confusion over accountability.

MMP

MMP is a mixed system that offers a combination between majority and PR systems. In MMP electors vote for both a party and a candidate. The party is the parliamentary representative, while candidates are local representatives. There may be a sense that one representative is subordinate to another in this system. (Nagel 1998) MMP was adopted by New Zealand following their 1993 referendum. Following its implementation in New Zealand, there was widespread disillusionment with MMP by the electorate – despite that a large majority had opted for MMP in a referendum. (Nagel 1998: 157) MMP had fulfilled the claims for “greater fairness to political parties” in assigning seats to votes proportionally, “fair and effective representation for politically under-represented groups” and “fostering political integration and preventing narrowly-based one-party ‘elective dictatorships'”. (Nagel 1998: 158) In essence, this occurred because New Zealanders had failed to realize the following:

“1. Proportionality of seats does not entail proportionality of power;
2. Empowerment of previously disadvantaged groups can lead to growing pains in the body politic;
3. Coalition government does not mean consensus government. “(Nagel 1998: 158)

MMP is an adversarial form of government that creates winners and losers Nonetheless, because seats are proportional there is greater “incentive to please” the largest number of voters. In NZ there has been a transitional price to offering “full and fair participation to a people previously relegated to the margin of politics.” (Nagel 1998: 169) Record numbers of women and Maori MPs were elected following the first MMP election. (Arseneau 1998: 150) Still, it is difficult to judge the success of an electoral system in such a short period of time.

Conclusion

No electoral system is neutral; each system has its own biases. Although FPTP functions in Ontario, another electoral system might function with more appealing results to a larger percentage of the electorate. Evaluating electoral systems is not an easy task, now one that ought to be taken lightly. To clearly evaluate the effectiveness of an electoral system, one must understand the alternative options as well as the context under which the system is used, in order to determine the effectiveness of a system in meeting the needs and values of the electorate.

In answer to my Title for this blog post – it is up to each citizen to inform themselves, and I hope that you inform yourself and not just take my word for things before you make your mark at the Referendum on October 10th!

Works Cited:

ACE Project

Arseneau, T. 1998. “electing Representative Legislatures: Lessons from New Zealand”. In Constitution, Government and Society in Canada: Selected Essays by Alan C. Cairns, ed. D.E. Williams. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2004. Making Every Vote Count: The Case for Electoral Reform in British Columbia. http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/resources/final_report.pdf

Cairns, A. 1998. “The Electoral System and the Party System in Canada, 1921-1965”. In Constitution, Government and Society in Canada: Selected Essays by Alan C. Cairns, ed. D.E. Williams. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Fair Vote Canada 2004. 2003-2004-2005 Electoral Canada. http://www.fairvotecanada.org/updir/2003-2005ElectoralReformCalendar.pdf (10 March 2005)

Gordon, L. 2004. Dubious Democracy: Report on Ontario Elections from 1980-2003. http://www.fairvotecanada.org/updir/DubiousDemocracyReport-Ontario-Nov04.pd (10 March 2005)

Inter-Parliamentary Union. 1993. Electoral Systems: A world-wide comparative study. Geneva: IPU.

Law Commission of Canada. 2004. Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada http://www.lcc.gc.ca/en/themes/gr/er/er_report/ER_Report.pdf (11 March 2005)

MacIvor, H. 1998. “A Brief Introduction to Electoral Reform”. In Constitution, Government and Society in Canada: Selected Essays by Alan C. Cairns, ed. D.E. Williams. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Nagel, J. “The Defect of Its Virtues: New Zealand’s Experience with MP”. In Constitution, Government and Society in Canada: Selected Essays by Alan C. Cairns, ed. D.E. Williams. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Other more up to date sources you might want to take a look at:

Fair Vote Canada has a report out called “Dubious Democracy

http://www.thestar.com/OntarioElection/article/252176

http://www.cbc.ca/ontariovotes2007/features/features-referendum.html

http://www.citizensassembly.gov.on.ca/en/resources/default.asp

http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2007/Foley-Neil.pdf

http://www.crcee.umontreal.ca/pdf/massicotte.pdf

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3 responses to “Does someone have a responsibility to keep citizens informed?

  1. For those who like to learn on the go, they could have been well informed by TVO’s the Agenda. According to this article, they covered the subject very well.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/tech/internet/podcasts.html

  2. Thank you for your comment j and for providing another source people can refer to. There are many places people can go to get informed on issues like this. I urge people to do their research, ask questions and find authoritative opinions and ideas in order to have the most informed opinion possible on important topics like this one. For me, I think its important to get to the primary documents – i.e. how did the Ontario Citizens Committee decide on making a change? This report was important to me. As were the opinions of political scientists too. Also looking at British Columbia who went through the process and figuring out how citizens felt and looking at what changes happened there as a result was helpful to me in deciding and coming to an informed opinion. I hope that you learned a lot in the process and have become more informed on electoral systems. Thanks for visiting my blog!

  3. Pingback: Desktop Computers » Does someone have a responsibility to keep citizens informed? From …

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