Apocalypse Not: It's just electoral reform

The Globe and Mail, July 29, 2007

Okay. Time out. The campaign hasn't even begun and we need to blow the whistle. We're 11 weeks from a referendum that will decide whether Ontario adopts a new, more proportional way to elect provincial politicians.

And while most people are tending their backyard barbecues or cooling their toes in the province's northern lakes, the language game has begun in the fight to define how the referendum debate will be portrayed.

The big prize is "democracy." After all, who wants to be against that? So both sides will make claims that their electoral system is more "democratic." They will also argue that their system is more "representative." To clinch the deal, they will roll out "accountability," the 11th Commandment of contemporary politics.

Accountability will be played as the trump card, and the side that plays this card most convincingly wins big.

A lot of people will try to tell you that the new system, mixed member proportional, fails on all three counts. Not surprisingly, these are usually the same people who have something to gain from or simply enjoy the status quo.

Their opponents will portray electoral reform as a panacea for every political ill. These are the true believers. Take a dose of this, they say, and everything will get better.

Stuck between a prickly establishment now circling the wagons and utopians convinced of the righteousness of their cause, voters are going to feel the squeeze. And sigh.

After all, the whole point of electoral reform has been to try and do away with the maddening distortions and disinformation that maligns modern politics and abuses the public's reason and trust. Yet with this campaign, it may well reach its apogee.

So let's go back to basics. There are merits to both our current system (first-past-the-post) and the MMP system, proposed by the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. Both are being successfully used in many modern democracies much like ours in different parts of the world. Neither leads to the kind of democratic apocalypse now being promised.

If you like clear partisan lines and favour strong majority governments and direct local representation, while being unconcerned by the results of the cumulative provincewide vote, first-past-the-post gets the job done. It's the system we know and have always used.

If you think excessive partisanship sours the political process, wish the parties would do more to work together and want to see the party's provincewide results count for seats in a more gender-balanced and diverse legislature, then MMP is for you.

Deciding which system is more "democratic" is a fool's game. This is precisely why the Citizens' Assembly was asked to propose a system that satisfied eight principles, such as "stable and effective government" and "simplicity and practicality." The system they proposed easily satisfies all these principles of good government. Fear-mongering and categorical claims have no place in this debate, or in the pages of a newspaper.

Still, this isn't an easy decision. New Zealanders voted in a two-stage referendum in the early 1990s before they made the switch from FPTP to MMP. By all accounts, their vote followed a healthy national conversation that did its best to keep the rhetoric level-headed and the facts straight. Their experience is the best model for our own.

It also speaks volumes that this issue is already producing some unusual coalitions. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal and New Democrat Ed Broadbent will both be voting for MMP and call the proposal "long overdue." Deputy premier George Smitherman, Attorney-General Michael Bryant and Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett also support the recommendation. Former Liberal prime minister John Turner hates it.

Only an issue like electoral reform could so scramble our political polarities.

Ontarians owe it to themselves to get informed about this issue. 10,000 people volunteered to be a part of the Citizens' Assembly. A hundred and three were randomly selected to serve their province. They did just that with wisdom and sensibility. Now their recommendation and its rationale deserve to be heard.

So keep your nose clean and your stick on the ice. Game on.

Peter MacLeod is chair of the Task Force on Civic Engagement, Liberal Renewal Commission. Caitlin Townsend is vice-president, youth, for the Ontario Women's Liberal Commission. Howard Brown is a former policy chair for the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) and president of Brown & Cohen Communications & Public Affairs Inc.