The Debate is Good...

By Christina Blizzard, Toronto Sun
September 19th, 2007

It's a given the referendum on voting reform will fail.

You'll be asked on your ballot on Oct. 10 to say yes or no to a plan to bring in a new system of electing MPPs, called mixed-member proportional (or MMP).

It would require at least 60% of voters in a majority of ridings (64) to vote to replace the present first past the post (FPTP) system -- and that's not likely to happen.

Thank goodness.

What makes MMP unattractive is its unaccountability. Under the proposed plan, the number of MPPs would be increased from 107 to 129 -- and only 90 of those would be directly elected. You'd get two votes. One for your local candidate and one for the party of your choice.

So 39 MPPs would be chosen from a list drawn up by the parties, on a proportional basis. And while we're told there will be measures in place to provide accountability for those lists, anyone who has ever covered politics knows what will happen. The lists will become repositories of failed candidates and party hacks.

How do you spell cronyism? My guess is MMP.

That aside, though, there is a need to inject life into the democratic system. At least the debate about MMP has forced us to examine the electoral process and ask ourselves why voter turnout is always so chronically low.

One answer could be that it's not how we elect our governments that is awry. It's once they're elected that the cynicism sets in.

The problem, says Peter MacLeod, a fellow at Queen's University's Centre for the Study of Democracy, is that all our democratic institutions, not just our electoral processes, are rooted in an era when people were illiterate, disconnected and immobile.

"We are trying to run 21st-century software on 18th-century hardware," he explains.
"Nowadays, young people are well-educated and empowered by the Internet," says Macleod, who runs the centre's Democratic Futures program.

He rejects the idea that young people don't care about politics and points to the number of young people who leave school and become involved in areas of social activism that are outside the role of government.

"There is a whole crop of social entrepreneurs in Canada who are coming out of universities and who play in the space between politics and business to make things happen," he says, pointing to groups such as Engineers Without Borders, Journalists for Human Rights and so on.

The key, he believes, is to engage voters between elections. Constituency offices, which right now are essentially local service providers for government, could become places where the issues of the day can be debated locally.

"They are woefully misunderstood as a vital space connecting people and politicians in their communities," he says.

He suggests also empowering MPPs by giving them research staff to validate legislation for themselves, as happens in the U.S.

He also suggests government could put out a catalogue of highlights from the legislature twice a year -- in a way that looks "more like an Ikea catalogue than a drab government report."
And mandatory voting, as is the law in Australia, is not the answer.

"Voting isn't something you should be compelled to do," he says.

"If voting is a right, we shouldn't be compelled to exercise that right."

"If we look at the numbers of having 98% turnout because otherwise you get what amounts to a parking ticket, that actually masks a great deal of cynicism and frustration," he says.

Good point. Perhaps the only thing worse than having people not vote is having people vote who haven't paid attention to the issues. One point MacLeod makes is that even if voters reject MMP, the Citizens' Assembly that came up with the proposal should be applauded as being average Ontarians who got involved -- and got us all talking about why our vote counts.

And isn't that what democracy is all about?