Deciding Democracy

Globe and Mail.com, August 2, 2007


Political sociologist Peter MacLeod says political polarities are being scrambled as Ontario ponders a fundamental decision: Stick with the current first-past-the-post voting system or switch to mixed member proportional?

In April, the Ontario Citizen's Assembly put its support behind mixed member proportional (MMP), suggesting a system where voters get two votes on a single ballot: one for a local candidate and one for a party. A party wins seats according to its share of votes, and if it gains fewer local seats than its percentage, candidates from a public party list will be appointed to fill the gap.

This differs from the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, where the party with the most elected members gains power.

In an earlier online commentary on globeandmail.com Apocalypse Not: It's just electoral reform, Mr. MacLeod says the battle of the voting systems is already starting, despite the referendum on the issue being 11 weeks away.

"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," he wrote.

"The big prize is 'democracy'. 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."

What are the tangible differences between the systems? What should Ontarians be asking of their politicians, and of each other? Are there any precedents for this? And why should voters listen to the Ontario Citizen's Assembly?

Peter MacLeod joined us on Thursday to answer those questions and others submitted about voting systems, and the choice between them. Your questions and Mr. MacLeod's answers appear at the bottom of this page.

Peter MacLeod is principal of The Planning Desk, an evolving studio for public systems design. A former researcher at the British think tank Demos, Mr. MacLeod is a visiting lecturer at the Kaospilots School of Business Design and Social Innovation in Denmark, a Fellow at the Queen's Centre for the Study of Democracy and is completing his doctorate in political sociology at the London School of Economics.

During research fieldwork in 2004, Mr. MacLeod visited nearly 100 federal constituency offices across Canada and he now writes and speaks frequently on policy, democratic reform and design.

Recently, Mr. MacLeod was co-creator of the Students' Assembly on Electoral Reform, which worked closely with the Ontario Citizens' Assembly. He also served as the non-partisan chair of the Liberal Renewal Commission's task force on civic engagement.

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question. Questions may be edited for length, clarity or relevance. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Tenille Bonoguore from globeandmail.com: Good afternoon, Peter, and thank-you for joining us for today's discussion. Before we delve into the pros and cons of the referendum, can you tell us what do you make of the debate so far?

Peter MacLeod: Thanks Tenille. I'm happy to be here and looking forward to the discussion this hour. I suppose the obvious point to make is that so far the debate has been pretty quiet. Sure a few shots have been fired but unfortunately these early efforts have done little to preserve the careful spirit with which the Citizens' Assembly deliberated and ultimately made its recommendation. Ontarians have a very important and very interesting decision ahead of them, but the debate won't be well served by categorical or misleading claims about the two electoral systems. They are different to be sure, but as I see it, both systems are very capable of serving the democratic interests of Ontario.

That said, I'm relieved that Elections Ontario, which is responsible for the public information campaign, is starting to move. They opened their website yesterday -- a bit grim with less information or analysis then we might have hoped for -- but it's a start. I'm interested to see how their radio, print and television ads will play. That should give us a sense of how deeply this issue will penetrate the public consciousness before we all show up at the ballot box October 10th.

Michael Bednarski, Toronto: Hi Peter. When the political parties make and rank their list candidates, who within the parties will decide which candidates get on the list? Will it just be the party leaders, party executives, or can a party let their members decide who gets on the list?

Peter MacLeod: This was a genuine concern for members of the Citizens' Assembly. Ultimately they recommended that each party be able to decide how its list candidates are selected, but with the requirement that they make this process transparent to the public and that, of course, the list be published well in advance of the election.

Albin Forone, Toronto: I liked your pungent comment. When I read the citizen group's recommendation I was very impressed that they have preserved what I think is important: locally recognized MPPs will decide the majority in Provincial Parliament, but in the odd circumstance the balance could shift on the basis of proportional rep, eliminating the anomaly that a majority party loses the election. I don't see this as a wild proposal, and think it strikes a pretty good balance between felt local knowledge and the too-abstract proportionally representative no-name 'lists.' (Would you like to comment?)

Peter MacLeod: It's interesting that the members of the Students' Assembly anticipated the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly and recommended that the province adopt MMP following their deliberations in November. Their rationale was simple: respect tradition (local representation is very important and the basis for how we have come to think about democratic legitimacy) but introduce an element of proportionality in the least disruptive way possible in order to even out the overall results. While not a proponent of either system, I think MMP is a sound, well-reasoned and respectful alternative to FPTP. Of course, it all depends on what's important to you as a voter .

John Grant, London, U.K.: Dear Peter, What evidence is there about the impact on voter participation in countries that have switched recently to an MMP system, or have had one for a long period already? More significantly, what about civic engagement? In short: Is there anything to suggest that a different electoral system can influence change beyond internal party politics or the look of our ballots?

Peter MacLeod: Proponents of electoral reform often suggest that a different electoral system would restore public confidence and increase voter turnout. Unfortunately, there's very little evidence to suggest that this is true. Declining voter turn-out is a phenomena that is affecting virtually every mature democracy. It is worth noting however that since New Zealand switched from FPTP to MMP, the rate of decline has slowed. Small, cool comfort, that.

That said, electoral systems do affect the political culture of a society. Again, New Zealand appears to be the most instructive. Their coalition governments have been largely stable and many observers have described a shift in the everyday tenor of politics. Less aggro, more consensus-seeking would be the shorthand way of describing it. I imagine this is largely because there are new, structural incentives for the parties to work together. When you worry about waking up after the next election needing to govern with your opposite, you learn to play nice. (Or at least, nicer.)

Last point -- obviously electoral reform is no panacea for all the things we don't like about politics. Ultimately I think a democratic politics is about maximizing the agency we have as individuals and can share as a society. In the near future, I think we will need to look beyond electoral systems and think more expansively about the contemporary relationship between citizen and state.

In this way, I think the Citizens' Assembly itself was enormously instructive. It proved that when given the chance to get involved -- to think hard and to really have a say -- citizens will step up and serve with great care, dignity and purpose. It was a transformative experience for many of the members and I only wish more citizens could share this opportunity. Perhaps in the future they will.

Joseph Flynn, Ottawa: Several provinces have already tried this voting option. BC came close, PEI rejected it and so did NB, I believe. Given the close seat distribution in Quebec, have you looked at the 'results' had participative voting been in place? If so, what dramatic changes might have taken place with the ADQ as government leader? I am assuming they would have easily beaten the Liberals with the new results. Thanks.

Peter MacLeod: I'm afraid I can't speak to the case in Quebec with any confidence. However, you might well ask what would have happened in Ontario in the last election had we voted using MMP. It's impossible to know for certain of course, because it's likely that the Green Party would have earned a few seats and that Ontarians themselves would have voted with different priorities in mind. Nevertheless, by simply looking at the results and taking everything else as even, we can see that McGuinty's government would probably have had closer to 44 per cent of the seats which would better match his overall share of the popular vote -- not the 68 per cent seat share that he has now. (Figures approx.) The Tories would have closer to 33 per cent of the seats, not 23 per cent and the NDP would have closely to 15 per cent of the seats, not 8 per cent.

Happy Kelp, Vancouver: Peter, I wonder if you could comment on the reasons NOT to adopt proportional representation, such as increased likelihood of minority governments, increased impasse in the house, vote splitting (especially on the left). Also, while I agree that PR is a better system to elect our representatives, that does not mean that it increases democracy or even debate. Legislatures in Canada have drastically cut the number of days MLAs, MMPs, and MNAs sit to debate. Will any new voting scheme address that?

Peter MacLeod: There are many reasons not to adopt PR, though its important to remember that MMP is a hybrid system and that pure PR of the kind they have in the Netherlands has not been recommended for Ontario.

If you believe in strong, majority governments that can campaign on a clear agenda and have a reasonable shot at implementing that agenda, then FPTP is for you. If you want to constrain the number of parties and force them to be big tents that appeal to the widest cross-section of the public, again FPTP has this effect. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of 29 list MPPs who are not directly accountable to a constituency, but rather to the province at large, then FPTP really is your ticket.

We should however distinguish between coalition governments which command the confidence of the legislature because of a pact made between parties, and minority governments whose tenure is more precarious. I think coalition, not minority government would be the norm if Ontario opted for MMP. If true, then a split vote on the left (or right) would likely be reassembled in some form within the successful governing coalition.

On your last point I should stress that there's a big difference between electoral reform and parliamentary reform. In many ways, these are two separate projects -- though obviously the culture of coalition government does dramatically change parliamentary practice. No electoral system can stipulate either the business of the House or the time that the House takes to complete its business.

I'd agree that Canadians have a very healthy and unfilled appetite for political debate, but unfortunately, regardless of whether the House is in session the debates they most want to see -- of real quality and substance, of clear purpose and principle -- are far too few.

I believe that in Sweden the Speaker has the power to summon parliamentarians for an 'issue' or 'take note' debate. With the arrival of television cameras in parliament, he has tried to structure parliamentary business in a way that will be more interesting and intelligible to a general audience. These debates usually happen two or three times a month in response to domestic and international events. They are general debates about issues rather than legislation. Maybe that's something that would be welcome here.

Libertarian Raider, Ottawa: '...candidates from a public party list will be appointed to fill the gap.' Who selects the candidates to represent the parties under the proportional method? Is there a requirement that these candidates have to be selected in an open and democratic process, or is this a job creation scheme for political friends who couldn't otherwise win a nomination or a general election? For whom am I voting?

Peter MacLeod: I've addressed parts of this in a previous post, but here's one added point. My sense is that parties will have considerable incentive to create balanced lists. This goes for gender, region, ethnicity, profession -- you name it. After all, the bad optics of over-representing any one group on a party list is just too obvious for a party to allow.

Cheryl Stewart, Halifax: Do you feel that a change in the system would further empower the average voter?

Peter MacLeod: Possibly. Under MMP parties would compete across the province in every riding in a way that they don't always do now. They would need to do this because they are looking to maximize their party's share of the popular vote, irrespective of whether they can win the riding.

It's also worth pointing out that in New Zealand the norm was quickly established that List MPPs also open constituency offices in their home towns or in regions where the party is under-represented.

Therese Hutchinson, Canada: Additional cost to tax payers is likely to be raised as a means to dissuade voters from adopting change. Is there discussion about how to reduce the financial impact of having more members in the legislature?

Peter MacLeod: Well, I guess I'm a bit of a maverick on this issue. I don't think taxpayer dollars are wasted when we use them to pay for politicians. Okay... Some politicians, sure. But generally government is like all things, you get what you pay for, and I think good representation is something worth spending money on. This may not be a popular view, but I think it needs to be said. If anything we are under-represented in Ontario with some of the highest citizen-to-MPP representation ratios in the country. Whether you opt for FPTP or MMP, I think there's a separate and perfectly good case to be made for a larger legislature.

Final point, if the legislature is expanded to 129 MPPs under MMP, this will still be one MPP fewer than before the Harris government passed the Fewer Politicians Act.

A further point on the cost of additional MPPS -- The cost associated with running the legislature is tiny compared to the overall operating expenditures of the government: 0.13 per cent (that's one tenth of one percent) of the total provincial expenditures is devoted to Operating Expenses, Office of the Legislature. Of this amount, about half goes to salaries, office and supplies of MPPs. To the best of my knowledge, this compares very favourably with other relevant jurisdictions.

Tenille Bonoguore, globeandmail.com: Political science doctoral student Christine Cheng, from Oxford, U.K., writes that she strongly supports MMP because it will "almost certainly increase the number of women at Queens Park". Her research shows that variations of proportional representation is likely to result in improved gender parity. "Most Canadians would like to see more women in Parliament in Ottawa but as a country, we don't seem to know quite how to make it happen. We now have the chance to make this change at the provincial level and we should not let it go."

Are you as confident that there is one sure path to gender parity?

Peter MacLeod: I think there's very little doubt that gender parity would be significantly improved under an MMP system. This was the case in New Zealand which jumped from 15 or 20 per cent to almost 50 per cent within one or two MMP elections. Of course it's not the only path, but when we see how today's political leaders struggle to appoint or see women candidates nominated, it is a fast track.

M.G., Toronto: Under First-Past-The-Post, we've seen truly bizarre and skewed election results that bear almost no resemblance to how people voted. For example, in Quebec in 1998, the PQ won 43 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals won 44 per cent - yet the PQ not only won the election, they won a majority! Similarly in BC in 1996, the NDP won a majority with only 39 per cent, even though the Liberals in that election won 42 per cent! Why do you think some folks continue to support FPTP over the more democratic Mixed Member Proportional?

Peter MacLeod: The statistics you're using are often cited by advocates of electoral reform. They look at the numbers and say, "Hey! That's not fair." Well, the truth is that it is fair -- in so far as it's the system we have used and endorsed almost without question until recently when the decision was made to convene the Citizens' Assembly to explore this issue.

FPTP is obviously very well suited to a legislature with two parties. The results are perfectly proportional. The trouble only comes when you add more parties to that system. This is one thing that MMP tries to accommodate just as it's something which FPTP does its best to resist.

I think it's reasonable to look at the status quo and say "On the whole we've been well-served by this system. Why change what works?" Of course others will say: "Are you kidding, it barely works at all!" Such, however, is life in a democracy and I guess it remains our great fortune and privilege to haggle over these details.

(Postscript: As I wrote in the commentary, I don't think it helps to call either system *more* democratic than the other. They are both democratic systems which simply use different means to establish legitimacy for public action.)

Chris B, Ottawa: Having seen BC go through the same process, what lessons on public debate do you think Ontario can learn? I felt that there was too little debate in BC, until late in the campaign, and there needed to be a publically funded, large scale information campaign on the proposal, both pros and cons.

Peter MacLeod: I love this question. Thanks. The truth is that those of us who have worked closely with either the Citizens' or Students' Assembly have learned a lot.

One of the things we knew early on is the importance of informing the public that the Citizens' Assembly was under way. Heroic efforts were made to reach out to groups of citizens across the province in the dead of winter and it's one of the many great, untold stories of this process. Unfortunately, it's just no substitute for the power of mass media attention and an advertising budget. To my mind, public education should have been a stronger part of the CA's mandate and they should have been resourced to start the work that has just begun with Elections Ontario much, much sooner.

The government has allocated about $6-million to the public information campaign that is just getting under way now. This is a healthy sum, but of course we need to see how effective their advertising will be.

Citizens' Assemblies are ultimately co-learning processes and I really do wish that we could have done more to get Ontarians informed and involved. That said, we have 10 weeks -- so talk to a friend, visit the referendum website. Elections Ontario has appointed 107 local representatives who can talk to you, your community group, a local association, whomever, about the decision and what's at stake.

David Waller, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.: Is there agreement among debate participants what are, say, the top 5 characteristics of a good electoral system? If so, how did FPTP and MMP stack up against them?

Peter MacLeod: That's a great question because the members of the Citizens' Assembly were explicitly asked by the government to evaluate the current FPTP system and any alternative according to seven principles. These were legitimacy, fairness of representation, voter choice, effective parties, stable and effective government, effective parliament, stronger voter participation and accountability.

The Citizens' Assembly then added an eighth principle that they thought would be important to the citizens of Ontario: "Simplicity and Practicality". We can probably agree with them there.

You can read about these principles and how they influenced the Citizens' Assembly's recommendation on their website. Ultimately, though, 97 of the 103 members decided to recommend MMP as the system which best satisfied these criteria. Now it's up to you to decide if they were right.

John Fraser, North Middlesex, Ont: In a system of mixed PR and (larger) single-member constituencies, not only is the voter's access to his or her representative necessarily 'diluted' but power is handed to political parties - long cited as a source of distrust and a reason for declining voter participation - to assemble the 'party' lists for the PR part of the vote. How will a change in the Ontario electoral system increase my access to my parliamentary representative?

Peter MacLeod: That's a fair point and it's why I'd argue that, irrespective of the electoral system we adopt, Ontario could use more politicians. One MPP for 100,000 citizens is dilution enough already.

That said, the experience in New Zealand has shown that almost all List members have opted to open a constituency office in a town or city. So strictly speaking, MMP shouldn't reduce your access to a local MPP by very much at all -- and I say this as someone who has spent the past few years studying constituency offices and defending their vitality and little-appreciated significance in our political system!

Tenille Bonoguore, globeandmail.com: Thank-you so much for coming online today, Peter, and for staying even longer than the usual hour. We've been inundated with excellent, thoughtful submissions, and must apologize to those people whose questions didn't gain a response in such a limited timeframe.

To wrap up, is there anything you hope Ontarians consider when deciding how to cast their vote on Oct. 10?

Peter MacLeod: This has been a real treat and though my fingers are a bit cramped, I'm otherwise excited by the energy and interest of your readers. It bodes well for the weeks ahead.

My advice is small: get informed. Talk about this with others. Give them the room to make up their own minds. There isn't an easy answer here and it's a great choice to have.

Otherwise, praise the members of the Citizens' Assembly. They did yeoman work and their sacrifices and efforts have yet to be fully appreciated. Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, this has been a banner year for democracy in Ontario. A very special precedent has been set.