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September 18, 2007 (Toronto Star)
The emergence of an aggressive right-wing political movement in Canada in the late 1980s has had a profound impact. Among other things, it has driven progressive voters into the Liberal tent, seeing that as the best bulwark against a right-wing onslaught.
So while polls show strong support among Canadians for social reinvestment and the environment preferences that should logically attract voters to the NDP or the Greens these parties remain small or even marginal.
One reason for this is our skewed electoral system. With our first-past-the-post system, progressive voters have been afraid to vote NDP or Green, for fear of splitting the vote on the left and letting the right win.
Our first-past-the-post system typically allows parties to form governments even majority governments with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.
The undemocratic nature of this is obvious, but the problem of correcting it is also obvious: The winning party has little incentive to make changes, which is why opportunities to alter this clearly flawed system come along so rarely.
Next month offers a rare opportunity. Ontarians get to vote in a referendum on an alternative electoral system called mixed-member proportional (MMP) when they vote in the provincial election.
Under an MMP system, which was overwhelmingly recommended by a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, Ontarians would vote as usual for a local MPP in a first-past-the-post system, but would also get a second vote for the party of their choice. In the end, the number of seats held by each party would reflect its popular vote.
The reason to support this alternative is that it is, quite simply, more democratic.
In Canada, where the electorate is fairly progressive, the result would generally be more progressive representation in the legislatures. (As Tom Flanagan, a strategist for Stephen Harper in the 2006 federal election, noted in his recent book, Harper’s Team: “Neither the philosophy of conservatism nor the party brand comes close to commanding majority support.”)
We can see the potential impact by looking at the results of the 2003 Ontario election, which gave Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals a comfortable 72-seat majority (in a 103-seat legislature), and reduced the Conservatives to 24 seats and the NDP to a lonely 7 seats.
Under an MMP system, reflecting the popular vote, the Liberals would have won 62 seats, the Conservatives 47 and the NDP 20 (in a 129-seat legislature). Instead of a hefty majority, the Liberals would have had a minority, and been forced to rely on the NDP to stay in power.
This would have enabled the NDP to push the Liberals toward more social reinvestment and environmental protection policies that are, incidentally, favoured by most Ontarians.
In fact, this picture actually understates how badly under-represented progressives currently are, since more Ontarians probably would have voted NDP in 2003 if they’d felt they could have done so without helping elect the Conservatives, who were then led by Ernie Eves, a former lieutenant in the hard-right government of Mike Harris.
Indeed, it’s interesting to note that, under an MMP system, Mike Harris would never have won a majority government. Nor would the NDP’s Bob Rae. Neither of these leaders had the support of the majority of Ontario voters.
Instead we would have ended up with governments that more accurately reflected the generally centrist-progressive nature of Ontarians.
Anyone who has a problem with that has a problem with democracy.
Toronto-based writer and journalist Linda McQuaig appears fortnightly.