Many people are unhappy with our current political system, with our politicians and many aspects of our system of government. Expense scandals, politicians that associate with criminal elements, governments elected with far less than half the popular vote, and low voter turnout rates demonstrate a continual decline in popular support and increasing cynicism for the political process.
Among the top issues remains the federal government’s support for ever increasing expansion of tar-sands bitumen development, together with pipeline projects and increased rail traffic to transport that bitumen to export markets. This at a time when the effect of carbon pollution is accelerating the rate at which extreme weather events are imperilling our well-being, pushing up insurance rates, and jeopardising the future of our planet. But how is it we continue along this course when most rational people realize we’re moving in the wrong direction, and that good alternatives exist and should be pursued? How do the carbon interests outweigh the interests of everyone else?
And on the provincial front, was there any mention during the Ontario election campaign of the costs and the threats posed by continued reliance on nuclear energy – about the nuclear waste dump proposed along the shores of Lake Huron, about the extension of the licence of the aging Pickering nuclear facility beyond its design lifespan, and about the huge cost of refurbishing the existing Darlington and Bruce reactors when lower cost alternatives are available? No. Instead we heard proposals to take the HST off Hydro bills which would only encourage more energy wastage, especially among the rich who would benefit most. And why would this be? We merely need to look at campaign donations to figure this out.
From Robert Benzie in the Toronto Star of Oct 24, 2013 we learned that “On Sept. 10, Bruce Power president and CEO Duncan Hawthorne held a cosy dinner for about a dozen high rollers at the posh Four Seasons Hotel on Yorkville Ave. in Toronto. [Premier Kathleen] Wynne was the guest of honour and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli was also on hand to hobnob with movers and shakers in the electricity sector. . .” Wynne defended the controversial $100,000 fundraiser saying “it takes money to fuel the democratic process.” Bruce Power’s John Peevers is quoted as saying “Like many companies and organizations across the province, Bruce Power has a policy of donating to all major political parties including the NDP, PCs and Liberals.”
And to make matters worse the fact that generous tax credits are given for political donations means in effect that the average taxpayer is subsidising the rich and the well organized so those interests can buy even greater influence in the political process. If we had a truly democratic process, then all the players should have an equal voice, and access to an equal amount of funding to state their case. Not only should we eliminate all the tax subsidies, but we should severely limit partisan political expenditures, and strictly regulate how political discourse is conducted so everyone gets a fair chance at making their opinions known and heard.
For example, if we watch the publically funded CBC news, why do we need to be subjected to a constant barrage of pro-tar sands, pro-pipeline advertising without hearing what the other side has to say? At the same time, during the newscast we get biased pro-tar sands rhetoric from a political commentator who at the same time is not required to disclose on air that he has received funds from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and numerous oil companies for his pep-rally speaking engagements. [pressprogress.ca Feb 4, 2014] There are voices out there advocating for an appropriate carbon tax or greenhouse gas fee and dividend mechanism that would rechanneled all this planet killing investment towards more sustainable ways of dealing with our energy needs, including renewable sources like wind and solar, improved battery technologies, energy efficiency and building techniques that trend toward carbon neutral structures. These relatively clean technology investments would have every bit the job creating potential as the dirty technology investments in fossil fuels, pipelines and nuclear. But these voices cannot be heard because of the overwhelming dominance of the entrenched interests in carbon-based and nuclear technology.
So what kinds of reforms are necessary to change this? There are many, and electoral financing is certainly one of them. For more specific remedies to address the problem, we should carefully examine the recommendations that will be coming out of the Charbonneau Commission in Quebec – the most detailed inquiry we’ve seen to date revealing how money corrupts the political process. But not only do we need alternatives to the way political parties are financed so they are not beholden to their financial backers, but we also need to look at the electoral system itself, a system which lends itself to centralized power easily corruptible by those large entrenched interests which seek only their own benefits, often to the detriment of local neighbourhoods, the environment, and the public interest as a whole.
VOTING SYSTEMS: FIRST PAST THE POST
First let’s look at how our current voting system works. Let’s say there are five candidates on a ballot. Candidate A gets 30% of the vote, B gets 29%, C gets 25%, D gets 15% and E gets 1%. In our current First Past the Post system, candidate A wins the election with less than a third of the popular vote. Meanwhile, all the other candidates get nothing. All the people who spent time and effort on the B, C, D and E campaigns effectively wasted their time and energy. All the 70% of voters who voted for B, C, D or E effectively wasted their votes, and have no representation. They are disenfranchised from the political process from then on at least until the next election. Who can call that democratic?
To prove this example is not just hypothetical, let’s look at the results of the municipal election of 2010 in Ward 36 to the nearest percentage:
Gary Crawford 25%
Robert Spencer 23%
Diane Hogan 13%
Sean Gladney 13%
Eddy Gasparotto 10%
Marvin Macaraig 5%
In other words, the current city councillor for ward 36 received a mandate from only a quarter of the electorate who cast their ballots; 75% voted for other candidates. [The 2014 results gave him a greater plurality, as incumbency gave sitting members of council a tremendous advantage over their rivals.]
ELECTION RUNOFFS / RANKED BALLOTS
There are obvious remedies that people have been talking about for some time. One, frequently used at political conventions to choose a party leader, is a series of run-off votes, in which the candidate with the least number of votes drops off the ballot, and the others continue until someone reaches a majority of at least 50% plus one. In a general election, holding repeated elections may be rather costly. A ranked ballot would work in a similar way without requiring repeated votes. Voters would simply rank the candidates in order of preference. If no one gets a majority, the ballots of the candidate with the least number of votes would have their second choices counted, and so on until someone reaches a majority of votes cast.
The Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) has proposed a series of steps towards implementation of ranked ballots in municipal elections in Toronto [www.123toronto.ca]:
City Council Vote #1: .On June 12, 2013, City Council requested enabling legislation from the provincial government, to allow the City of Toronto to use ranked ballots and Instant Runoff Voting to elect City Councillors and Mayor.
Queen’s Park Vote: A vote in the provincial legislature to amend the Municipal Elections Act to allow for runoff voting as requested by City Council.
Public consultation for mayoral reforms: An opportunity for public outreach, education and consultation to discuss how we elect our Mayor in Toronto.
City Council Vote #2: City Council votes to use ranked ballots for the 2018 mayoral election.
Toronto Election • 2018: Ranked ballots and Instant Runoff Voting used to elect our mayor in the 2018 election.
Public consultation for Council reforms: An opportunity for public outreach, education and consultation to discuss how we elect our City Councillors. All options would be on the table, including Instant Runoff Voting, and other models such as proportional representation.
City Council Vote #3: Following the 2018 election, City Council votes to implement ranked ballots (or other models) for all Council seats, for the following election (2022).
Even with ranked ballots however, a majority of voters will likely not get their first choice of candidate elected and perhaps as many as 49.9% of voters could have their least preferred candidate elected.
The other major proposal for holding fair elections is a form of proportional representation, such as Mixed Member Proportional or MMP. The proposal put forward by the Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral reform in 2007 was as follows:
Each voter would cast two votes, one for a local riding candidate (with 90 riding seats up for contention) and one province-wide vote for a political party. The political parties would submit a ranked list of candidates contending for the remaining 39 seats in the legislature. The local member vote would be just as it is now (First Past the Post) – the candidate with the most votes winning a seat in the legislature. The remaining seats would be allocated from the party lists to achieve overall proportionality as reflected in the party vote.
The referendum on the proposed electoral reform held during the provincial election of 2007 resulted in a rejection – only 37% were in favour, while 63% were opposed. Most prominent among opposition voices was that of current mayoral candidate John Tory [now the mayor], who was then leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party:
“I certainly haven’t run into anybody who thinks it would be better to have MPPs, or any other kinds of politicians, who are appointed by party bosses and accountable to no constituents,” Mr. Tory said. “The notion to me that you’d have a whole bunch of people that would be down there now who will be accountable only to party bosses who put their names on the list, to me seems to be making the place less democratic, not more, and less accountable.” [National Post September 15, 2007]
It seems like an odd thing for Mr. Tory to have said, considering that surely he, as party leader was one of those party bosses. Previously he was closely associated with such notable party bosses as former premier Bill Davis, and former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell. If he felt party bosses have too much power and are too unaccountable, why did he not suggest some reforms to make the party structure more democratic and the party leadership and the party’s chosen candidates more accountable?
It’s ironic that John Tory lost his seat in the provincial election of 2007 to Kathleen Wynne, and thereafter had considerable difficulty in trying to persuade another PC member to give up his/her seat, so he could have a second try to get into the legislature. In fact it took over a year, and even then Tory lost the by-election, at which point he finally resigned as party leader.
A WEIGHTED VOTE PROPOSAL
If we were to focus on the executive branch, we see that the British parliamentary system we have inherited allows a prime minister to select a cabinet primarily, but not exclusively from members elected to the House of Commons. If we look to the U.S. however, we see that members of the U.S. cabinet are selected by the president, who only after being elected chooses cabinet members from among any individual citizens of the country. Would it not be reasonable for parties at the beginning of an election campaign to present of team of candidates who in their opinion would be the best people to head government ministries and sit in cabinet or a city executive committee, irrespective of their winning a local electoral ward/district? In fact shouldn’t cabinet members have a more global perspective, rather than local biases favouring their personal regions? A cabinet team chosen in advance by a party could then be truly representative of a city’s, province’s or country’s demographics, balancing regions, gender, ethnicity and all other such factors into the equation.
As it is, many voters know very little about their local candidates, but vote primarily on the basis of party affiliations and their party leader’s media persona, irrespective of the local candidate’s qualifications. Separating the party vote from the local vote would give voters who are familiar with their local candidates the chance to vote for the best local candidate irrespective of party affiliation. So allowing each voter two votes – one for the local riding representative and one for the party executive team would still be a good idea. It could work like this.
We would choose an arbitrary cut-off point, say somewhere between 5 and 10% of the popular vote. Every local riding candidate with more than that cut-off deserves to carry that vote to the legislative process. We could either have the candidate with the most votes, or the candidate who wins a majority through the ranked ballot method take the seat in the legislature. However, for any vote that comes up in the legislature, that elected member would have to consult with the other candidates who got more than the cut off. The vote that member would put forward would be weighted by the number of first-preference votes each of the candidates received. In our example above, if each vote percentage represents a thousand votes, then if candidate A votes in favour of a bill while candidates B, C and D vote against it, the effective vote cast would be 30,000 less 69,000 = 39,000 opposed. Likewise the total of all weighted votes cast by members would yield the final outcome. Such a tally would surely create a much truer representation of the will of the electorate.
On the executive side, each party with more than the cut-off percentage of the vote would seat its members with the weight of the vote that it received in the election. If a party can command the majority of weighted votes, executive and legislative combined, it will form government. If no party can command a majority, then a run-off vote within the legislature will determine which party should govern.
In this day and age of instant communications, physical presence at a centralized location is no longer a necessity as it was in the days when our current electoral system evolved to where it is now. Our candidates B, C, and D could remain in their local districts and still follow the proceedings of the legislature. They could take part in local town hall meetings where local citizens could question their intentions. (Candidate A could also participate remotely.) And when votes come up in the legislature, B, C and D could immediately make their assessments known to candidate A, who would cast the net weighted vote as described above.
While this weighted vote concept would be much more democratic than what we have now, it could still be improved upon. Say you as a voter don’t trust any of the candidates A to E to represent your opinions in all cases. Why shouldn’t you be able to cast your own votes on legislative issues? Instead of voting for one of these candidates, you could choose to become a direct voter, and cast your ballot on say third and final reading of any bill before the legislature. Now that would be true democracy.