Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Orange Scare? Conservatives take the GTA . . . and Canada


For anyone who sees Stephen Harper’s Conservatives as an arrogant, anti-democratic, pork-barrelling force operating Parliament Hill as an eastern branch office of Big Oil, the 2011 federal election results which gave them a majority of the seats in the House of Commons are dispiriting, to say the least. The New Democratic Party’s unprecedented tripling of its seats to a total of 102 has the air of what is known as a Pyrrhic victory – not that the NDP troops have been decimated, like those of old King Pyrrhus were in their battle with the Romans, but insofar as their success has cost the party its power in a House now fully become the Conservatives’ playground.

“Vote-splitting” between the NDP and the Liberals of what has been called the “centre-left” of the electorate has been fingered as the culprit by many media commentators and ordinary electors. They allege that enthusiasm for Jack Layton and the NDP as an alternative to the Liberal Party, prompted by the NDP surge in Quebec, led many voters who might have supported the Liberals to switch to the NDP, thereby leaving an opening for Conservative candidates to take ridings previously held by Liberals. Thus, the NDP’s own popularity seems to have ironically undermined their actual power in the House of Commons and resulted in a majority government antithetical to its views.

The primary locus of this three-way power-struggle was clearly southern Ontario, and specifically the Greater Toronto Area, in which Conservative candidates took enough seats from Liberal incumbents to finally get their party the House majority that had eluded them in the previous two elections. But how true is the allegation that support for the NDP allowed Conservative candidates to be elected? Could it be possible that it was actually Liberal supporters defecting to the Conservatives that spread the blue tide across the GTA? Or a last-minute catalyzing of the undecided vote that gave the Conservatives a boost from the 35% they had been polling at just days prior to the election to the 40% of the popular vote they managed to attract on election day?

Let’s examine the actual results, moving east to west.

1. In Ajax-Pickering, Liberal incumbent Mark Holland lost his seat to Conservative challenger Chris Alexander by just over 3000 votes – about the same margin he had been elected by over the previous Conservative candidate in 2008. In fact, Holland’s vote total of 21, 569 was virtually unchanged from the prior election, while the Conservative vote increased by over 6000. NDP candidate Jim Koppens did receive nearly double the number of votes (8284 compared to 4472) that his predecessor had in 2008, but half of these votes seem to have come at the expense of the Green Party, whose candidate earned 2000 fewer votes than in 2008. Here, it seems, Conservative voters came out to the polls in large numbers expressly to defeat the Liberal candidate and succeeded, irrespective of the NDP.

2. Scarborough Centre told a different story. Liberal incumbent John Cannis had been elected in 2008 by a margin of nearly 7000 votes over Conservative Roxanne James, with NDP candidate Natalie Hundt a distant third with fewer than 6000 votes. This time out, Hundt’s vote total increased to 11,273, while support for Cannis fell about the same amount that Hundt’s rose, to 12,075. James picked up only 2000 new votes, yet was elected in a tight three-way contest with only 35.5% of the vote. Here the NDP’s rise directly played a role in allowing James to be elected with probably the fewest votes of any MP in the area.

3. This pattern was echoed in Don Valley East, as Conservative Joe Daniel was elected by a margin of less than 1000 votes over Liberal incumbent Yasmin Ratansi. In 2008, Ratansi had garnered over 18,000 votes, but her support fell to 13,552 this election, while Daniel earned only 2000 more votes than his Conservative predecessor, yet was elected with 14,421. The difference again was the surge in NDP support, as Mary Trapani Hynes increased her vote total by approximately the same number as Liberal support fell, ending up with 9878 in a third-place finish.

4. In Don Valley West, Conservative John Carmichael was elected by only 640 votes over Rob Oliphant, the Liberal incumbent. Oliphant in fact received a couple of hundred votes more than he had in 2008, while his Conservative rival picked up some 3500 new votes. The combined NDP/Green support in this riding in both elections was about 8000 votes, with the NDP picking up about 1400 votes, approximately the same amount that the Green Party lost. It seems unlikely that the NDP polling surge was a significant factor here.

5. Eglinton-Lawrence shows a similar pattern. Conservative Joe Oliver was elected by a relatively comfortable 4000 vote margin over Liberal incumbent Joe Volpe. Support for the long-serving Volpe fell by only 500 votes, while Oliver’s increased by nearly 6000 to 22,633. Again the combined NDP/Green share remained stable, with NDP candidate Justin Chatwin increasing his total to 5591 seemingly at the expense of the Greens. That Oliver’s increase in votes actually outweighed the NDP’s total vote in this riding while Volpe’s support dropped only marginally indicates that the NDP was not a significant factor in the outcome.

6. Liberal incumbent Ken Dryden lost his York Centre seat to Conservative Mark Adler by wide margin. Adler received 20,355 votes to Dryden’s 13,979. Dryden’s total in 2008 had been 16,185, providing a solid 2000-vote margin over the Conservative challenger. Adler, however, picked up 6000 more votes for his party compared with the 2008 results. NDP candidate Nick Brownlee garnered about 2000 more votes than had his predecessor, while Green support plunged by about 1500 votes. Did Dryden lose support to the Conservative Adler or to the NDP? The NDP gain was approximately equal to the Liberal loss, but nowhere near the Conservative increase.

7. In Willowdale, Conservative candidate Chungsen Leung was elected with 22,206 votes, just shy of 1000 in excess of Liberal incumbent Martha Hall Findlay’s 21,245. Hall Findlay’s drop was about 2600 votes from her 2008 totals, while Leung gained 6300 votes for the Conservatives. NDP candidate Mehdi Mollahasani earned 4700 more votes than did the previous NDP candidate, while the Green Party did not have a candidate this time, though in 2008 their candidate had garnered over 3000 votes. Did some of these Green votes go to Leung?

8. In Richmond Hill, Liberal incumbent Byron Wilfert’s 5000-vote margin over his Conservative rival in 2008 became a nearly 4400-vote deficit in 2011. Wilfert’s total fell to 17,717 while Conservative candidate Costas Menegakis was elected with 22,093, almost 6000 more votes than his predecessor had taken. NDP candidate Adam DeVita garnered 4000 votes more than his party had in 2008, to finish with 8451, 1500 of which perhaps came at the expense of the Greens. Some Liberal voters may have switched to the NDP this election, but a signficant portion must have either voted Conservative or stayed home while new Conservative supporters made the trek to the polls.

9. Hotly-contested Etobicoke Centre is due for a recount after initial results put Conservative Ted Opitz only 26 votes ahead of Liberal incumbent Boris Wrzesnewskyj, at 21,661 to 21,635. Opitz’s total is almost 3000 votes greater than that of his Conservative predecessor in the 2008 election, while Wrzesnewskyj’s total is about 3000 votes fewer. NDP candidate Ana Maria Rivero earned about 3500 more votes than her predecessor in 2008, about 1200 of which may have come from Green losses. Again, one could suggest that Wrzesnewskyj lost some of his support to the NDP, but this would mean that Opitz was able to mobilize an equivalent amount of Conservative supporters who didn’t vote in 2008.

10. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who was first parachuted into Etobicoke-Lakeshore in 2006, lost his seat to Conservative Bernard Trottier by a margin of almost 3000 votes. Ignatieff’s vote total declined by nearly 4000 votes to 19,058, while Trottier improved his standing from that of his Conservative predecessor by over 4000 votes, for a total of 21,963. Meanwhile, NDP candidate Michael Erickson increased his party’s vote total by about 5000 votes to 10,979, and the Green Party lost about 1400 votes. This result virtually mirrors the result in Etobicoke Centre.

11. Bramalea-Gore-Malton is one GTA riding in which the NDP made a major gain in voter support. Liberal incumbent Gurbax Malhi had been elected in 2008 by a nearly 4000-vote margin over Conservative rival Stella Ambler, while the NDP candidate had garnered fewer than 6000 votes in total. This time out NDP candidate Jagmeet Singh was very nearly elected with 19,369 votes, falling less than 600 votes short of Conservative Bal Gosal’s total of 19,907, while the Liberal incumbent Malhi dropped almost 6000 votes from 22,214 to 16,401. The Conservative total here increased only 1600 votes from the previous election, but this was enough to be elected. The NDP’s increase in this riding was a stunning 13,000, while the Green Party lost only 800. About 10,000 more people voted in Bramalea-Gore-Malton in 2011 than in 2008, the majority of whom seem to have voted NDP. Clearly, the Liberals lost a significant amount of support here to the NDP, but the possiblity of electing an NDP Member of Parliament was no illusion, as the close finish proved.

12. In Brampton-Sprindale, Liberal incumbent Ruby Dhalla’s support continued to dwindle from the heights of 2006, when she had garnered over 23,000 votes. In 2008, her total had fallen to 18,522, giving her less than a 1000-vote margin over Conservative challenger Parm Gill. This time Gill got the upper hand, as Dhalla’s vote total fell by another 4000 votes to 14,231, while Gill’s share increased from 17,804 to 24,617, an increase of nearly 7000 votes. NDP candidate Manjit Grewal increased his party’s total by about 4600 votes to 9963, while Green Party support dropped by 1600 votes to 1926. Like neighbouring Bramalea, in excess of 10,000 more votes were cast in this riding than in 2008. Unlike the situation in Bramalea, however, many of these votes went to the Conservative candidate, whose increase in support far outstripped the Liberal decline.

13. In Brampton West, Conservative candidate Kyle Seeback was elected by a comfortable 6300 vote margin over Liberal incumbent Andrew Kania, 28,420 to 22,128. In 2008 Kania had held a slim 1000 vote surplus. Interestingly, Kania’s vote total actually increased by nearly 500 votes in 2011, but Seeback’s ballooned by almost 7000. NDP candidate Jagtar Shergill increased his vote total by almost 4000 to 11,225, while Green support tumbled by more than 2000 votes to 1,223. Like its neighbouring ridings, about 10,000 more voters cast ballots here than in 2008, and like Brampton-Springdale, most of these votes seem to have gone to the Conservative candidate.

14. In Mississauga-Brampton South, Conservative Eve Adams was elected with 23,547 votes, about 5000 more than Liberal incumbent Navdeep Bains at 18,562. Bains’s vote total dropped by about 2700 from the 2008 total of 21,220, while Adams’s total was nearly 8000 more than her Conservative predecessor. NDP candidate Jim Glavan increased his party’s count by more than 4000 votes to 9417, while Green Party support fell by about 1800 votes. Some of Bains’s support may have shifted to the NDP, but this does not account for the significant rise in Conservative votes. About 6000 more votes were cast in this riding than in 2008, many of which seem to been Conservative.

15. Mississauga East-Cooksville had elected Liberal Albina Guarnieri in 2008 with more than 50% of the ballots cast, or 20,371 votes. This time Liberal candidate Peter Fonseca garnered only 18,121, a decline of 2,250, while Conservative Wladyslaw Lizon was elected with 18,782, a narrow margin of only 661 votes. Lizon’s total was 5500 votes more than his Conservative predecessor had earned in 2008, an increase that is double the amount of the Liberal decline. NDP candidate Wasseem Ahmed saw his party experience an increase of 4600 votes to 8938, while Green support dipped by about 1000 votes.

16. In Mississauga South, Liberal Paul Szabo had been elected by 2000-vote margins over Conservative challengers in 2008 and 2006. This time, Conservative Stella Ambler was elected with 23,008 votes, almost 4600 more than Szabo’s 18,413 and about the same amount more than her Conservative predecessor had received in 2008. Szabo’s total dropped by about 2000, while NDP support increased about the same amount to 6315 for candidate Farah Kalbouneh. Green Party support fell by almost 2000 votes as well. The pattern seen throughout most of the ridings examined here is present again, as the Conservative increase is significantly greater than Liberal losses, while the NDP seems to have taken as many votes from the Green Party as from the Liberals.

17. In Mississauga-Streetsville, Conservative Brad Butt was elected with 22,104 votes, almost 3500 more than Liberal incumbent Bonnie Crombie’s 18,651. Butt’s total is 5000 more than his Conservative predecessor received in 2008, while Crombie’s support fell by about 3000 votes. NDP candidate Aijad Naqvi’s total of 7864 is about 3000 votes higher than was the previous NDP candidate’s, while Green support fell about 1200 votes. Like Mississauga South, the Liberal decline is approximately equal to the NDP increase – but again, the Conservative rise outstrips this number by a significant margin.

By taking these 17 Toronto-area ridings from Liberal incumbents, the Conservative Party virtually assured itself of a majority government, even had they picked up no other new ridings. In only three of these ridings, Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Scarborough Centre and Don Valley East, was an increase in local NDP support directly responsible for tilting the balance in favour of the Conservative candidate. On average, the increase in Conservative vote totals was double that of Liberal losses, and in many cases the Conservative candidate picked up in excess of 6000 more votes than in 2008. What was responsible for this significant increase in Conservative support?

It has been speculated that many voters who may have been undecided up until the final weekend of the campaign cast their ballot for their Conservative candidate out of fear of an NDP-led coalition government, intimidated by surging NDP popularity in Quebec. Some of these voters may have previously voted Liberal, or had been considering voting Liberal in the current election, but switched to Conservative in response to Harper’s fear-mongering regarding the economic insecurity he claimed would ensue from a Liberal-NDP coalition. Other fiscally-conservative voters who may have supported the Green Party in 2008 may actually have cast their lot with Harper’s Conservatives out of a lack of confidence in the economic policies of the Liberals and NDP. What is clear from these results is that NDP-Liberal “vote-splitting” in Southern Ontario was not the principal phenomenon driving the Conservatives to a majority.

Speculation on a Liberal-NDP “merger” has appeared in the columns of many corporately-owned news sources, including the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and National Post. This perspective is the product of minds who cling to the idea that the stands taken by the Liberal Party of Canada on progressive social issues such as the status of women, same-sex marriage, and multiculturalism qualify the party as a “centre-left” in the time-worn and misleadingly simplistic “Left-Right” political spectrum model. In fact, the Liberal Party has a history of being just as strongly dominated by corporate interests as the Conservative Party is, whereas the NDP is influenced by corporate interests only indirectly and in a strangely antagonistic way through its traditional support by labour unions comprised of people employed by large corporations. Despite Jack Layton’s attempts to create a Canadian version of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” party by capturing middle-of-the-road, middle-class voters disgusted with Conservative corruption, the NDP remains in its principles and policy an entity entirely distinct from both the Liberals and the Green Party of Canada, a party with whom in previous years mergers were called for by “left-leaning” individuals with a concern for environmental protection.

It remains to be seen to what extent Jack Layton’s New Democrats have won the battle against corporate influence and the politics of cynicism, while losing the war itself to the autocratic Harper Conservatives. One phenomenon that may be of considerable interest but has barely been acknowledged in the commercial media is the astounding increase in votes cast in the north Peel ridings, and to what this implied increase in electoral engagement is due. What is clear is that a significant proportion of voters in the suburbs of Toronto prefer autocracy and the trickle-down effect of the oil, gas, and mining money flowing into Canada’s western provinces to a potentially democratically-messy economic re-organization of Ontario’s struggling manufacturing and agricultural sectors that an NDP-led coalition may have brought.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Different Kind of Strategic Thinking

Only a week following the Ontario election, the political focus has shifted from Toronto back to Ottawa as Prime Minister Stephen Harper does his best to use Parliamentary strategy to bring his party the support and attention it can't get from its policies.

It's a shame that the simple assumption and maintenance of power on Parliament Hill has become the apparent raison' d'etre for the "grey" parties - and garners bigger headlines than real news about the planet's ecology and economy.

Even as 42% Ontario's voters complacently sent Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government back to Queen's Park for four more years of middle-of-the-road management, Australian climate change specialist Tim Flannery made the international news pages with his interpretations of the initial data just released by the International Panel on Climate Change. Flannery concluded that, based on the IPCC evidence, global warming is happening faster than scientists had expected.

Another international report issued last week showed that world economic growth has completely overwhelmed widespread attempts to reduce pollution. And now this week a new national report organized by several government agencies including Environment Canada shows that the same has been true for Canada.

Yet print headlines, editorial commentary and TV news stories in the past week have focused on Ontario's new February holiday and Prime Minister Harper's cynical jockeying for power with Liberal leader Stephane Dion.

The Green Party of Ontario's tripling of its popular vote has barely registered with the mass media. Nor has the Sharbot Lake area Algonquins' legal challenge to Ontario's Mining Act, nor the recent scientific research published in the respected journal Nature indicating that our atmosphere has become significantly more humid in recent years entirely due to increases in temperature as a result of industrial activity.

The biggest problem with the political game from the point of view of an ecologist is that while virtually everyone understands human interactions to some extent, hardly any of us understand our interactions with the rest of the natural world.

How much easier it was this past election for the Green Party of Ontario to get press for its single-public-education-system policy than to put its water policy, energy policy or agricultural policy onto the table. Everyone in Ontario has been to school - but how many of us have any idea how much energy, water or food we consume, let alone the complex biological and ecological transformations needed to bring those commodities to us?

The Mixed-Member Proportional system proposed by the Citizens' Assembly was recommended in part because it provides a way for those few people who understand ecology to have their voices count at Queen's Park. Sadly, it seems from the initial data on the referendum that people mainly voted for or against MMP solely on the basis of what benefit it would have for the party they supported. MMP passed the 60% approval mark only in Toronto ridings home to large numbers of NDP supporters, for example. One can imagine that Green supporters also voted in favour of MMP, while Liberal and Conservative supporters did not.

It would appear that holding the referendum in conjunction with the election promotes this kind of partisan approach to decision-making, which is utterly at odds with the intent of the reform. The Liberal strategists who recommended holding the referendum in conjuction with the election have proved themselves adept at manipulating the electorate, but at what cost?

Meanwhile, the PCs told their supporters outright not to vote in favour of MMP, mainly because the party hopes to benefit from the current system of disproportional representation at some future election. The irony here is that, if MMP had already been implemented, the PCs would have received more proportional seats than any other party given the results of last week's election.

There is a great need for strategic thinking in this time of global ecological crisis. Unfortunately, the kinds of strategy we need to adopt don't have anything to do with the manipulation of one another that we're so familar with, but with coming up with new and better ways to interact with our ecology so that we don't wear out our welcome on this earth in short order.

Thankfully, the Green Party of Canada's leadership understands this necessity clearly, and has come out strongly with its own version of strategic thinking to counter the Prime Minister's shallow Throne Speech. The "green vision" document, now available on the GPC website at www.greenparty.ca, outlines some real strategic thinking directed at more than petty power games.

In the coming days I'll review the referendum in more detail, and also compare the innovative GPO and GPC policies with their Liberal and Conservative counterparts.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Leapfrogging Greens

As expected, the 2007 Ontario election campaign proved to be the "great leap forward" for the Green Party of Ontario, comparable to that experienced by the Green Party of Canada in 2004.

Voter support for the GPO tripled from 2.7% of the popular vote in 2003 to 8% last week. This far surpasses the 5.5% garnered by the federal party in 2006, and bodes well for Elizabeth May's chances to lead the GPC to double-digit figures and perhaps even seats in the House of Commons in the next federal election.

In Peterborough, Liberal incumbent Jeff Leal was sent back to Queen's Park by a comfortable margin, as most expected. Leal's sheer stamina in public service, including many years as a south-end Peterborough municipal councillor, no doubt played a major role in his re-election, as did his party's support of the Catholic school system.

Once again, Peterborough proved to be a "bellweather" riding as voting results here mirrored the overall provincial results. Leal had 48% of the popular vote, while his party averaged 42%. Leal's vote total, 24,425, was only 200 shy of his total for 2003.

PC candidate Bruce Fitzpatrick, the well-known downtown lawyer, resembled in some ways his own party leader John Tory with his businessman image and smooth command of rhetoric. Both men fell well short of their supporters' expectations, with Fitzpatrick garnering less than 26% of the vote, well below the 33% earned by then-PC incumbent Gary Stewart in 2003. In fact, Fitzpatrick's vote total of 13,093 was over 5000 votes fewer than Stewart's, likely indicating that many PC voters stayed home rather than vote for the Toronto-centered Tory and religious school funding. The PCs averaged 31.6% provincially, down from 34.7% in 2003, representing a drop of 200,000 votes across the province.

Dave Nickle, the local NDP candidate, also lost votes from his 2003 totals, dropping from 9796 to 8488, even while his party picked up 80,000 votes across the province. Nickle's 2007 support equalled 16.6% of the popular vote, almost identical to the NDP's provincial average.

Miriam Stucky, Peterborough's Green Party candidate, was the only local candidate who increased her party's vote totals from 2003 - and they increased significantly. In 2003, Tim Holland picked up 1605 votes. Stucky nearly tripled this figure, with 4,444, representing 8.7% of the popular vote. This vote total is more than half that of the NDP, and more than a third that of the PCs. This is an incredible accomplishment, given that the Green Party locally spent only about a tenth as much money on its campaign as did its rivals, had no television advertising, and was shut out of the televised leaders' debate again. Stucky's vote total was 20th in Ontario among Green candidates.

Across the province there were simliar success stories. The most notable was Shane Jolley's unprecedented run-off with PC imcubment Bill Murdoch in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. Jolley was running at 28% in the polls the week before the election, while Murdoch, a 17 year veteran as riding representative, caused controversy by breaking ranks with his party over the religious school funding issue and watched his support tumble. Volunteers from other ridings joined Shane's team in Owen Sound in an valiant attempt to push Shane past Murdoch and take the seat. Their efforts were rewarded, as voters poured out of the woodwork and away from the Liberals and NDP, casting more than 15,000 votes for Jolley, or 33% of the popular vote. Murdoch's supporters rallied around him, whether in spite of or because of his split with Tory, and he managed to recapture his support with more than 21,000 votes, or 47%.

As a result of the tightly-contested race, voter turnout in the riding was over 66%,dramatically higher than the provincial average, which was an all-time low 52%. However, Murdoch's breaking-of-ranks with Tory didn't help the fortunes of the leader or the other PC candidates, and given the extremely low vote totals of the local NDP and Liberal candidates, may not have even been necessary to his own re-election.

Other major Green victories occured in neighbouring ridings in rural Ontario. Ben Polley in Guelph managed to earn almost 20% of the vote, while Rob Strang in Dufferin-Caledon picked up 17%. Support was also strong in nearby Simcoe-Grey, Simcoe-North, and Wellington-Halton Hills. Green candidates in urban ridings in downtown Toronto, Ottawa and London were also highly successful at the ballot box. All told, 19 GPO candidates had double-digit vote totals, and 21 finished in third place (or in Jolley's case, second), leapfrogging either their PC or NDP rivals.

Leader Frank de Jong managed more than 10% in his downtown Toronto riding of Davenport, in spite of low voter turnout and his obligation to spend most of his time touring the province.

It sometimes seems absurd to be evaluating progress toward sustainability on the numerical results of these popularity contests we call general elections. With our antiquated system of disproportional representation, the Liberal government is now free to move ahead with its outrageously inadequate energy policies and maintain its foot-dragging on issues of water conservation, toxic chemical regulation, and status quo positions on health and education.

Nevertheless, the Green Party's rising vote totals are incontrovertible evidence that Ontario's population is ever-more ready to embrace the significant changes urgently needed. Polls show that support for the Green Party and for electoral reform are quite high among younger voters, whose voices are unfortunately dwarfed by the large number of older voters in Ontario who tend to be highly resistant to change, less well educated, and much more likely to actually show up to vote.

The 2007 election has shown us that it's not a matter of "if" for sustainable public policy and electoral reform, but a matter of "when".

Monday, October 8, 2007

Profiting from the Democratic Deficit

As I'd predicted in an earlier post on the subject of schools and religious groups, PC leader John Tory's ploy to attract the votes of non-WASPs in the GTA by proposing an extension of public funding to faith-based schools has backfired. It was clear from the beginning that the majority of Ontario citizens wouldn't support such a plan, and Tory's last-minute attempt to control the damage by suggesting that he'd hold a free vote in the Legislature on it instead of pushing it through has made him look more of an opportunist.

The upside of the resulting public debate over the proposal is that Ontario citizens, perhaps to the chagrin of Catholic school supporters, are now ready to start the move toward a single English language public school system.

The downside is that, as NDP leader Howard Hampton complained, the education debate has dominated the campaign both in the media and in the chatter of the electorate to the exclusion of other important issues. The Toronto Star today ran a story about this - without, of course, acknowledging that The Star itself was partly responsible for blowing the issue up. A shamelessly Liberal paper, The Star took the lead in promoting both sides of the issue, effectively distracting voters from other serious issues - most notably in my mind, the impending massive investment in nuclear power. Hampton, naturally, perceived that Tory's school proposal detracted from the NDP and the PC campaigns' ability to draw attention to the Liberal government's mediocre record in several key areas. Following the debacles of the Rae, Harris and Eves governments, however, McGuinty's record doesn't look so bad anyway, and the "attack ads" on TV, in my experience, wear thin with the electorate pretty quickly.

The continued exclusion from the televised leaders' "debate" (a misnomer if there ever was one) of Green Party leader Frank de Jong also worked to keep important issues under the radar of the majority of the public. Certainly one can surmise that the leadership of the PCs, Liberals and NDP find themselves united in their desire not to let any more votes slip away to the Green Party. However, given that the policy debate logjam caused by these three parties' strategies to maintain power has resulted in nothing more than the maintenance of the status quo at Queen's Park, they may want to reconsider their role in keeping de Jong out. Had de Jong been put on the televised debate, a whole host of policy alternatives would have been brought to the fore. All it would take next time is for one of the three other leaders to make the Green Party's admission to the debate a condition of his own participation, and the network organizers would be obliged to comply. There would be little point in going ahead with a two-leader debate.

The corporately-owned mass media continue, unfortunately, to keep the Green Party marginalized. Although the Greens have been polling between 6% and 11%, the party and its policies without question receive far less press proportionally than do the larger parties. The Liberals and Conservatives, the two parties with the strongest ties to corporate Ontario, together receive close to 90% of the media coverage, even though their combined poll totals wouldn't crack 75%. Although polling at about half the popularity of the NDP, a third of that of the PCs and a quarter of that of the Liberals, the Green Party's press coverage comes to probably about a tenth of the NDPs, and its TV coverage still less.

Not only does the Green Party suffer from this exclusion, but so does all Ontario, now and into the future. There's no question that Canada's "democratic deficit," as Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May has so astutely referred to it, is largely a product of the systematic limiting of the scope of political debate by the corporately-owned media and its slavish publicly-owned imitator, the CBC. While Elections Ontario forces every political candidate in the province to account for every last dime spent or collected, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission continues to let broadcasters act as free public advertising for some parties but not others.

Our antiquated system of disproportional representation is also a major contributor to the democratic deficit, of course. A second major step forward that has occured in this campaign is that proportional representation in the form of the Mixed-Member Proportional system is now on the public's mind. Although the referendum is not likely to pass this time, great strides have been made in making our politically unsophisticated electorate aware of the options. Perhaps when yet another false majority government takes 100% of the power at Queen's Park with 60% of the seats and 40% of the votes, leaving the majority of voters entirely unrepresented, there will be more questions asked, and more voters ready to take a serious look at a better system of representation the next time the opportunity is presented. Like the move to a single public school system, a proportional system of representation for Ontario is an inevitability that vested interests can only put off for so long.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lessons from New Zealand's experience with MMP

With 17 days left to the Oct. 10 election and referendum, the polling numbers indicate that the Green Party is the only party increasing in popularity.

Last week's polls showed the Liberals hovering just above 40%, the PC's just above 30%, the NDP in the mid-teens and the Green Party around 10%.

Though these figures ought to result in a minority Liberal government, the fact is that under our current system, the Liberals may again wind up with a majority. As blogger Greg Morrow noted on the Democratic Space website (http://www.democraticspace.com/blog/), the final outcome of this election will likely be determined by a mere 1.5% of "swing" voters in the 30 closest contests around the province.

The situation is even more exaggerated at the federal level, where federal election outcomes in recent years have revolved around a dozen swing ridings in Western Quebec.

Once more than two parties become serious contestants, the first-past-the-post system becomes increasingly less democratic, often focusing vast amounts of decision-making power into the hands of a few thousand voters who may not even realize that their votes have the potential to grant one party 100% of the governing power.

The mixed-member proportional system (MMP), which has been recommended for Ontario by a democratically-selected citizens' committee, has been designed to eliminate such anomalous distributions of power. However, it is important to note that although MMP will guarantee that the makeup of the Legislature is proportional, it won't guarantee that the distribution of power within the Legislature is proportional.

One of the principal features of proportional representation systems is that they usually result in coalition governments comprised of the the party with the greatest percentage of the popular vote and whatever combination of the less-popular parties they can get on board to bring their seat total up to 50%. This sometimes means that a party with only a few seats may hold what is known as "the balance of power" in the process of forming such coalitions.

At the federal level, neither Paul Martin nor Stephen Harper felt that they could acceptably strike up a coalition with any other party to achieve a stable majority, and chose to carry on seeking support on an ad hoc, bill-by-bill basis from whichever party they felt they could appeal to at the time. Martin narrowly avoided defeat in the spring of 2005 by luring Belinda Stronach over from the Conservatives and winning the support of the independent Chuck Cadman. Harper managed to buy time in 2007 by throwing money at Quebec to secure the support of the Bloc Quebecois.

With a proportional system, however, coalitions become much more attractive because there really isn't much hope of winning a majority in the next election. This means that any party which aims to govern must be prepared to enter into a serious set of negotiations and compromises with another party, usually much smaller, in order to gain the majority needed. This can put a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of parties with minimal amounts of voter support.

The example of New Zealand is well-worth studying for anyone interested in promoting MMP for Canadian jurisdictions. In the 1996 general election, the first election following the adoption of MMP, a three-year-old party called New Zealand First, led by the charistmatic and controversial Winston Peters, a former National Party MP who had been dismissed from his caucus, managed to pull votes from both conservative white voters and younger Maori and end up with 14% of the seats. With the National Party at 36%, Labour at 30% and the left-wing Alliance at 10%, a number of coalitions were possible - but all of the likely ones depended on New Zealand First. After months of negotiation, Peters chose to side with National - a choice which immediately disenchanted many of those who had voted for NZF imagining that they would side with Labour.

The coalition proved no more popular among the National Party caucus, many of whose members resented having to deal with radically-minded Maori MPs and Peters himself, who they had earlier dismissed from their caucus. The reaction of the general public was to blame MMP for the unpopular and volatile situation, and polls indicated that whereas 54% had voted in favour of MMP in a 1993 referendum, by 1997 support had dropped to 33%, and some National Party members began lobbying for a return to the old system.

However, the democratic process quickly repaid the ill-advised opportunism of the NZF and National Party, as the uncomfortable coalition fell apart, and in the 1999 election support for both parties fell. The Labour Party under Helen Clark formed a coalition with the Alliance which proved to be a more stable combination. The Alliance itself had been composed of a number of smaller parties, including the Green Party. In the 2002 election, the Alliance had fallen apart, and when Labour again won a plurality but not a majority, they turned to its dispersed remnants in the newly-formed Progressive Party and United Future Party.

Proportional representation systems, proponents argue, encourage consensus decision-making in the legislature rather than confrontation and grandstanding. New Zealand's example shows us that consensus isn't easy to achieve - even among coalition partners.

Up until the early 1990s, New Zealand's political system was dominated by the conservative National Party and the center-left Labour Party - not unlike its parent country, Great Britain. By 2005, there were seven parties with seats in the national assembly - National, Labour, New Zealand First, ACT, United Future, Green and the Progressive Coalition. A new party, the Maori Party, was formed to contest that election, bringing the current number to eight.

Proponents of proportional systems, like myself, argue that this is the way democracy should work. With a wide array of interests and perspectives among voters, it only makes sense that there should be a wide range of parties to represent those interests. To small-"c" conservative voters in Ontario, however, such a diverse complicated system can seem intimidating, and to give too much power to what are peceived as minority groups.

The New Zealand example shows clearly that in fact both Maori and women voters have experienced a significant increase in representation in the Parliament since MMP came in. Maori, who comprise about 14% of New Zealand's population, historically had only 4 seats in the Parliament, special seats which had been created for Maori only in an early attempt to guarantee some representation but not enough to impact Parliamentary decisions. Today Maori-born MPs comprise all the Maori Party and a significant portion of New Zealand First members and some Labour MPs.

Women have come to positions of prominence in New Zealand since MMP as well. In the late 1990s, both National and Labour were led by women - Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark, respectively. For a period during 2005-06, all the highest offices in the country were held by women - including the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice and Governor-General. The Maori party currently has male and female co-leaders. However, the overall number of female MPs remains far lower than the number of male MPs.

While Ontario bears some resemblance to New Zealand in terms of its population size, colonial history, land area and political conservatism, Ontario's current ethnic makeup is quite different. Whereas the Maori comprise a significant voting bloc in New Zealand, Ontario's First Nations make up only 2% of the total population. While those who trace their ancestry to the British Isles remain a majority in Ontario, it is now a slim one. Waves of immigration from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, India, China and the Ukraine have changed Ontario's ethnic makeup dramatically since the Second World War. French Canadians continue to make up a sizable percentage of Ontario as well, and new waves of immigration from Africa are now occuring. It is much less likely that an MMP system in Ontario would foster parties split along ethnic lines. It is more likely that the existing smaller parties would find themselves in positions of greater power, and thus find themselves mutating to meet these new demands.

However, there is a limit as to how small a party can be and still be represented in the Legislature. In New Zealand the limit is 5% of the popular vote, or of course a single representative elected in a riding.

New Zealand currently serves about 5 million people with 120 Members of Parliament. Ontario, with twice the population, has only 107 seats in Queen's Park. In moving to an MMP system, New Zealand did what the MMP proposal for Ontario aims to do: reduce the number of ridings, and increase their size so that when proportional seats were added, the number of seats wouldn't simply double. However, New Zealand, in opting for the German-style MMP with 50% of seats for ridings and 50% for parties, was obliged to drastically reduce the number of ridings and redraw riding boundaries virtually from scratch.

Ontario's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform has actually proposed a better system, which requires much less disruption to the current ridings. The Citizens' Assembly astutely noted that there is no need for 50% of the seats to be proportionally-assigned to create a proportional Legislature. In fact, 30% will do the job nicely in every possible situation. This is the rationale behind the proposal for Ontario - to reduce the number of ridings from 107 to 90, and to add 39 proportional seats - which is 30% of the total of 129.

It is also worth noting how long it took for New Zealand to actually bring in MMP. It was 10 years from the time their Royal Commission on electoral reform recommended a switch to proportional representation to the 1996 election where it actually went into effect.

A first referendum was held in the early 1990s, in which the public was asked if they favoured a referendum on electoral reform at all, and to indicate which of several possible new systems they would want on the ballot. Both the National Party and the Labour Party, who had enjoyed a duopoly on power in New Zealand for most of its history, opposed the reform, as they knew it would destroy their cozy system of alternating governments.

A series of unpopular majority governments, elected with less than 50% of the vote, throughout the late 80s and early 90s increased voter dissatisfaction with the existing system and fuelled the calls for an MMP system. An analagous situation occured in Ontario with the Rae and Harris governments - but McGuinty's Liberals have succeeded in doing what Liberal governments always do - sit on the fence and make as few changes as possible. This policy may have the effect of chilling voter interest in reform.

McGuinty's government has also put an artificially high 60% threshold for the referendum to become legally binding. This was also the tactic used by the Liberal government in British Columbia several years ago when they held a referendum on electoral reform. The BC referendum actually saw a higher percentage of voters in favour of change than did New Zealand - but due to the imposition of the 60% threshold, BC continues with business as usual. Had the New Zealand government of the day imposed a similar threshold, MMP would never have come in.

Like the necessary economic reforms being put forward by the Green Party, systems of proportional representation will eventually be adopted in Canada. It is only a matter of time. We will very shortly find ourselves unable to negotiate the realities of the 21st century with an obsolete set of 19th century legislative principles holding us back.

If the referendum on MMP does not pass this time, it will most likely pass next time. Other provinces will also be holding referendums in the coming years. It will likely be a province with a high degree of voter dissatisfaction with inept false-majority governments that takes the plunge first. Once one province takes the first step and navigates the transition successfully, timid Canadians across the country will be empowered to join the rest of the democratic world and bring proportional representation to their own provinces.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Moving Ahead With MMP

Tonight's televised leaders' debate will be most notable for one thing: the absence of Green Party of Ontario leader Frank de Jong.

Even with CTV and Decima Research polls showing the GPO solidly in double-digit figures, only a few percentage points behind the NDP, and with the party running a full slate of candidates across Ontario, the organizers of the televised debate have decided to maintain the status quo and feature only the NDP, PC, and Liberal leaders.

In the world of mainstream television, it's always better to play it safe than risk being relevant.

Let's hope Ontario citizens don't feel the same way about MMP - the mixed-member proportional electoral system which is the subject of a referendum in conjunction with the Oct. 10 election.

An MMP system would attempt to match the number of seats a party holds in the Legislature to its actual vote total. With 129 proposed seats in the Legislature, if the Greens continued to poll at 10%, we would see 13 Green MPP's at Queen's Park - which is 13 more than they have now with the exact same level of voter support.

A democratically-selected group of Ontario citizens, one from each riding, called the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, recommended the MMP system for Ontario almost unanimously after a year of research and consultation. Their plan consists of reducing the number of geographical ridings to 90 from the current 107, while simultaneously increasing the number of seats in the Legislature to 129 - about the number we used to have before the Harris PC government "downsized" it in the 1990s.

The extra 39 seats would be "proportional" seats, allocated to parties such that the overall makeup of the legislature closely reflects the popular vote.

Let's play out an imaginary scenario for the following general election in Ontario, assuming that the referendum were to pass.

The Green Party, if it were to maintain its current share of 10% of the popular vote yet elect no MPPs directly, would be assigned 13 proportional seats. Let's say the NDP achieved 15% of the popular vote, and elected 15 MPPs in the riding seats. They'd be entitled to 15% of the total of 129, or 19 seats in all - so they'd be assigned 4 of the proportional seats in addition to the 15 they'd won outright.

Were the Liberals to achieve, say, 40% of the popular vote and elect members in 45 ridings, they'd be assigned 6 proportional seats to bring their total to 40% of 129, or 51. Finally, to complete our speculative example, let's imagine the PCs won the remaining 30 of the 90 riding seats with 35% of the popular vote. They'd be assigned 16 proportional seats for a total of 46.

How would we determine who would actually occupy these proportionally-determined seats as MPPs? Each party would submit a ranked-order list of potential MPPs for public viewing. There would be no secrets - just as riding candidates today make their name, face, educational and vocational backgrounds, and positions on various issues public, so would the "list" candidates. Voters would be free to evaluate what kind of people each party was putting forth, and let that help determine their vote.

The other new twist the MMP system would bring is that there would be two choices made at the polling station, not just one. One choice would be for the local representative to fill the local seat, as today. The other choice would be for the party whose policies the voter prefers. The party might be the one that the voter's favoured local representative belongs to - or it might not. Either way, the party preference vote is the one that is counted towards determining the overall distribution of the seats at Queen's Park.

This system allows voters the best of both worlds. We would be able to vote for the individual candidate we think is the best representative for our riding without throwing our policy preferences out the window.

Under the MMP system, coalition governments would become the norm. Politicians of the various parties would be obliged to work with one another instead of automatically gainsaying every statement or decision made by their rivals. The quality of debate at Queen's Park and the behaviour of the MPPs would improve immensely. Progressive ideas would no longer be swept under the carpet by parties desperately trying to hold on to their false majorities.

If we'd brought in the MMP system 20 years ago, Bob Rae's NDP would never have been given a majority government with 38% of the popular vote and a raft of rookie ministers unprepared to handle such unearned power. Without the public backlash against the Rae government's policies, the Harris PCs would probably never have to come to power, and we wouldn't have an education system still trying to recover from the Harris slash-and-burn management style. We wouldn't have the McGuinty Liberals pushing a $46 nuclear expansion project through behind closed doors.

As the current beneficiaries of disproportional representation, McGuinty's Liberal government has been doing everything it can to keep the referendum from passing without actually appearing to be against it.

There most successful weapon in keeping the public ill-informed so far has been to severely limit Elections Ontario's ability to educate the public on the referendum and the proposed reform. This was accomplished by giving Elections Ontario vague legislation to deal with, so that time would be eaten up in forming the final referendum game plan. To make sure that the public wouldn't know much about it before the election period, they also made sure Elections Ontario had only enough money to promote the referendum during the campaign period, rather than educating the public well beforehand.

Given that we haven't had a referendum in Ontario in 70 years, and that hardly any of us have a solid understanding of the way the electoral system works currently, let alone what the alternatives are that exist around the world, one month is hardly enough for the public to be able to make an intelligent decision - especially when that month's news is totally consumed with the usual political soap opera stories. The public should have had a full calendar year to process the potential changes before being asked to vote on them - not a single month during which the referendum would be dwarfed by the campaigns of the political parties.

As always, the Liberal party's policy is to preserve the status quo at all costs, and avoid the risks associated with venturing any kind of substantial change - not unlike the television executives who continue to shut the Green Party out of the leaders' debates.

If we weren't saddled with the 19th century baggage of disproportional representation, the Mining Act, and the Ontario Municipal Board, if we weren't choking ourselves to death on auto-fumes and ticking away the days before global climate change destabilizes our ecology permanently, maybe this wouldn't be such a bad thing.

We can only ignore reality so long before it hits us in the face. Let's hope that Ontario citizens have more guts than do McGuinty's advisors and TV executives.

Next week I'll discuss the story behind New Zealand's switch to MMP in the 1990s, and how it has led to that country taking an international leadership role on climate change and ecological health.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Disproportional representation: yet another 19th century relic

MMP = Mixed-Member Proportional.

If you already knew that, consider yourself one of Ontario's more astute citizens.

If you already know what it means, consider yourself a member of the political elite.

The Toronto Star and other mainstream media sources have been running articles for the past few weeks focusing on the general public ignorance of the referendum on electoral reform taking place in conjuction with the Oct. 10 provincial election. A random survey of adults walking down Bay St. in Toronto this week showed that only 3 of 50 knew anything about the referendum or its implications.

Based on what I've seen in the mainstream media, I wouldn't bank on the proportion of journalists who are in-the-know being much higher.

Some news items have spun this ignorance as a lack of interest in electoral reform. A more accurate interpretation might be that in fact very few people have much interest or knowledge of provincial politics in the first place.

Citizens who know who their representative to Queens Park is would certainly find themselves in the minority. And how many would know their riding boundaries, or actual polling numbers from the previous election? How many know anything about the provincial budget that their elected representatives vote on? How many know that no majority government in decades has actually received a majority of the popular vote?

Compared with our Quebecois counterparts, Ontarians are a politically simple group. There are many reasons for this, beginning with our 19th century "family compact" origins which set the precedent for concentrating power in the hands of the wealthy, right up to the huge number of recent immigrants to the province who in most cases have little understanding of its system of governance.

Voter turnout for Ontario elections has been dropping steadily for the past 30 years, from 68% in 1975 to 57% in 2003. This is universally condemned as an unfortunate trend, but when one considers how little the vast majority of citizens actually know about their government, and the way the current electoral system distorts the voting results, it's difficult to conclude that a higher voter turnout would make any significant difference in Ontario's governance. Indeed, a sense that this is the case is precisely what dissuades people from making it out on polling day.

The current riding-by-riding simple plurality method of electing representatives to Queens Park is certainly part of the problem. Voters often feel that their votes don't make a difference - and they're right.

The bare fact of the matter is that when any more than two candidates or two parties compete for election, there will be more votes that don't matter than those that do. This is precisely the opposite of what a system of democratic election intends.

In Peterborough in 2003, 24,626 people voted for Jeff Leal of the Liberal party, or 45% of the 55,000 who turned out to the polls. The other 31,000 voted for other candidates. Although Leal will ostensibly go to Queens Park with the interests of all his constituents in mind, whether or not they supported him, in practice he will side with his party on every matter of legislation. The 45% of Peterborough voters who supported Leal indirectly hold 100% of the legislative power granted to the Peterborough riding. The votes of the other 55% - the majority - are effectively discarded when it comes to legislative power at Queens Park.

If this same pattern were repeated in every one of the 103 electoral districts in Ontario, the Liberal party would hold 100% of the seats in the legislature even though more people voted against them than for them.

But wait - this is precisely what did happen in Ontario in 2003! Because it takes only a simple majority to pass legislation at Queens Park, the Liberals didn't even need to repeat the Peterborough result 103 times - they only needed to repeat it 52 times to gain 100% of the power.

Indeed, in theory the party could have received zero votes in the other 51 ridings and obtained the same final result - 100% of the power.

Let's put it in blunt if obtuse terms: a simple majority of representatives elected by simple pluralities in their ridings will virtually never represent the interests of the majority. This is why the majority attitude toward the government at election time is nearly always negative.

Our current method, sometimes called "first past the post", was never designed for a multi-party system. It was only designed for a two-party system. With a multi-party system it will always produce distorted results.

Most of the rest of the democratic world, who are all more politically sophisticated than we in Canada (and perhaps have better math skills), realized this long ago, and have moved on to more sophisticated methods of determining elected representatives. Because our closest neighbours, the Americans and the British, are nearly as unsophisticated as we are, we haven't noticed.

The MMP system being proposed is but one option among many to bring us back to reality. I'll analyze its merits and review its history in other places in my next entry.