Although not explicitly an election event, it was hard not to feel a political atmosphere afoot at Fair Vote Guelph’s “Your Vote Should Count” event last night. Over 200 people were at the Hope House downtown to see and hear from three of the four major party candidates on where they stand on electoral reform, as well as an informational talk from Fair Vote Canada as to the differences between “First Past the Post,” our current system, and “Proportional Representation,” which can take many different forms.
What was supposed to be a fairly non-partisan event turned political very quickly. As the event was about to get underway, Communist Party candidate Tristan Dineen stood and demanded to be included in the panel. There were several hostile voices in the audience, oblique references to the Cold War, but an informal vote among audience members asking whether or not Dineen should have a seat on stage ended in defeat for the young Communist candidate. Dineen was, however, invited to open the Q&A portion with the candidates later on in the forum.
After that was settled, the townhall began with Anita Nickerson of Fair Vote Canada who went into detail about the pluses of Proportional Representation, and the minuses of our current system. Nickerson wanted it made clear that no matter your politics or party affiliation, you may not be as well represented as you think you are, and she cited examples from the 2011 Federal Election to the recent Alberta provincial election. “This is not a partisan issue,” she said, “it affects all voters in all provinces at any given time.”
Amongst the problems with FPTP, Nickerson cited, is regional bias, safe seats, disenfranchisement, and more adversarial politics. By comparison, the positives of PR, as identified by polling in countries that have initiated, include more compromise, more centrist policy, less income inequality, and a population more satisfied with their democracy. Studies have also found that PR promotes more diversity on the ballot with more women and candidates from visible minorities. “When a party puts out a list, it better not say ‘Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe,’ because they will look bad,” Nickerson said.
As for the concern that PR would mean endless elections, Nickerson said that the data shows that countries with PR do not have more elections than democracies that don’t. “PR doesn’t have any more elections, it just changes the incentive system,” she explained. “Now unstable parties are looking at the polls every week. They have an incentive to not make it work.”
Fair Vote’s goal for this election is to promote the idea that this is the final cycle that will be decided by FPTP. They’ve conducted a survey with candidates of all parties from across Canada to determine which of them are in favour of overhauling Canada’s electoral system, the results of which will be released on Tuesday during a Toronto press conference. Fair Vote is also insisting that reforming Canada’s electoral system be done without referendum, a policy stance announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper prior to the beginning of the campaign.
After Nickerson completed her presentation, it was the candidates turn to weigh in.
“We have to look at not just the electoral process, but the democratic process,” said Liberal candidate Lloyd Longfield, who added that part of that change should be strengthening Elections Canada, which he says has been weakened by the current government. “The teeth were taken out of Elections Canada, and they need to be put back in.”
NDP candidate Andrew Seagram told the crowd that PR has long been a part of his party’s platform. “Tom Mulcair and the NDP will bring in MMP [Mixed-Member Proportional], it isn’t perfect, but it represents a more equitable distribution of MPs,” said Seagram, who added that an NDP government will also repeal the Fair Elections Act.
Green Party candidate Gord Miller said that there needs to be more than promises from the other parties that they will change the electoral system if elected. “Five or six provincial governments stopped before doing anything about it, and that’s why we need a Green Party, to keep those other parties honest,” he said. Miller pointed out that it was a minority government that brought in universal healthcare in Canada, and that PR may usher in fewer career politicians. “We’ll get a higher rate of people with more knowledge and better knowledge.”
Conservative candidate Gloria Kovach was invited to take part in the forum, but was unable to attend. Fair Vote Guelph member Steve Dyck said that the group had tried several times to secure her involvement, but she had a conflict in her schedule. A source with the Kovach campaign told me that despite Fair Vote’s insistent invitation, Thursday was the birthday of Kovach’s daughter Jennifer, who was a police office that died in the line of duty in 2013.
The questions from the floor were covered a wide range of subjects concerning electoral reform, and concerns about a proper lack of representation in the election on October 19. There was also concern that previous attempts at reform just didn’t have a lot of dedication behind them, for example, Ontario’s 2007 referendum question about MMP.
“We’ve seen it fail provincially without much discussion,” said Longfield.
Miller remembered when he was still Environmental Commissioner that in 2007, Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer was aghast that the government let the referendum happen without any kind of education campaign. “He said, ‘No one’s doing the education. You guys have to set up this thing.'”
There was also concern that the senate, now stocked with members of the Conservative Party, might throw up roadblocks. “I think the senators are going to be really relieved to not have Stephen Harper as their leader anymore,” said Seagram. “We have to make sure these people honour their commitment.”
Longfield agreed on that point. “All parties, experts and Canadians at large have to put enough pressure on the senate so that they can’t say no.”