Ford Nation’s return reveals electoral system shortcomings

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If you want to know what’s wrong with this country’s politics, you need look no further than Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/06/2018 (1697 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you want to know what’s wrong with this country’s politics, you need look no further than Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford.

To be clear: this is not a condemnation of his policies, although there are lots of reasons to fear a policy platform that ignores the universal forces of basic economics, essentially rejects the ravages of climate change, proposes limits on women’s access to abortion services and plans to allow brewers to sell beer for as little as $1 a bottle, plus deposit.

No, the resurrection of Ford Nation from the ashes of his brother and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s out-of-control political career is merely the latest example of the massive foundational problems that exist in our electoral system. A quick recap of voting results in the recent Ontario election demonstrates clearly that in an age of low voter turnout, our current system of electing governments is ludicrously dysfunctional.

Marta Iwanek / The Canadian Press Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives won an overwhelming majority of seats with a modest percentage of registered voters' support.

You should know that many political commentators have actually been celebrating the result in Ontario. Just under 10 million Ontarians were eligible to vote in the election. And at first blush, the results were impressive.

A whopping 58 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, a 10-point improvement from the woeful 2011 election, when only 48 per cent voted. And for the first time, more than five million Ontario citizens cast ballots in a general election.

When all the votes were counted, Ford’s Progressive Conservative party won 76 seats in the 124-seat Ontario legislature. The New Democratic Party will form the official Opposition, with 40 seats, while the Liberal party will go from governing to third-party status with seven seats. Green Party Leader Mark Schreiner made history by becoming the first of his party to win a seat in the Ontario legislature.

However, a deeper dive into the numbers casts doubt on the legitimacy of this result.

Ford won 62 per cent of all seats with 40 per cent of the votes cast. The NDP, meanwhile, collected nearly 34 per cent of the popular vote, which translated into 32 per cent of all seats.

The imbalance between popular vote and percentage of seats is not the only problem. When you look at the support each party received as a percentage of total eligible voters, the situation becomes even more troubling.

The 2.3 million votes cast in favour of the Progressive Conservatives represents just 23.4 per cent of Ontario’s registered electorate. Yes, it’s absolutely true that no-show voters have only themselves to blame for decisions made in elections they choose to ignore. But it doesn’t get away from the fact that Ford and his Tories have a mathematically questionable mandate from Ontarians.

It deserves to be said that this is not just an Ontario problem, although that province’s chronically low voter turnout certainly makes it among the most profound examples of electoral dysfunction.

Last year’s British Columbia election saw incumbent premier Christy Clark win a minority mandate, only to be toppled shortly after by a coalition between John Horgan’s NDP and Andrew Weaver’s three-seat Green party caucus. Taken together, the NDP-Green coalition earned the support of 57 per cent of the popular vote, which translated into 44 seats of the seats in B.C.’s 87-seat legislature.

However, when you consider the total number of British Columbians eligible to vote, the picture changes dramatically. The Green-NDP coalition won 51 of seats in the legislature with the support of just 35 per cent of the entire electorate.

The trend is also evident in Manitoba.

In the 2016 election, Premier Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives won a mammoth majority mandate, capturing 40 of 57 seats (70 per cent) with 53 per cent of the total votes cast. However, the Pallister juggernaut received the support of only 30 per cent of the 761,000 Manitobans eligible to vote.

And then there was the Green party. Many thought Green leader James Beddome would make a breakthrough and win a seat in the 2016 election. And his party did show well, garnering more than 22,000 votes, or five per cent of the total votes cast, which was a 100 per cent improvement over the previous election. Unfortunately, that support translated into exactly zero seats. Better luck next time.

Is higher voter turnout the antidote to this problem? The answer is both yes and no. To explain, we can look at the 2015 federal election, which had one of the highest voter turnouts in a quarter-century.

The 2015 federal election saw total voter turnout exceed 68 per cent, well below the high-water mark of 79 per cent (1958, 1960, 1963) but very nearly the average turnout (70 per cent) for all elections since 1867. It was a solid number — the highest turnout since 1993.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals surged from third place in pre-election polls to a majority mandate, winning 184 seats in the 338-seat House of Commons. In other words, he received 54 per cent of the seats with just 39.5 per cent of the popular vote, and had the support of only 26 per cent of the nation’s 25.8 million registered voters.

That result seems to suggest that although higher voter turnout is obviously desirable, it is not, in and of itself, a tonic for what ails the country’s electoral system. If not that, then what?

Many will suggest proportional representation, a system by which parties would be awarded a percentage of seats in a legislature based on the percentage of votes each receives. Electoral reform was embraced to some degree by Trudeau during the 2015 campaign, but he rejected it after he was elected.

Trudeau seemed destined to change our system of voting. A parliamentary committee was struck, town hall meetings were held across the country and a national opinion survey was conducted. The feedback Trudeau received convinced him that electoral reform in general — and proportional representation in particular — were too dangerous to investigate further. He shelved indefinitely all discussion of electoral reform and this year said he would not revive the issue unless opposition parties are willing to look at systems other than proportional representation.

That is unlikely to happen. Elected officials do not have the capacity to change the system by which they are elected. To justify his about-face on electoral reform, Trudeau raised the prospects of a fractured and dysfunctional Commons and opportunities for dangerous fringe parties to legitimize their movements by seizing seats in a proportional legislature. Those are not bad reasons to fear proportional representation.

There are no clear and easy solutions to this problem. But it would be nice if someone, somewhere were at least looking for a way to ensure that our legislatures more fairly represent the political inclinations of our citizens.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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