Last Thursday night I felt very privileged to be in Midland for what we think may have been Ontario’s first public information meeting about the referendum on electoral reform since the Citizens’ Assembly released its report earlier this month.
While the event was organized by Fair Vote Canada member Julie Barker, the intention was to make it primarily an information session that could explore both the merits and disadvantages of voting yes on October 10th to adopt a Mixed Member Proportional voting system. Members from each national political party were invited, with the Liberals, NDP, and Greens ultimately attending the meeting. (To be fair to the Conservative who didn’t show, he’s also the MPP for the riding we were in–Simcoe North–and had to unexpectedly be in Toronto that night on related business.)
I was not there as the Green Party representative. That role was filled by Valerie Powell (a fellow shadow cabinet member). Instead, I wore two different hats. First, I stood in for the area’s representative to the Citizens’ Assembly to explain the process they followed and how the system they’ve recommended, MMP, actually works. Then, after the three political reps had spoken, I put on my Fair Vote Canada hat and gave my non-partisan pitch for voting yes. (I did disclose the fact that I was a member of a political party, but was happy to hear from people afterwards that, until I told them which party, they wouldn’t have guessed based on my comments.)
Interestingly (and by accident), everyone on the panel advocated voting yes, though the Liberal was slightly cautious in doing so, and pointed out some valid concerns about the new system. As the two-hour evening went on, many intelligent and important questions were asked by those in attendance, and many of them were framed so as to try and identify weaknesses or flaws with MMP.
I think the most important thing we all came to understand during this meeting was that MMP isn’t perfect, won’t solve all of our problems, and shouldn’t be held to that standard. Of course there are some slight weaknesses or disadvantages to MMP, just as there are with any voting system. However, no one is more aware of those weaknesses than the Citizens’ Assembly itself. There wasn’t a single question or concern we could think of that they hadn’t already considered. And, as experts on all of the reasons why we wouldn’t want to choose MMP over our current voting system, the CA has still recommended that we do. That, for me, was a significant realization.
I concluded my remarks by saying that, while I do think everyone needs to learn as much as they can about the proposal and make up their own mind, there’s also something to be said for the fact that the Assembly members were our peers, followed an excellent, in-depth, open and transparent process, and they’re recommending to us that voting yes to accept their proposal is what’s best for Ontario and for voters.
Now, you might be thinking, “but hey, you didn’t have a representative from the ‘no’ side there.” This is true. However, as I said before, that wasn’t by design. The fact that all of the political reps present supported MMP was both accidental and telling. As for a so-called “no campaign,” as far as I know there isn’t one yet. If it existed, it would be top-heavy, with professional politicians and well-paid pundits comprising the bulk. At this time, there is no widespread grassroots movement to support voting no. There’s no organization you can call (like you can with Fair Vote Canada) and say, “please send me a ‘no’ speaker.” Again, that’s telling.
At the end of the night, someone in the audience suggested we get a show of hands to test the will of the room. There were about 35 people in attendance (given Midland’s population, the equivalent Toronto turn-out would be over 5000). Of them, only one indicated they were considering voting no, with everyone else raising their hand for yes. Everyone, however, also noted that there’s not nearly enough awareness or discussion of this issue taking place. It’s therefore imperative that we all start talking to our friends and neighbours about its importance. A grassroots, word-of-mouth campaign is the only way we’ll be able to clear the (I would suggest too) high threshold of a 60% yes vote to succeed. It’s a challenge and an uphill battle, but completely possible if we all get to work now.