Three of Ontario’s four main parties are promising to change the province’s electoral system, a lofty goal some political science experts say may not come to pass.
The NDP and Greens favour forms of proportional representation, while Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has pledged to step down if his party forms government but doesn’t bring in a preferential ballot system after a year.
Only Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has remained silent on the issue, though he’s indicated that he’s not inclined to overhaul the electoral system.
“We need politicians and leaders to figure out how to collaborate more, to work across party lines, instead of being stuck in the old way of doing things,” Del Duca said at a campaign stop in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Sunday. “Doug Ford might want us to be stuck back there and trying to drag people backwards, but we want to make sure that our political system — our democracy, how we choose our parties and our leaders — is keeping pace with the time.”
But Cristine de Clercy, an associate professor of political science at Western University, said that while electoral reform is a popular topic on the campaign trail, it’s easier to talk about change than actually enact it.
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“If we look at the history of electoral reform across the last 20 years in Canada at the provincial level, the evidence is not positive for the likelihood that we will achieve electoral reform even within the next 20 years,” she said.
British Columbia has held several referenda on the issue, but de Clercy noted proposals for change have not borne fruit.
The federal Liberal government, too, had promised electoral reform and failed to deliver.
Justin Trudeau ran on the pledge in 2015, saying that the federal election held that year would be the last to use the first-past-the-post method, a pledge he would ultimately renege on.
Under the system, voters pick one candidate in their riding and the person with the most votes wins. The successful candidate doesn’t need to win a majority of votes to take the riding.
Ford’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on electoral reform, but de Clercy said there are good reasons to stick with the first-past-the-post system.
“Ontario has a competitive multiparty system,” she said. “If we brought in electoral reform that looked much more like pure proportional representation, it would be very unlikely that we would have any majority governments going forward. So we would be perpetually in a state of minority government, which is inherently unstable because at any point the coalitions can crumble, and we’re back to the polls.”
She said it also makes sense for Ford to hesitate on electoral reform given the nature of his party.
“The Conservative Party ideologically tends to be the party of tradition in Canadian politics,” she noted.
The three other parties have said the current system just doesn’t pass muster.
Andrea Horwath’s NDP are in favour of a mixed member proportional voting system, which tries to lend some of the stability of the first-past-the-post system to a fully proportional government.
Under the NDP’s proposed system, some legislators would be elected in local districts and others would be elected for the whole province from party lists.
The system was designed by the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, which a previous Liberal government established in 2006.
“It’s the people of Ontario really, in the constituency assembly, that recommended the mixed member proportional system, and that’s why we embraced it,” Horwath said Saturday.
But when the proposal was brought to a referendum in the 2007 election, the province voted against it.
The Green Party, meanwhile, prefers a fully proportional system but suggests in its platform that it would create a “diverse, randomly selected” citizens assembly, this time with a mandate to create binding recommendations.
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