Saturday, September 17, 2016

Improving politics: less money, more representation

Less than four months ago, I wrote about ways our election systems were improving. Back then, progress at both provincial and federal fronts was good, but I noted some key drawbacks. Amazingly enough, over the course of an exciting summer, both of those problems were addressed and we are now on an even stronger track to improvement.
At the provincial level, reforms to election finance have leapt beyond what was first floated. The current super-high contribution limits exceed $15,000 per party per donor, double that in an election year. $30,000 can buy a lot of political influence! Reforms floated in the spring would have cut that down to $7,750, still too much. But a recently-announced amendment has cut that in half, and further proposes banning MPPs, candidates, and party leaders from political fundraising events. It also includes per-vote funding for parties and for local riding associations, one of the fairest ways to replace our current wealth-based fundraising model. This new funding is set to diminish and be re-evaluated after 5 years, but I expect it will be maintained and even increased, as people see the benefit of politics funded by votes instead of by big cheques from deep-pocked donors.
At the federal level, things are also progressing well. Rather than wait late into their mandate to act on their “last election under first-past-the-post” promise (an error the McGuinty government made a decade ago, dooming Ontario’s electoral reform hopes), the Liberal government has set things in motion rapidly. The last time I wrote on this issue, I was critical of them for addressing our distorted election results by creating a distorted electoral reform committee, with a Liberal majority that could outvote all the other participants, even though Canadian voters gave over 60% of their support to other parties. But a month after I wrote, the government saw the error of their ways and organized the committee to reflect the preferences expressed by your votes last fall, still with more Liberals but with no single party holding a majority. This means whatever the committee recommends will have to pass muster with at least two of the parties in the House, and hopefully have the support of most or all of them. This radically lessens the chance that the Liberals will try to force through a ranked ballot or instant runoff system, a fairly minor tweak that would give them a major advantage in future elections.
After spending the summer consulting with experts on all aspects of voting systems, the committee has entered a phase of wider public consultation with Canadian citizens. Several town halls have been or are being held in our area to discuss electoral reform, with results forwarded to the committee for consideration. You can also make your views known online at the ERRE website. By the end of November the House will receive their report and start drafting a bill to present next year, in time to make changes before the next election in 2019. As democracies around the world have been moving to more proportional systems, and since the significant failings identified in our own system lie largely with results not proportionally reflecting voter preference, it is fairly likely that some kind of proportionality will be added to our current system of local representation.  
All in all, 2016 may well go down in history as the summer when Canada’s and Ontario’s electoral and political finance systems made great strides toward fairness and better representation. After more than a decade of pushing for these kinds of improvements, I couldn’t be happier to see them finally coming to be.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Electoral system improving"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins serves on the boards of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.