As has been discussed extensively already in the previous thread (the comments to which have been very interesting), the voters of Ontario rejected a proposal to change their provincial electoral system to MMP. It was not even a close call; a change to MMP would have required the support of 60% of voters (and majorities in 60% of the districts). It received the support of only 36.6%.
The support MMP achieved was somewhat less than what the incumbent Liberal party obtained in the parliamentary elections, which was 42%. Yet that 42% has translated into 71 of 107 seats, or more than 66% (one seat less than a two-thirds majority). This represents a four percentage-points decline in popular support for the Liberals. In 2003 the party also won 71 seats, though out of a total then of 103.
The Conservative party also lost votes, going from 34.6% in 2003 to 31.7% now. It will have 26 of the 107 seats (compared to 25 of 103 in 2003). Its leader, John Tory, was defeated in his own district.
The big vote winners in this election were the New Democrats and Greens, especially the latter. The Green party won 8% in this election, about double what it had before. And, while the NDP would be the closest party to the Greens on many programmatic questions, the party’s vote surge did not come at the NDP’s expense, as the NDP votes went from 14.7% to 16.8%. The NDP also gained seats (from 7 to 10).
The Greens, of course, won no seats. They came closest in the district of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, where their candidate won 35% of the vote, but was defeated easily by a Conservative with 46%. (Do any of my readers know anything about this district? I am intrigued by the sort of place where a Green could get more than a third of the vote! Update: We now have such information in the comments!)
As far as the trusty seat-vote equation is concerned, this is a somewhat unremarkable result. Supporters of MMP will point to the huge manufactured majority, or to the Greens vote gain with no seats, and say, see, we told you so! But it is ho hum. Given this number of voters in the province, this number of seats in the legislature, and these vote totals for the various parties, we would expect a party with 42% of the votes to have won around 69 seats. So it won 71. Yawn. We would expect the Conservatives to have won around 34. So, they were a bit under-represented, relative to expectations, but 8 seats not won out of 107 is hardly enough to prevent the main opposition from functioning.
The NDP is, of course, considerably over-represented. Oh sure, it got only 9.3% of the seats on nearly 17% of the vote. But a third party with just over half the votes of the second party “should” win no more than 4 seats. Luckily for the NDP, it is adapted to FPTP in Ontario. It is sufficiently concentrated to win several seats. In fact, the 7% of seats it won in 2003 was its worst showing in many years. It won as many as 14% of the seats as recently as 1995,1 and actually had a majority in 1990, on a mere 37.6% of the votes–talk about being adapted to FPTP! It is the Greens, on the other hand, who are the maladapted party, with a voter base far too dispersed to win any seats.2
Ontario was never a case I considered ripe for electoral reform of the PR variety. In fact, in my paper on the topic of reform in FPTP systems (forthcoming in an Oxford volume edited by AndrÃ© Blais), I state that Ontario is a surprising case of an electoral reform process. Unlike British Columbia (where an STV proposal won 58% in 2005, though it likewise needed 60%) and New Zealand (where voters adopted MMP in a 1993 referendum)–or even PEI 3 and New Brunswick4 –Ontario had no record of significant anomalies to put electoral reform on the policy agenda in the first place. There is none of the “inherently” bad performance that we can expect from FPTP systems, whereby they may seriously under-represent the party that gets the second most votes such that the opposition is decimated, or over-represent it such that it, rather than the leading vote-winner, gets to form the government.
The only “contingent” factor, among those I identify in my academic work on reform in FPTP systems, that was present in Ontario was the coming to power of a party that had long been out of power. Before 2003, the Liberals had spent decades out of power, aside from 1985-90. In 1985 they formed a minority government despite having the second highest seat total, which in turn they had despite having the most votes (in the only somewhat anomalous election in the province). In 1987 they won a very large majority, only to be voted out after one full term. So, it is not surprising that such a party might come to power (as it did in 2003) with a program of “Democratic Renewal” and that it might even want to open up the question of whether to change an electoral system that, if not systematically biased, had not let the party exercise even a share of power (aside from 1985-90) despite its being a party that regularly won 30% or more of the vote.
In other words, the systemic factors predicting a reform process in Ontario were always weak. But there was some partisan-interest factor at work for the Liberals. The problems with partisan-interest factors, of course, are that they (1) may make it harder to convince voters who favor other parties to think reform is also good for them, and (2) the very interest-based factors may shift if the party starts doing better. This is clearly a good time to be a Liberal in Ontario. It is an even better time to be a Liberal under FPTP. And, apparently it is a good time to be an Ontarian: In the absence of systemic factors (whether the electoral system itself, or perceived policy failures and government mandate violations, as during New Zealand’s reform process), there was no general ill feeling towards politics-as-usual to impel voters to vote for reform simply because there is “something wrong.”
The result for the MMP referendum was by no means foreordained. The province has a multiparty system, for which some form of PR would make a lot of sense. Its Citizens Assembly was a model of civic participation, and its 103 members crafted a really sound proposal. But they faced an uphill battle. The result is not a surprise. However, the proposal is out there, and isn’t going to be totally forgotten. If the Greens’ success was not a blip, or if the Liberals are reelected again in 2011 despite losing the party vote (which would be very much within the realm of the possible), or the Conservatives come to power and are perceived to have done so only because of a divided center-left, the supporters of MMP will have their “we told you so!” moment. Maybe somehow the proposal, or something similar, would be dusted off and be put to another vote.
I do not think electoral reform is dead in Ontario. But it is certainly dormant.
- I am using seat percentages here, rather than actual numbers, because the size of Ontario’s parliament has been something of a moving target in recent years. [↩]
- Ontario has a very small parliament, for its population size. By the cube-root law, it “should have” around 200, or double the current size. But even such a big increase would have made little difference in the expected seat balance in this election. Of course, in the real world, it might have made one Green seat possible and might have put the Conservatives closer to their expected share. I would guess that a doubling of the size of the parliament would be an even tougher sell than MMP–which was to include a 20% increase in the size of parliament (or to about where it was as recently as 1995). [↩]
- in P.E.I., a proposal for MMP was defeated in a referendum. Click the link on the province name for discussion. [↩]
- In New Brunswick, a planned referendum on a proposal for MMP has been called off. Click the link on the province name for discussion. [↩]