Fool me twice, a former president of the United States said, you can’t get fooled again. So here we are: another Liberal leader is hoping to take his party from third place to first and promising that the next first-past-the-post election will be the last one. But, you know, no fooling this time. Promise.
Journalists sometimes get criticized for engaging too quickly in cheap cynicism, but at least this once, I need to defend the profession: politicians make it so hard not to sometimes.
It’s difficult to know what else to say of Liberal leader Steven Del Duca’s promise that he’d bring ranked ballots to Ontario’s next general election and resign if he failed to deliver. There are so many things that could intervene between then and now: his party could fail to secure a majority in the legislature, and then he’d be faced with three opposition parties (assuming Green leader Mike Schreiner is re-elected) that, for various reasons, oppose Del Duca’s preferred electoral reform. What then? Even if the Liberals do win a majority, there’s the question of how they’d actually deliver this. Del Duca’s other promises include a citizen’s assembly to investigate other potential reforms to the electoral system. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but how much freedom of investigation will it actually have if the answer has been largely predetermined by campaign promises?
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Which isn’t to say that Del Duca’s specificity is all bad. In one very specific way, it’s good and actually a rejection of part of Justin Trudeau’s playbook: Trudeau won his 2015 majority having made a non-specific promise to end first-past-the-post elections in Canada. The problem: Trudeau was intentionally vague about his own preferred replacement (to maximize his electoral advantage) and unwilling to unilaterally impose his party’s own preferred solution (ranked ballots). Faced with that most fearsome obstacle to reform for a majority government — an inconvenient committee report, gasp — Trudeau opted to let reform die rather than do anything like the hard work of actual parliamentary politics. Del Duca, to his substantially greater credit, has put his cards on the table; voters can choose to endorse his reasonably clear proposal in the hopes that his party would actually implement it this time.
We are already seeing opponents to ranked ballots attack the Liberals for not instead having backed a more proportional system of representation. This is somewhat like criticizing a bus for not being a M1 Abrams tank: Del Duca is saying, clearly, that proportionality is not the outcome he’s aiming for, so he wants to do something entirely different. As he told reporters at Queen’s Park on Monday, he believes ranked ballots can “take some of the poison out” of our elections, because politicians would have to compete for people’s second and third choices instead of simply trying to eke out the thinnest possible electoral advantages by inflaming people’s partisan passions.
Whether ranked ballots could actually do that, whether that’s worth marginalizing smaller parties (as ranked ballots unavoidably do), whether this is all just window dressing that would allow Liberals to implement a system that would work to their benefit — all of that is all absolutely fair ground for debate. So we should, in fact, have a debate about the preferred style of electoral reform and about so many other topics related to the state of Ontario’s democracy. But that shouldn’t happen through a citizen’s assembly that only obsessives will pay attention to years from now or (God forbid) through a referendum campaign. The debate should happen in the coming election, when voters will be most tuned into the political process and can give parties as clear a mandate as possible for reforms they support or oppose.
The health of Ontario’s democracy involves a lot more than simply the style of its elections. We just finished the judicial debate over the province’s municipal elections, but, as I’ve said before, the conversation doesn’t need to stop there. We could debate ways to improve voter turnout, citizen engagement between elections, the transparency of government, police accountability and oversight, and much, much more. If nothing else, the next legislature is going to have to assess how well Ontario’s public-health and emergency laws functioned during this pandemic, and you can’t escape the question of democratic accountability on that topic either.
Putting these debates off until after the election, when parties start to lose all interest in reforming the system that just handed them all this power, is a recipe for another four years of stasis. Better to have the debate now and let the different parties compete to present the most compelling vision of reform (or lack thereof, if that’s what the voters want). Then voters can judge them based on how they well they end up implementing what they promised. Del Duca’s speech this weekend was a good start. In the lead-up to election day, we should unrelentingly demand more details from him and from the other parties.
The alternative is to allow Del Duca to use the shiny bauble of reform only as a prop to beguile voters — and to risk seeing the Liberals use the same excuses they’ve used before to deny change. Our MPPs can do better, but we have to demand better first.