Taking It To The Street



What would Ontario and Canada look like if we had a true democracy?

By Susanna Kelley


The great French political thinker and historian Alexis De Tocqueville, having travelled in America widely in the 1830's, worried in his influential treatise Democracy in America that U.S. democracy would produce a tyranny of the majority.

By this he meant that the good of the minority could forever be swamped by the collective will of the majority in the U.S. democratic system of government.

Ignoring those who hold a minority view is one thing in a democracy.

But what if you lived in a land where the majority view is routinely ignored ... where a government with no actual mandate wielded great power?

A land where it used that power, for example, to bring in a bill to secretly, but routinely, spy on its citizens without warrants?

Where a smaller and smaller percentage of people hoarded a larger and larger percentage of wealth over the last 35 years?

Where despite working very hard and using all their intelligence for those same three decades, most citizens were still struggling to pay the bills at the end of each month - yet deemed to be "middle class?"

And where, despite a law protecting the right of freedom of assembly, police in the modern-day state arrested and held over a thousand people in jail for protesting against these inequities ... yet charged almost none of them?

These would be seen as great failings of any country that allowed them, even more so in a western "democracy."

Welcome to Canada.

Certainly, there are many who defend our current system.

The first and loudest are governments in power.

"We have a mandate from the people," they claim.

Others shrug and say, "People get the government they deserve," admonishing voters themselves for being too apathetic to get involved in the political system.

"We voted those guys in, so we can't blame anyone but ourselves," is another view you'll hear.

Except we didn't.

The election results of those same last 35 years - and even earlier - are actually a democratic fraud.

That's because usually, only 40 per cent or even less of those who voted in Canada actually cast their ballot for the governing party.

Due to our contorted, distorted "first-past-the-post" system, parties in Canada are routinely handed 100 per cent of the power on the basis of winning 40 per cent of the votes.

And that's 40 per cent of those who actually voted.

Looked at another way, 60% of those who voted did not wish to see the "winning" party in power. 

And as voter participation in elections continues to decline, our system becomes even less democratic.

In Ontario, the 2011 provincial election delivered a minority government.

The fact that more than one party's support has been needed to pass legislation has made it more democratic than in the past.

Unfortunately, usually Ontario's elections turn out more like the last federal contest, where the Conservatives were handed power on the basis of the support of 39.6 per cent of those voting.

That with a 61.1 per cent voter turnout.

So really, we're looking at 39.6% of the 61.1% who actually voted.

That works out to mean that just 24% of all of Canada's eligible voters - less than a quarter - actually supported the government. 

Yet it wields 100% of the power.

That's a pretty big hole in the argument of those governments that claim they have a mandate from the voters.

And a pretty big hole in the argument of those who say we have a democratic system of government.

What if we had true proportional representation, and not the outdated "first-past-the-post" system, in which whomever wins the most ballots in each riding wins the seat, even if he/she gets less than half of the riding's votes?

A system where seats - and thus, power - were awarded in direct proportion to the percentage each party got?

Where, in such a case, then, legislation would much more frequently need to have the support of more than one party to pass - in other words, a true majority of voters' support?

Governments would more often have to govern by consensus and coalitions.

Throw in a ban on corporate and union donations to political candidates in Ontario (this is already the case federally), replaced by strictly-enforced, equal, publicly-funded spending limits allowed for each candidate, and you'd have a good chance for a very fair system of real democracy.

What would Ontario, and Canada, look like now, if we'd had that over the last 35 years?

Would governments whose candidates did not depend on funding by corporations or unions have allowed the growing gap between the wealthy and the middle class?

Would governments that needed the support of at least two parties, making up a majority of the seats, have allowed the middle class to shrink?

Would we have had numerous free trade agreements (and more coming), which gave free access to our markets yet resulted in millions of lost jobs, especially in Ontario, as companies shut down here and moved production to countries where labour costs are pennies a day (i.e. Bangladesh, Thailand, etc.)

Would we have had governments that are attempting to pass laws allowing them to secretly spy on their own citizens without a warrant?

Or dared to arrest and hold youths for protesting what they see as inequities?


Or perhaps after the ramifications of these policies were fully known, coalition governments would have the power to quickly reverse them.

Because the people demanded it, and parties would not be able to game the system in the next election to stay in power.

It is perhaps this political generation's greatest failure that it has not fixed the current undemocratic governance we continue to allow called  "first-past-the-post elections."

Yes, there are many different versions of proportional representation, and yes, they can be complicated.

But the first-past-the-post system is complicated and undemocratic to boot.

It was 165 years ago - 1848 in fact - that Joseph Howe brought in Canada's first responsible government in Nova Scotia.

It's long past time for an update.

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : October 07, 2013

View all of Susanna Kelley's columns
Taking It To The Street
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