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time to represent! Ontario's referendum

by Michelle Dagnino | October 1, 2007

On October 10, 2007, Ontarians will have the opportunity to support women’s fair representation by voting in a referendum on Mixed Member Proportional, or MMP.

The government has set a high bar for the referendum to succeed – 60% of the votes in 60% of ridings must be cast in favour of the new system. This favours the status quo – and there hasn’t been enough done to educate the public about the upcoming referendum.

What you can do (besides voting for MMP on October 10 if you live in Ontario!) is to tell everyone you know about the referendum – and why a vote for MMP is a vote for the fairer representation of women.

Admittedly, there are flaws and trade-offs with every voting system. The system we (Canada and all the provinces) use now, however, is particularly ill-suited for the 21st century, and is a contributing factor behind women's continued lack of representation in the Legislature.

Our current electoral system is known as First Past the Post (FPTP) or Single Member Plurality (SMP), which basically means that whoever gets the most votes in a given riding wins that riding, even if they haven't received the majority of votes.

In other words, they win even if the majority of people voted for other candidates!

As this is applied on a provincial or national level, the result is that a party can win only 40% of the vote, but get 60% of the seats, and 100% of the power. What’s worse, if you happen to live in a riding where your preferred candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning, your vote doesn’t count towards electing anyone.

And, in a democracy, every vote should count.

Here are some federal examples of the strange distortions that our voting system has created:

  • In 1984, the Progressive Conservatives won 50% of the votes but gained nearly 75% of the federal seats
  • In 2004, more than 500,000 Green voters failed to elect a single Member of Parliament anywhere in Canada, while fewer than 500,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada alone elected 22 Liberal MPs
  • In 1993, the newly formed Bloc Quebecois came in fourth in the popular vote, but formed the Official Opposition by gaining more seats than the second-place Reform Party and third-place Tories
  • In 2000's national election, 2.3-million Liberal voters in Ontario elected 100 Liberal MPs while the other 2.2-million Ontario voters elect only 3 MPs from other parties

The biggest winners under our current system are regional parties like the Bloc, while the biggest losers are women and minorities.

Canada stands just 48th in the world with respect to the percentage of women MPs in the House of Commons (just under 21%). Canada's standing is unlikely to improve in the near future, as the number of women running in elections has declined in recent years.

Many of the decisions that impact women disproportionately – such as child care, home care, and reproductive choice – currently lie largely in the hands of men. We need to increase the number of women in the legislature to have more fair and representative social and economic policies.

MMP will assist in increasing the number of women, minorities and Aboriginal persons in Ontario’s provincial legislature

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is a “best of both worlds” voting system.

  • It will allow voters in Ontario to keep the parts of our current system that we like (for example, that our MPPs represent our specific geographic area)
  • It has some extra features, the most notable of which is proportional representation. The MMP system is used successfully in New Zealand, Germany, Scotland and Wales, resulting in stable coalition governments in which more women play partner roles.

This referendum will be closely watched across the country, as a vote in favour of MMP in Ontario could revitalize efforts to achieve some form of proportional representation in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec and British Columbia.

A rare referendum for change and how it came about

After studying different proportional representation systems, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform (103 Ontarians randomly chosen by Elections Ontario) recommended MMP as a more fair electoral system for Ontarians.

A majority of MPPs (90) would still be elected to represent ridings, and a minority (39) would be elected by proportional representation.

Each voter would cast two votes:

  • one for a local candidate to represent their riding and
  • one for a party to represent their interests.

Each party would receive a number of seats that is proportional to the percentage of party votes. These would include the local seats won by members of their party in specific ridings. The rest would be allocated to legislators who would not represent specific ridings but rather the party as a whole. These legislators would be drawn from the top of a ranked list of candidates chosen by each party.

Since parties would be required to make their lists public, no modern party would dare present a list that does not include a fair gender balance and a fair proportion of visible minority candidates. Under MMP, the composition of the legislature and the government likely would more fairly represent the actual makeup of the population.

There are currently only 26 women in the 103-seat provincial legislature (25%) and only 8 MPPs who are from visible minority groups. Both figures are half what they should be based on provincial demographics.

With MMP, we would end up with a legislature that more closely reflects the diverse makeup of the province, and more accurately reflects the will of the electorate. By its nature, MMP also forces parties to be more cooperative, which leads to stable coalition governments (as opposed to the negative and combative minority governments our current system has been giving us at the federal level).

Author Michelle Dagnino is the Equal Voice in Politics campaign director.

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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