Ontario Citizens Assembly and due process for future assemblies.

On 18 february 2007, the Ontario Citizens Assembly voted by 80% for a Mixed Member Proportional system. Another 6% supported the weaker Parallel version of this system. 3% supported a party proportional List system. The MMP system is made up partly of a party proportional vote for List members and partly single members as under the existing First Past the Post system.
Only 8% supported the Single Transferable Vote, which uses a proportional count of preference votes, and 3% supported the Alternative Vote, which uses a majority count of preference votes.

The Assembly next goes on to design their favored form of MMP and that will be put to another vote against the current FPTP system. There is no doubt that MMP will win that vote, given that proportionality was the most important single issue to Assembly members from the out-set. It was also by far the most supported system from the thousand or so submissions to the Assembly web-site.

In a democracy, people have the right to make mistakes. And I have no problem with any decision properly arrived at - reasonably properly. It is not the decision I question, tho I think it is wrong, but the way that decision was arrived at. So, I would like to present some evidence of lack of due process to the Ontario Citizens Assembly. The main import of this is for how any future Citizens Assemblies may be run, on electoral reform or any other issue.

The main value of the Ontario CA process has been as a warning on fair play. The warnings are as follows:

1. Political Interference.

To top

The Ontario Assembly was supposed to be a Citizens Assembly but the politicians couldnt let go of it. They had to be in first with a Select Committee on electoral reform representing Ontario's three main parties. As if we were in any danger of forgetting them and their needs. Their report was criticised for bias towards MMP and against STV. See Wikipedia: Citizens Assembly on electoral reform (Ontario).

Moreover, the SC insisted on lumbering the CA with a directive of 8 principles, so-called. This rag-bag, of relevance and irrelevance, included vastly vague themes like "effective government," which even the committee virtually admitted was a conundrum. There was no particular merit in the directive. Anyone could have made up their own, just as good or bad. It seems the directive was made simply for the sake of directing. It would not do to let the assembly start thinking for itself on principles, as the British Columbia CA was left to do.

Also in BC, the politicians kept away from the CA. But in Ontario, from the beginning, the CA was lectured by representatives of the three main parties. I saw a report of some other VIP also giving a talk. I dont know how many such VIP visits there were. But I dont see why powerful, wealthy or influential people, who already have their own platforms, should be given star treatment at what is supposed to be a citizens assembly. A citizens assembly should give no more access to big-wigs than any other citizens.

However, the British Columbia government was responsible for one gross interference in the outcome, with the double sixty per cent threshold for a referendum. Ontario CA were rudely surprised in the middle of their endeavors to find Ontario's government had copied this dodge. Future citizens assemblies will have to have a guarantee from their governments that they do not make up the rules as they go along. No competant lawyer would allow a private contract to be drawn up in that unprofessional manner. All conditions will have to be settled before the assembly is called, not during or after it.

Then again, the BC government did not make a precedent for the Ontario government to come up with, what I call, the official line on elections. For instance, the Ontario government tagged the official line onto the announcement of the double threshold. In so many words, they said that all voting systems had legitimate purposes and you just chose the one with the advantages that the locals favored.

But this is only an opinion. It was not a demonstrated truth, or even a demonstrable truth. There was no reason why the Citizens Assembly should pay any particular heed to it, over and above any other opinion. The government was just using or abusing its authority to impose an official line, treating the assembly like any parliament that is down-trodden by its executive.

2. Compliant, unrepresentative and inaccurate briefing.

To top

According to the CA Secretariat press release, international experts held views that coincided with the official line. Namely, that all voting systems had their advantages and disadvantages and the CA had to trade these off against each other, paying attention to the public's priorities. On this information, both the politicians and the academics were agreed that there was no right answer to this problem.

My submission called this general academic advice skeptical. Skepticism implies you are denying whether there is such a thing, for instance, as truth. It might be more accurate to describe the official position not so much skeptical as benighted, since the very notion of right and wrong was banished from the whole briefing. Benighted, in the sense of lost in moral and intellectual darkness. Voting methods were reduced to a fashion parade for the province. This does not properly represent the history of electoral reform and research.
(Some STV submissions are mentioned at the end of this page.)

The Ontario official briefing focused on greater or lesser proportionality according to how it advantaged small or big parties. Even STV was treated in this particular way, tho its proportionality serves all groups, with social attributes that voters significantly prefer. You could have been forgiven for believing that STV's proportional representation was incidental to its also providing proportional partisanship. The briefing re-inforced the popular fallacy that proportional representation means implicitly proportions of seats for votes to the parties.

So, it is perhaps explicable in terms of their briefing why the Citizens Assembly chose proportional voting for the parties as a first principle when they met in three groups for the 18 february vote on an alternative voting system.

The assembly was more likely to take notice of the professionals' advice, who have more status than the outsiders sending in submissions. Moreover, the experts were picked for being able to get on with people. Not your Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger, then. The experts had the advantage of being able to bond with members and be able to offer any assistance, on the spot. Who then needs to make e-mail enquiries to some strangers sending in submissions?

There was an occasionly irksome and by turns laughable tendency, in one or two cases, for gushing gratitude from the enthusiasm of undiscerning youth, for these wizards of electioneering lore to share their amazing expertise with the vulgar.

If anyone reads this page, they may wonder: How dare he criticise these academics just doing their job?
Well, there is nothing new here on the role of social scientists. For fifty years, the political scientists, for example, have studiously contributed less than one could believe possible to democratic progress. Some of them have been eruditely denying there is such a thing.

Mind you, David Farrell's brief showed that for the few countries that use STV in political elections, the number of political scientists, who favor it, is disproportionately large. Tho, most of them favor MMP, the more common model, if you ignore their unlimited variety.

The BC CA was criticised because their main advisor was supposed to be partial to STV. The chairman of Ontario CA sought to neutralise this criticism by appointing a professor with no published record on electoral systems. But this was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

What is the point of having an expert advisor who is not an expert in the relevant problem? Neither he, nor his panel of supporting experts, bothered, for instance, to give the up-to-date version of the Droop quota, for STV. That is supposing they knew it. It's a minor point in itself but it casts doubt on the value of their authority. Ironicly, the official monopolists on truth denied there was such a thing as true voting system. Or rather they didnt mention the very idea of right or wrong lest it give anyone ideas to go look for it, electorally.

It might be more honest to have protagonists for the various view-points and let the assembly see them slug it out between each other. That is with independent submissions allowed to take a full and unhurried part in the deliberations.

The Ontario CA omitted the BC CA invitation of seven selected outsiders for a final debate. MMP supporters claimed STV was too well represented in this line-up. While not necessarily agreeing with this, I do think that any future assemblies should have a series of such court-room style debates, in which the usual voting systems are all as well represented in argument as their protaganists can make them. This was one more way of getting at the truth that the assembly procedure did not avail itself of. Its absence contributed to the down-graded status of external submissions, mostly put on-line perfunctorily before the CA vote on alternate systems.

The local consultation meetings provided some scope for debate but these were only local and often poorly attended. I gather (from one written submission already mentioned in my own submission) they could be attended mainly by a group of people all in one frame of mind. Politicians were sometimes present and predictably they favored that politicians' PR, the doubly safe-seat system, Mixed Member Proportional.

Court room proceedings can be reduced to Dickensian farces. But provided abuses are guarded against, they could provide insight otherwise lacking from official briefings. I remember long ago, a British radio broadcast called: You the Jury. The audience listened to a court case on proportional representation. One of the witnesses for STV may have used it but not been accustomed to debates about it. He had been picked because he was a prominent worthy, who was indeed an estimable man, to bolster support from the center left.

The prosecution used the old lawyer's trick of intimidating a witness. And he was an old lawyer and Tory MP. He said to the witness ominously, words to the effect: Do you know the wrong things this system (meaning STV) can lead to?

The witness was suddenly unsure of himself and feebly took the escape route that no system was perfect. And the prosecution won his case against STV without saying a single thing against it. Moral: call specialist witnesses who are specialists and can think on their feet.

The defense for PR refused to recommend one system. They had another witness for the Additional/Mixed Member System. This indecisiveness weakened their case and their audience support had slightly fallen back by the end of the program. By the way, this points a moral to the whole Fair Votes campaign in Britain, the original of the Fair Votes campaigns in English-speaking countries.

And Canada's Fair Votes campaign appears to be laboring under this ambiguity also. They cannot agree on the best PR system to replace First Past The Post. But the reason for this, in Britain and presumably in Canada, was not because the problem could not be solved democraticly. Apparently, other motives were at work. And the public are given pause to wonder whether Britain's or Canada's reform campaigns, where they are ambiguous, are all they are democraticly cracked up to be.

3. Assimilation time denied for submissions; other pre-emptive scheduling.

To top

There was complaint, including from Halton Hills Mayor Rick Bonnette, at one CA consultation meeting, about there not being time to inform and educate the public enough for a referendum on electoral reform. Lisa Tallyn, writing for The Georgetown Independent on 6 december 2006, cited another audience member as saying: the citizens assembly was set up to fail.

What I'm suggesting here is that the Citizens Assembly itself didnt have time to do its job properly.

British Columbia CA allowed eight to nine months for submissions to be entered, allowing for over-run. This amounted to no more than three and a half months for Ontario CA. Even this conceals the complete inadequacy of the time allowed for the Citizens Assembly to assimilate the independent evidence.

I am well aware of this, because I followed the six week-ends of briefings to the CA. There was a time lag before the briefings were put on-line. The last was not put up till just before Christmas. It was not humanly possible to post a submission, that comprehended the complete briefing course, before about 23 december 2006, my posting date. Then, of course, everyone went on holiday and my submission did not go on-line till early january.

My submission was number 1207. For some unknown reason, the submissions started at 1001. There were also serial submitters, so I was considerably less than the two-hundredth person to make a submission. In all, there were about one thousand submissions. That means that the great bulk of submissions, eight hundred plus or over eighty per cent, were only available to the assembly, for reading and debating, from january up to mid february, as they were still being put up.

Then, incredibly, the Ontario Citizens Assembly makes its crucial voting decision on 18 february 2007. No way could they have possibly assimilated that mass of independent evidence in so short a time. Remember, that's scarcely a week or two after the consultation closed. That just gives the assembly a few week-ends to meet and discuss what theyve found. There's over a hundred assembly members. It takes time for all those people to circulate and for any independent views to make headway against the conventional wisdom. As H G Wells said: "New ideas do not come suddenly. Wars do."

According to comments posted on research by Andre Blais, it took three months for 22% of BC CA to prefer STV; seven months for 28%; before the final 72% after a year. (Actually the BC CA vote was 80% for STV versus MMP.)
The Ontario CA had scarcely a month to come to terms with STV. So, as commentator "Olaf" said, the Ontario 8% support for STV is consistent with the BC CA learning curve.

The assembly schedule also did not allow the members the proverbial: look before you leap. The vote on alternative systems was taken before they were allowed to design the system they were choosing. The members didnt even know what they were voting for.

The BC assembly found that it had to decide between considerably more options for MMP than for STV. These options cannot be decided on principle. In fact, the BC CA gave up deciding what to do with all the ad hoc questions involved with MMP. They just went onto the vote for alternative systems, and promised themselves theyd come back later, if MMP won.

It is hard to believe that the Ontario assembly schedulers didnt know what they were doing when they so arranged that members werent allowed a taste of their own medicine before voting for it. But it's incompetant procedure, anyway, that the assembly should choose a system before trying it.

Given such pre-emptive scheduling and the government's effective imposition of a parliamentary guillotine on time to consult independent submissions, was there anything the assembly could realisticly have done?

There was one out-standing issue that cropped up in the submissions from the beginning. This was "strategic voting," as Canadians call it, or tactical voting, as it is known in Britain. I cited a few examples, in my submission, tho it came before the bulk of them. Time after time, writers complained of their being denied a real choice, if they didnt want to waste their vote.

Alright, this issue may have been second in occurence to the demand for proportional representation. But it was still probably the second most frequently cited grumble. You have to remember that the demand for PR was organised mainly by smaller parties and pressure groups. There was a band-wagon effect, making it the conventional wisdom of the day. But the "strategic voting" complaint came more from the personal experience of individual voters. Some commented on a long life time of voting frustration. Admittedly, it is true that some of them thought some form of PR the answer and maybe MMP, at that.

But the facts are otherwise. As a submission, by Andrew Jehan, on the need for ranked ballots, said, MMP leaves strategic voting unsolved. The single members are elected as before. And even with a second X-vote for a party list, the voter still has to consider whether the vote for his favorite party will be wasted, if it cannot pass the threshold. Reasons for this may be that the party has just started up and is not wealthy enough to generate the publicity to get widely known and supported, however admirable the causes espoused.

Of course, Ontario Citizens Assembly members are likely to resent any suggestion that they have been manipulated, firstly by an official line of electoral skepticism, by politicians apparently largely endorsed by academics. And that they have not had the time to take in independent dissent from the popular fallacy that PR means seats in proportion to votes for parties.

Well, I have been at their address. I still remember as a young man how I parroted all the conventional wisdoms of the day as if they were my very own views on voting method. Nevertheless, every adult has the right to be treated as one. And allowing for all the handicaps placed in their way, even if they dont themselves recognise them, it still has to be asked: what exactly has the Ontario Citizens Assembly done for the citizens of Ontario after five months of shenanigans before the crucial vote, on alternative systems, was taken?

As the song says, "What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no, not just for some but for everyone." Well, the assembly have acted as brokers for small party incumbency with MMP. But they did nothing to remove strategic voting. They did nothing for everyone. Not everyone wants to be partisan man. Representative democracy is not an out-moded concept.

British Columbia's Citizens Assembly has resonated round the world. Tho there may not be another one in Canada, after Ontario, I feel sufficiently sure that there will be others.

However, the BC and Ontario experiences afford two good examples of HOW TO DO IT and, as Dickens would say, HOW NOT TO DO IT.

There must be enough time for the assembly to learn and deliberate: one year. Anything less is not enough for a major constitutional controversy, like voting reform, the very basis of government power. This is a perfectly reasonable demand. When you go on a qualifying course, it is normal to expect anything from one to three years (or even longer in some cases). When a Royal Commission is called, it generally takes at least one year to gather evidence, call witnesses, and prepare its report.

Britain's Royal Commission on the Constitution took three years to produce the Kilbrandon report. (I think it was three and a half years, in which case it took three years longer than the Ontario Citizens Assembly.) They mainly examined devolution but, against their terms of reference, they unanimously insisted on the need for STV in Britain's devolved national or regional governments. So, had BC CA stayed on another two years plus, it is unlikely they would have changed their minds about STV. In any case, a number of their alumni continue their work.

Moreover, the personnel of government enquiries normally include specialists in the field. But a Citizens Assembly is made up of the general public. So, you are bound to expect the learning curve to be slow to rise at first. That is the typical pattern of learning, slowly gathering pace. Like a jig-saw puzzle, you dont know where all the pieces go at first but it gradually gets more obvious. The Ontario learning curve was cut off before it had time to gain the main benefits of the exercise.

Some STV submissions to the Ontario Citizens Assembly.

To top

These references are not complete. Apologies to those Ive missed out. On the other hand, I'm not sure that all those mentioned here would be pleased to be associated with my views. And I dont claim to represent their views.

Ive already discussed the lack of even a hint of science in the briefing, in my submission 1207, which is now also on this site, as: STV elections, not single member exclusions nor list appointments. Ontario CA briefing inaccuracies, some very simple and obvious, all misleading, were given in appendix 1. There was supposed to be a panel - a barrage, even - of experts to check for mistakes. All I can say is, on their mistake-spotting, they were not value for their professional services.
My answer, to the position of "value-driven electoral reform," is given on my page: The moral sciences as the ethics of scientific method.

In the first of two submissions, I was amused at the naivety, if he'll pardon me for saying so, of a Simon Fraser University physics professor, John Huntley, who studied STV after BC CA chose it. He says he very quickly found that STV was so obviously the best choice that he expected everyone to vote for it. Then he found out otherwise and put much effort into promoting it. His second submission, a joint one, might eventually have had some effect, had it been given ample time to filter thru into the Ontario CA consciousness.

Ryan Fugger's STV: Frequently Asked Questions, and Douglas Woodard's PR-STV are two substantial and admirably lucid introductions. James Gilmour's submission and that of FairShare, the Scottish electoral reform campaign, he belongs to, is essential reading from a real expert. Gilmour has been working on the introduction of STV for Scottish local elections in 2007. Gilmour's account is searching but accessible. Ken Ritchie's submission for the Electoral Reform Society, is from his British counter-part. Bogey Musidlak, president of the Australian Proportional Representation Society gave the experience of the country with the earliest use of STV in political elections.

Craig Henschel was one of the former British Columbia Citizens Assembly members, whose submissions knowledgably communicated their enthusiasm for STV.

There was a fairly brief but out-standing submission, comparing STV to MMP, from someone too modest to give their name to their document: Electoral Reform in Ontario - The need for change/ options for change. Despite calling STV, the Standard Transferable Vote, Reva Landau gives another fairly brief but good submission.

The technical excellence of Jamie Deith's submission, however, is for those who've come to readily understand STV. Even Janice Murray, bless her, of the Marxist-Leninist party of Canada has a kind word to say about not ignoring the BC CA decision for STV, because of "the negative portrayal of it in the media and by various politicians."

Richard Lung.
26 february 2007.

To top

To home page