Looking back on the Ontario election a week later, it just gets murkier

What went wrong? Our problems with democracy run deeper than low voter turnout. There’s also the issues of electoral reform and the split on the left.

Ambiguous conclusions about what went wrong in Ontario’s election: .

The problem is electoral reform.

The PR (proportional representation) people are in full cry. Their villain is first-past-the-post. The Tories got 41 per cent of votes but 67 per cent of seats. And only 18 per cent of all eligible voters voted for them! And a new poll shows a majority want PR.

Yet Canadians have had recent chances to vote in PR and declined. It’s true governments didn’t push the cause and maybe stacked the deck, but they gave the opening and it was up to PR zealots to seize it — which they didn’t, as if they thought the sheer logic of the thing would prevail. Voters have questions, like: under PR, who do I call to fix the pothole on my street? You have to address that stuff.

Nate Cohn writes in the New York Times that “progressive” causes like gun control which poll well often lose in referendums. Maybe those views aren’t deeply embraced, or there’s “acquiescence bias” in “issue polling,” or support “is prone to evaporate in a campaign.” The point is it usually takes an exhausting political effort to change things in the face of what’s ensconced.

For the record, I support PR. I’m just appalled by the sanctimoniousness of some of its supporters, as if they alone have direct access to revealed truth. I also support a ranked ballot, which they tend to demonize. Basically I’d back almost anything that shakes up what we have and could lead to further change.

The problem is the split on the left.

Or among progressives. If so, the answer is a Liberal-NDP merger, with maybe the Greens. In the dim past, that was improbable. The Liberals had a Big Business core, along with a bent for social programs based on their voter appeal. The NDP were true socialists; that’s why their original name was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

All that has melted into air. The proof is they got a stunningly equal vote in Ontario’s election: Liberals at 23.76 per cent, NDP at 23.73 per cent. I find myself staring at those numbers, mesmerized. They are the same party, within 3/100ths of a point. It’s a flip of the coin. In provincial politics in Western Canada, the NDP has already taken over for the Liberals by becoming the new catch-all for vaguely progressive people.

Pollster Nik Nanos found that nearly 60 per cent of voters are at least “somewhat comfortable” with the federal Liberal-NDP “deal.” Nanos, who like most pollsters gets it wrong when he ventures into explaining his numbers (different skill set), said it was due to “election fatigue.” No Nik, they just can’t tell the difference, so why bother?

The problem is low voter turnout.

Forty-three per cent, OOF! This actually upsets me more than ambiguous problems one and two. And I wrote a book saying elections are at best a kind of democracy minus, since they reduce collective decision-making to private ballot-marking. Now I find that’s a bit like decrying distortions wreaked on us by traditional mass media in their heyday, then finding I miss them as they flicker and fade before the might of Google or Amazon.

But even if we had mandatory voting — which is suddenly out there in the polisphere along with PR — it would still be very imperfectly democratic, if we continue with party funding that’s tilted toward the rich and governments that renege on promises once elected. This leads to distrust among voters, which lowers voting totals the way they’ve been declining since the 1930s. BIG SIGH.

An afterthought.

I once spoke with the late anthropologist Sir Jack Goody. He’d done field work in West Africa, and felt western claims to inventing democracy were absurd. It’s a universal impulse, he argued, not necessarily even rooted in elections. Then in what? I asked. Well, he mused, perhaps genuine consultation by leaders with their constituents.

Our problems with democracy run deeper than low voter turnout in Ontario, but our resources also run deeper than Eurocentric panics imply. Democracy won’t perish readily.


This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[