For Ontario progressives, the political hangover from last Thursday’s election is just getting started.
After watching Doug Ford’s duck-and-cover campaign deliver an even bigger majority than he had after the 2018 election, there will be some hard questions for Ontario’s NDP and Liberals, as well as the people who run for their respective leaderships. Why did they fail to connect with voters? Who’s to blame for the pitifully low turnout? And what are they going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
The most obvious answer — one that many have already floated — is a merger between the two parties. But that’s a dead letter for any number of reasons, not least the animosity the two sides and their supporters have for each other. It was hard enough for conservatives like Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney to merge the respective factions in their movement, and that’s with a constituency that’s far more amenable to the idea than progressive voters.
If you think herding cats is difficult, try herding two million of them at the same time.
Electoral reform is another popular answer here, and the usual suspects are out in force suggesting it be pursued anew. There’s no question a more representative system would have produced a less lopsided outcome, and it’s reasonable to assume the existence of a more proportional system would have encouraged more people to turn out and vote. As it was, the Ontario election saw just 43 per cent of eligible voters turn out, a huge drop from the 56.7 per cent who voted in 2018 and a figure that shattered the previous low of 48.2 per cent from 2011.
Indeed, as Andrew Coyne noted, the number of people who didn’t vote was more than three times larger than the number who voted for Ford’s PCs.
But implementing electoral reform is far more difficult than it seems to some people. Inevitably, once a party is elected under our current first-past-the-post system, they seem to rediscover its merits. Just ask the federal Liberals, who promised change before the 2015 election and then alligator-armed their way to keeping the status quo — one that has served them well in the last two elections.
That’s why it’s time for Ontario’s progressives to embrace something different: mandatory voting. At a time when the public’s engagement with our democratic process is at a dangerously low ebb, where a small minority of the public can effectively wield total control over our politics, mandatory voting can help restore faith in our political institutions and system. More importantly, it would help the province’s non-conservative majority have a government that more accurately reflects their wishes and values.
Yes, mandatory voting would provoke howls of outrage from freedom-obsessed conservatives like Pierre Poilievre, but that’s as much a point in its favour as it is against. After watching conservatives rail against common-sense things like vaccines and mask mandates, their standing and credibility with the rest of the public are not what they once were.
Any charter-related argument they make about mandatory voting would be even easier to knock down than the ones they tried to use on COVID-19 public health measures. That’s because the only thing that would be mandatory is the act of showing up to vote, and spoiling your ballot would remain a legitimate form of participation (and protest).
Opinion: If you think herding cats is difficult, try herding two million of them at the same time, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Politics #OnElxn #ElectoralReform #MandatoryVoting
More importantly, howls of freedom-focused outrage would be transparently partisan, since conservative politicians and parties do better in elections where people don’t vote. The recent Ford campaign, which seemed like it was trying to depress voter engagement at every available opportunity, is just the latest example of that.
Now it’s time for progressive politicians and parties to turn that table. They can point to Australia, a Commonwealth country with a Westminster parliamentary system and other shared institutions, as proof that mandatory voting can and does work. They should push for the same sort of celebratory approach to democracy that Australia has pioneered, one where elections are held on Saturdays and barbecues offering “democracy sausages” are a regular and welcome sight. And they should dare this country’s conservatives to oppose it.
That won’t be easy. Where electoral reform can be a confusing and wonkish concept for many people, mandatory voting is much simpler. It would also be more difficult for conservatives to litigate against, since it would put them on the wrong side of a whole host of issues and ideas that tend to resonate with the public, from civic duty and democratic freedom to the importance of having your voice heard.
This would be a big swing for Ontario’s two biggest left-leaning parties, which showed time and time again in the recent campaign that they weren’t all that interested in taking these kinds of bold stances. But if they won’t bring forward mandatory voting, their federal siblings in Ottawa should. While the federal Liberals and NDP weren’t able to agree on electoral reform back in 2017, mandatory voting offers an opportunity to salvage some of that promised change and create a democratic system that more accurately reflects the will of all people.
It could also prevent the Conservative Party of Canada from weaponizing low turnout and political disengagement and using it to win the next election. Yes, that might be too partisan or too cynical for some progressive politicians. But they may find themselves on the business end of a campaign like the one that just re-elected Ford if they aren’t willing to let the ends justify the means. And make no mistake: their conservative opponents have no such qualms.