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Opinion, Dave Dale: Many options available to engage electorate

Mandatory voting, ‘Direct Democracy’ referendums and ‘Proportional Representation’ could improve both the vote count and democratic results.
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Ontario is humming along after a record-setting provincial election lowered the bar of turnout to 43% of eligible voters. There's got to be a better way where people become more engaged.

It’s interesting that there were 5,000 more eligible voters in the Nipissing Riding for the provincial election June 2, compared to 2018 – yet there were actually 5,000 fewer ballots cast.

In fact, incumbent MPP Vic Fedeli won his race for a fourth term under the Progressive Conservative banner – a notable part of the Tory’s second-straight majority government despite the lowest voter turnout in Ontario history – with 2,000 fewer supporters.

Most remarkable, in my view, was the 4,500 drop in NDP voters with Erika Lougheed garnering 8,665 votes compared to Henri Giroux’s nearly 13,000 in 2018. She can’t even blame a split of the left vote with Liberal candidate Tanya Vrebosch because Fedeli surpassed the 50% mark – add up all the other votes and he still wins.

The drop in turnout at the Nipissing polls was actually lower than the province-wide decrease. In 2018, 59.7% of eligible voters marked their ‘X’ with 35,243 valid votes compared to 2022’s nearly 12% drop to 47.89%. And that’s with 64,018 eligible voters compared to 59,031 four years ago.

Ontario as a whole, however, set a new low bar for turnout at 43% after cresting in 2018 at 58% (highest in 20 years) as the Tories swept out the train-wreck Liberals, who derailed at the end of their 15-year run.

The numbers are not official but useful nonetheless to illustrate the extent of the issue – although people in the ‘Blue’ corner likely don’t see it as a problem as the system is working fairly well for the PCs. When you can win more than 60% of the seats with 40% of the popular vote there’s zero incentive to change anything. The PCs actually took 83 of the 124 seats with 40% of votes while the NDP, Liberals and Green achieved almost 53% of the votes but only have 40 seats between them.

My column last week – written the day before the election – suggested there is more at play than just two feckless opposition parties running fantastical campaigns against each other and to their own detriment. Without a verifiable and trustworthy governance alternative, people voted with their butts and sat on them June 2. Why bother when the cure appears to be worse than the disease?

Of course, with the Tory campaign built on an empty platform and a somewhat non-committal budget plan, combined with a peek-a-boo Doug Ford strategy limiting exposure to debate and questions – status quo was ‘fait accompli.’ As the dust settles and both the Official Opposition New Democrats and barely relevant Liberals seek new leadership, the advocacy for electoral reform has much fuel for its fire. Renewed calls for Proportional Representation are echoing across the land, mostly from those who didn’t achieve glowing first-past-the-post (FPTP) results – although it’s clearly a hard row to hoe. Federal Liberals promised in 2015 to seek electoral reform but flip-flopped on the issue after Justin Trudeau et al gained the helm, which provides all the evidence you need to understand where apathy and political cynicism get nourished.

People would be more inclined to vote (and vote their conscience rather than strategically) if they knew it counted, even if a little bit. Opponents to proportional representation options usually say it would lead to chaos and nothing getting done as numerous parties all jockey for a voice and resources. Naturally, it’s usually people who don’t mind or support the party in power – and benefit from the situation – criticizing such options.

Dick Tafel, a long-time political and social commentator, suggested that part of the solution to improved voter participation is Direct Democracy, where citizen-initiated referendums are put on the ballot so voters have issues lined up for their feedback as well as candidates for representation. I believe that could help as well, although it seems like that might allow an avenue for increased community divisions. As we’ve seen this past winter, a minority of the citizenry can be weaponized to an impactful level. And with each cause comes corporate involvement that can disproportionally alter the course of a province or country, and not necessarily in a good way.

Why not force by penalty of law or other punishment that each eligible voter cast a ballot? It’s a fairly easy fix. Didn’t vote? No tax breaks for you this term.

None of the discussion matters, however, because there’s no appetite among the winners of FPTP to change anything.

At the federal level, the Liberals and New Democrats have a winning formula as long as they play nice together while the Conservative Party of Canada heads down a far-right rabbit hole. Ford’s success utilizing a more centrist sheen for election purposes might give them pause, though.

In Ontario, nothing will change until there is a viable centre-left party – some suggest a New Liberal Democrat combination, or if Ford and the Tories take off their sheep’s clothing and howl into Trumpville, maybe the less-Conservative will be inclined down the road to steal that ground for themselves.

As for the North Bay municipal election in October, it’s looking like it will be an intriguing campaign this fall.

Of course, you’ve already learned that former multi-term deputy mayor Peter Chirico, currently president of the North Bay Chamber of Commerce, intends to run for mayor. Three-term Mayor Al McDonald has promised not to run and there’s no indication Chirico has a viable opponent.

More interesting is that the first to file council candidate nomination papers is Jamie Lowery, the chief executive officer of Cassellholme, the municipal long-term care Home for the Aged.Lowery has proven to be a vocal force to be reckoned with and during the pitched battles over Cassellholme’s redevelopment issues, he gained both ardent supporters and enemies. You can likely count incumbent councillors Mark King and Chris Mayne, both on the Cassellholme board with Mayne as chairman, as Lowery-friendly. And this provides an interesting scenario going forward.It would be especially engaging if 2018 mayoral candidate Gary Gardiner runs for council, although it’s conceivable he could give Chirico a run for his mayoral money. Gardiner would make it four similar-minded council votes (if Lowery gets in with King and Mayne returning).

Being very early in the process, it's a mug's game to start the punditry ... although that doesn't mean we can't try. Let the navel-gazing begin.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca