Municipal Elections Modernization ActApril 11, 2016
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: I’m pleased to rise to speak to Bill 181, the Municipal Elections Modernization Act. I want to start by thanking all the people, organizations and municipalities that shared their thoughts on the Municipal Elections Act review with me and my office. We appreciated everyone who took the time to talk with us and send emails and share copies of their submissions. I also want to thank the ministry for providing the briefing last week.
Municipalities are a responsible level of government. They need a Municipal Elections Act that allows them to hold modern elections in a way that suits their circumstances. We look forward to continuing to work with them as we move forward, to ensure that municipalities, officials and candidates have what they need to run modern, accessible, democratic and effective municipal elections.
I want to acknowledge that there are some positive things in this bill, but there is one single issue that will determine our vote: We cannot support a bill that takes democracy away by allowing a government to change the way they are elected without the requirement to consult the people.
I know there are a number of people here today because of their belief in the democratic system. Many of them are here because they believe that the ranked ballot system is more democratic. I’m pleased to see they are here, because I want to ask them for their support to make this bill even more democratic. I want to ask their support to ensure that the people have a say in the change of their electoral system.
The election doesn’t belong to this government or even the members of the municipal council. It belongs to the people who vote in it, the people who come out every four years to choose the person who represents their values and supports their issues. These people need to have their voice heard if there is to be a change in the system by which their municipal government is elected.
There is a greater responsibility when it comes to changing the electoral system, one that requires that we consult the people not just in a few meetings but in a systematic and measurable way, one which requires that we take the time and make the effort to ensure that if there is change, it is one that is endorsed by the people. As the city of Owen Sound said in their submission, “Municipal elections are the democratic cornerstone of local government.”
Already the provincial government had decided that the two choices municipal councils and the people who vote for them will have are first-past-the-post or ranked ballots. The government may have done some consultation on how to implement ranked ballots, but they didn’t do any consultation on whether it was the best way or whether there’s another system that would be even more democratic.
When this government was first elected, they created a citizens’ assembly to examine all the possible electoral options, but the decision that ranked ballots was the best of the options for municipalities seems to have been made behind closed doors, with no transparency. Now this government wants to allow the electoral system to be changed in municipalities with no consultation at all.
People deserve a referendum before voting on system change. That is true of every level of government. This government used to recognize that. In 2007, when they looked at changing our electoral system, they held a referendum. When they announced the referendum question, the minister responsible for democratic renewal said: “Our democracy belongs to its citizens, and it is the voters of this province that should decide how their representatives should be elected.”
In fact, the Premier was quoted in the Toronto Star in 2014 as saying, “Remember, we’re the party that brought forward the idea of changing the electoral system in Ontario. We had citizens’ assemblies. We had a referendum on that issue.”
But in this bill, there’s no requirement for municipalities to hold a referendum or even to do any public consultation before changing the voting system. When the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing was criticized for this on Twitter, his response was, “Under Municipal Act any municipality can hold a referendum on any issue. Some may choose this route. So be it.”
Democracy needs more protection than “So be it.” That is why we will be putting forward an amendment to require a municipal referendum before a municipality changes their electoral system. This referendum could be a separate vote, or it could be done on the ballot as part of a municipal election. If the people of a municipality want ranked ballots, that will give them the opportunity to voice that.
It may be that changing to a new electoral system would be more democratic, but we can’t allow democracy to be ignored in an effort to change the system. Mr. Speaker, elections are about democracy and ensuring that all people have a say in the government that represents them. Changing the entire electoral system based on the views of only a small portion of that population not only shows disrespect for our democratic system; it is irresponsible.
As Aaron Wudrick of the National Post said in a recent article, “Historical precedent weighs heavily in favour of a referendum, as no government in modern Canadian history has attempted to implement it without one—and electoral reform referenda in Prince Edward Island (2005), British Columbia (2005 and 2009) and Ontario (2007) were all defeated. But not all electoral reform referenda pan out this way. In New Zealand, for example, a 1992 referendum on electoral reform not only won, but won big, with the pro-reform side winning 84% of the vote. Accordingly, reform advocates should not view a referendum as a death sentence for their cause, but as an opportunity to win new converts to the pro-reform side.”
The Toronto Star agreed. In a January editorial, they said, “Referendums on voting change have already been held in three provinces, setting a precedent of sorts. All failed, and some reformers are so hell-bent on dumping first-past-the-post that they are urging the Liberals to be ‘brave’ and move ahead on their own hook. That makes no sense. The lesson of past referendums cannot be that the people are too blind or foolish to see the light; it must be that those who want change have to do a better job of persuasion.”
If ranked ballots is the most democratic electoral system, the people will choose it, but it has to be their choice, not the government’s choice.
For those at home who are not familiar with the ranked ballot system, perhaps we should explain how it works. Instead of just voting for a single candidate, a voter will rank the candidates in order of preference. The votes will be counted and the candidate with the least votes drops off. All ballots that had that candidate as their first choice are then distributed to the candidate that the voters had ranked as their second choice. If no candidate has received over 50% of the vote, the lowest candidate once again drops off and their votes are redistributed to the next choice ranked on the ballot.
There are a lot of questions that aren’t known about how ranked ballot elections would be implemented in Ontario. How many candidates could a voter rank? Are they required to rank all of them? This was the subject of a court challenge to the ranked ballot voting system in San Francisco, but the government is asking us to vote on this bill without knowing which model will be used here or whether it will be up to municipalities to decide.
There are many other questions. Do candidates have to receive certain percentages, say, beyond the first round? If so, how will it be tabulated?
After the repeal of ranked ballot voting in Aspen, Colorado, a report from the Colorado Secretary of State, elections division, stated: “Written comments demonstrated that depending on selection of any specific instant ranked voting tabulation algorithm, the same set of ballots could have resulted in multiple differing answers.”
There are also questions about what the ballot will look like and how voters will be educated on how the system works. We don’t even know whether these decisions will be made by municipalities or by the provincial government.
Mr. Speaker, this bill doesn’t answer any of these questions. What it says is:
“(2) The regulation may provide that a ranked ballot election is authorized for only specified offices on a municipal council.”
The bill goes on to say that regulations may be created on:
“1. Ballots, voting procedures, the counting of votes and recounts.
“2. Powers that the clerk of the municipality may exercise in administering ranked ballot elections.
“3. Information to be made available to the public with respect to the counting of votes in each round.”
That means that the province has the ability to make all of the decisions regarding the electoral system behind closed doors, with no public scrutiny and no transparency.
You will notice in that list I just read, Mr. Speaker, that there’s nothing definitive in there about how it’s going to work, just what needs to be done.
The government has said that they are hoping to have the regulations ready by spring. In fact, during our briefing on this bill, they said, “The intent is to have all the regulations in place as soon as possible after the bill is passed,” so I’m going to ask them to release them before this bill goes to committee. Let’s have the discussion about the ballots, voting procedures, the counting of votes and recounts. Let’s ensure that municipalities who have experience with municipal elections can comment on these regulations when they come to the committee.
Mr. Speaker, there’s another issue in this bill that I’m hoping to hear comments on at committee, and that is the changes to the recounts. Currently, the Municipal Elections Act states that a recount must be done in the same manner as the original count. The only exception to this is section 60, subsection (3), which states, “If the judge who orders a recount under section 58 is of the opinion that the manner in which the original count was conducted caused or contributed to the doubtful result, he or she may, in the order, provide that the recount shall be held in a different manner and specify the manner.”
Under Bill 181, this subsection would not apply to ranked ballot elections. That means that if there’s a problem with the way the original count was done, there’s no ability to change that method of the recount. Perhaps this was done because ranked ballots can be more complicated and take longer to count, so counting done by hand in larger municipalities such as Toronto would be a challenge. I understand that reasoning, Mr. Speaker. However, I’m very concerned that this bill, as written, provides no avenue to recount if there’s a technical problem.
We could have a situation where there’s a glitch with the machine and you have fed in a thousand votes and only 10 register, and you would still have to do the recount using the machines. We need to look at a way to deal with that type of situation. We cannot sacrifice someone’s democratic right to vote because it’s easier, whether it is counting votes or determining the electoral system.
As our leader, the MPP from Simcoe North, said last week, “No government should rush through electoral reform without first putting it to the citizens to decide. The government of the day doesn’t get to change the electoral system, given that they, themselves, are an interested party. I believe if you’re going to change how we have elections … a referendum is necessary.”
Mr. Speaker, changing the method by which people are elected will change the results in some cases, so you cannot have the people who will be benefiting from the change making the decisions without consulting the people. It isn’t democratic and it puts municipal councils in a situation where they are forced into a clear conflict of interest. Putting them in that situation isn’t showing respect for democracy, municipalities or the voters.
As you know, a conflict of interest occurs when a politician is making a decision that could result in a benefit to them. It’s a serious charge. In this case, making the decision to change to the ranked ballot could mean ensuring a municipal politician’s re-election, which also means ensuring their salary. I don’t believe that municipalities want the appearance and I don’t think it’s fair for the province to put them in that position. When the provincial government considered electoral reform, they held a referendum, as did other provinces. Municipalities are no less a responsible level of government.
The government would tell us that this is a change that municipalities want and the people of Toronto requested. In their submissions, Vaughan and Richmond Hill councils asked that public consultations be required before a ranked ballot could be implemented. The Toronto city council motion was even stronger. In October 2015, the city of Toronto council passed a motion which recommended “that the province should not proceed with amendments to the Municipal Elections Act to provide for ranked-choice voting.”
The motion went on to say “that if the province does amend the Municipal Elections Act to provide for ranked-choice voting;
“(a) the use of ranked-choice voting be optional for the city of Toronto; and
“(b) the city of Toronto only be permitted to implement ranked-choice voting after holding public consultations and a referendum….”
Let’s make sure everybody is very clear on what Toronto’s current city council said: They didn’t want the option of ranked ballots, but if the province proceeds with the changes anyway, there should be a requirement for a municipal referendum.
In the 2007 provincial referendum this government had set the support needed at 60% of the votes cast. They reported that it was the same level as the level used in referendums in Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. If we use the same threshold, then according to a recent poll by Mainstreet Research, there isn’t enough support for ranked ballots in Toronto to meet the threshold to win a referendum.
Mr. Speaker, there are some people who have been very vocal about the fact that they believe municipal elections should use ranked ballots, but there are millions who haven’t spoken at all. There are 2.79 million people in the city of Toronto, and we’ve only heard from a small fraction of those people. On electoral reform, everyone should have the opportunity for input. There are a lot of people who don’t make it out to city hall or legislative committees to express their views, people who may not email their councillor or their MPP, but they show up every election to cast their ballot because it is their democratic right and they want a say in the future of their communities. We need to hear from those people.
There are a lot of people who came to this country because they valued our democracy. They studied to take the citizenship test so they could participate in Canada’s democracy. They are working hard to build a life here for their families. They value being able to come out and vote in a free election. Those people deserve a say before we change the electoral system.
As a recent editorial in the Caledon Citizen said, “If we’re going to have electoral reform that we can all live with and embrace, there’s going to have to be a faction that comes up with a workable idea and get it before the voters, through a referendum, complete with explanations as to how it would work, and promotion of the advantages. Opponents would be able to make their own case to the contrary.
“It could be argued that electoral reform is too important to leave up to government.”
The city of Toronto isn’t the only municipality that passed resolutions saying that they do not want ranked ballots. Last July, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing set out a document entitled “Ranked Ballots Would Give More Choice to Municipalities.” In response, a number of municipalities passed motions against ranked ballots, such as the one which stated, “The county of Grey does not support the proposed changes to the municipal electoral system which would provide the option of using ranked ballots during municipal elections.”
The town of Minto passed a resolution around the same time which read, “That the province be advised” that the “town of Minto not support a ranked ballot system for municipal elections in Ontario for the following reasons:
“(1) Issues of splitting the vote, negative campaigning or abandoning a race are generally not problems in rural Ontario;
“(2) ‘One candidate one vote’ councils elected in Ontario have built communities that are the envy of the world, with open, transparent and fair races with very few issues;
“(3) Ranked ballots will be confusing and will increase cost for training candidates, election officials and voters as well as require expense and unnecessary equipment;
“(4) Ranked ballots may encourage political parties to run slates of candidates to attempt to win as many first-, second- and third-place votes so that a party secures the office over an individual.”
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing consultation with municipal clerks and CAOs held in North Bay recommended that municipalities below a certain size not have the option to use ranked ballots. A number of other people have raised concerns about ranked ballots. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson—and, Mr. Speaker, you will know who that is—a former Liberal cabinet minister, said it would “water down” people’s vote.
Hamilton’s manager of elections, Tony Fallis, said last year that if the city adopted a ranked ballot system it would cause “confusion” among electors.
The clerk of the city of Niagara Falls, Clerk Dean Iorfida, said:
“Ranked ballots may work in some jurisdictions but to me in municipal elections, where there is no party affiliation, the first-past-the-post system makes the most sense. With the ranked ballot system, you could have a competitive multi-candidate race where the person with the most first-place votes does not win the seat.”
In fact, according to a research paper from the Minnesota House of Representatives, in 1915 a form of ranked voting was deemed unconstitutional by the Minnesota Supreme Court because it had the effect of giving some voters the weight of more than one vote relative to the other voters in the same election. A judge in San Francisco recently made a similar comment when ruling on a challenge there.
It’s clear from these resolutions and comments that there isn’t universal support for ranked ballots. There may be some communities where people want them and some where they don’t. That’s why we need to ensure that the people are consulted when municipalities are considering a change to the electoral system. A referendum is the only objective and fair way to ensure that the change is supported by the majority of the voters.
During the debate on the Electoral System Referendum Act, which was brought forward by this government, the minister responsible for democratic renewal said, “A decision to change electoral systems should not be taken lightly. Regular elections allowing citizens to choose who will represent them and govern are the foundation of our democracy, and so we have developed a referendum process so that Ontarians can make a choice on the future of the electoral system by which they elect members to this Legislature.” I couldn’t agree with her more.
Holding a referendum is protection for voters. Without that requirement, there’s nothing to stop governments from changing the electoral system to benefit themselves and keep themselves in power. A government that receives more money from a particular group could decide that it’s the only group allowed to donate. They could change the election date to a time when their supporters are more likely to come out and vote, or they could simply extend their term and put off the election. Elections do not belong to the government, at any level; they belong to the people who vote in them, and those people should get a say in how their democracy is run.
Other jurisdictions across Canada and around the world have recognized that. British Columbia has held two referendums, in 2005 and 2009, on the question of whether to change to a single transferable vote electoral system. That is a form of proportional representation in which each constituency elects a group of members based on the percentage of the votes received.
In 2005, Prince Edward Island rejected an electoral reform proposal, with 25 districts voting no in the referendum versus two that voted yes.
London, England, had a referendum in which the people supported the change to an alternative voting system to elect their Lord Mayor. However, in 2011, when the United Kingdom held a referendum on whether the people wanted to change the voting system, more than two thirds of the people voted no.
Often, in the debates about ranked ballots, people point to examples in American cities, where they generally refer to this electoral system as instant runoff voting. What people fail to mention when they cite these examples is that the referendum or ballot initiative on the proposal to change the electoral system was taken to the people before it was implemented. Every one of them had that. San Francisco implemented instant runoff voting in 2004, but only after it passed a ballot measure in March 2002 with 55% of the vote.
In 2004, the people of Berkeley, California, passed a ballot measure to change to instant runoff voting.
In November 2005, Takoma Park, Maryland, passed a referendum or advisory ballot on instant runoff voting before they used it to fill a by-election two years later.
In November 2007, the people of Aspen approved a charter amendment to implement instant runoff voting. After one election, concerns were raised, and the question was again put to the people in November 2010. They voted to repeal the instant runoff voting.
In 2005, 55% of the voters in Burlington, Vermont, voted to support instant runoff voting. Instant runoff voting was used in two elections. On the second election, the person who was in the lead after the first round and the second round ended up losing by 3%. Citizens gathered enough signatures to put the question to the voters on whether they wanted to revert to first-past-the-post. The organizer of the group said, “I was an early supporter of IRV … But I’ve been disappointed in the way it has worked. I think it has proven itself to be a disservice to the voters. I think it’s extremely convoluted and that voters don’t understand how it works.” The people of Burlington voted to go back to a first-past-the-post system.
In November 2006, the people of Oakland, California, approved a ballot measure that would require instant runoff or ranked ballot elections. Oakland is an interesting example of what can happen with ranked ballot elections. In the 2010 election, the candidate who was strongly in first place after the first ballot ended up losing with 49% of the vote. According to reports, after the first ballot, Jean Quan received just 24% of the first-place votes to her main opponent, Don Perata’s, 35%. However, as the other candidates dropped off and their votes were redistributed, Quan ended up with 51% and won the election.
That example raises questions. Who is the more democratic choice, the person who was first choice by 35% of the people and second choice by an additional 14%, or the person who was first choice by 24% of the people, but second choice by 27% of the people? I think that’s a question that only the voters have a right to decide.
The Oakland examples raise questions because one report stated that 10% of the 97,940 people who voted in that election made mistakes that reflected fundamental misunderstanding of the ranked ballots. In a race that had only 2% apart, that is a high enough rate of error that it could have changed who became the mayor.
Despite what some critics say, these examples of referendums on electoral reforms show that there are many that are successful. The fact that some fail and some are successful demonstrates that they work.
Also, I want to show that no voting method is clear-cut. There are judgments on which system is more democratic. No government has a right to make those judgments; the right belongs to the people.
It’s interesting that we often point to American examples of ranked ballots, and yet a study of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries found that—listen to this, Mr. Speaker—the United States actually has the lowest voter turnout of the 14 countries on that list. So ranked ballots, if that’s where they’re doing it the most, are not bringing the people out to vote.
When someone tells me that they don’t vote, very often the reason they give is that they don’t feel that their vote counts. Does anything send that message to people more than changing the entire voting system without even giving the voters a say? In 2003, Elections Canada conducted a study on voter turnout and found that “people are less likely to cast a ballot if they feel they have no influence over government actions, do not feel voting is an essential civic act or do not feel the election is competitive enough to make their votes matter to the outcome, either at the national or the local constituency level.”
If you want to encourage people to vote and participate in democracy, then we need to respect that democracy. Ontario and all of Canada have a number of groups that have formed with the goal of making our democratic system better, and I want to commend them for that. As I acknowledged earlier, there are some here in Queen’s Park today because they believe that a ranked ballot is more democratic. It is one of the great things about our country that democracy belongs to the people and they can participate in it by coming here, speaking at committee hearings, talking to their representatives, signing petitions and, most importantly, voting.
As politicians, we need to respect that. As the group Defend Democracy stated, “Canada’s electoral system is the basis of our democracy. Considering the potential impact, no one government or political party has the authority to fundamentally alter our democratic system. If our system is to be reformed, it is up to the people of Canada to decide directly through a referendum.”
There will be those who criticize the idea of requiring a referendum as too much work or an unnecessary expense, but the reality is that municipalities are already consulting with their voters by putting referendum questions on the ballot. In the last municipal election, the city of Greater Sudbury had three referendum questions on the ballot regarding dates and times that their retail businesses should be allowed to be open. Based on results of those votes, Greater Sudbury voted to repeal existing bylaws relating to hours of retail establishments during the first meeting of the new term of city council on December 9, 2014.
Bill 181 makes changes to the timing of these ballot questions. The deadline will now be March 1 for municipalities to pass a bylaw to include a question on the ballot, and May 1 for the upper-tier municipalities, school boards or the minister to put the question on the ballot.
Mr. Speaker, I don’t believe there’s any reason that we should make it more difficult for municipalities to consult with their people. The government is now proposing that municipalities must have passed a bylaw to put a question on their ballot more than seven months before the election. It can’t be because the clerk needs time to design the ballot, because the minister gets an additional two months before his deadline for putting questions on that same ballot. Does the minister think that he is that much more important than municipalities? Or has he simply failed to look at the fact that municipalities are using these ballot referendum questions effectively to consult with their voters?
The Oshawa council was considering changes to their voting system, so they did the right thing and took the question to the people by putting a referendum question on the ballot in 2014. The question was whether to return to the ward voting system, instead of the city-wide voting. The people voted strongly for the ward system, reversing their decision from the previous referendum on the question. The Oshawa council recognized that it should be up to the people to determine how those representatives were elected. During that same municipal election, the city of Kingston put a referendum question on the ballot to ask whether people wanted a casino. It’s ironic that this government believes in referendums on whether the people of a municipality want a casino, but not referendums on an issue as important as their municipal voting system.
In an interview when she was first elected, the member from Kingston said, “The question of whether there is a casino in Kingston should be left to the citizens of this community to decide. I applaud city council for holding a referendum on the casino issue and allowing Kingstonians to have their voice heard.”
While the lack of public consultation required for changes to the electoral system is what will determine our vote on this bill, it is not the only change that this bill makes.
There are some aspects of this bill that are positive, but there are also some sections that are causing confusion and concern. One of those is the new requirement for municipal candidates to get 25 signatures in order to register. Some people have argued that that’s too easy for people to register as a municipal candidate. They point to the Eglinton–Lawrence ward in Toronto, where the winning councillor received only 17% of the vote because there were 16 candidates on the ballot, splitting the vote. In fact, there were three candidates that received less than 100 votes.
While a requirement for signatures might help address this concern, the way this bill is written makes this requirement ineffective. The candidate is required to collect 25 signatures, each with a declaration that the person is an eligible voter in the municipality, not the ward specifically. So that means, in the case of the Eglinton–Lawrence ward, candidates simply had to get 25 signatures of people from anywhere in Toronto.
But the requirement is actually weaker than that. The way the act is written is, “The clerk is entitled to rely upon the information filed by the candidate….” Mr. Speaker, I’ve been a municipal candidate enough times to know that when you’re bringing your nomination paper, the clerk verifies the signature with the voters list, and if it doesn’t match, you have to get more signatures.
There also seems to be some confusion about the impact of this bill on donations from trade unions and corporations. This may be of some interest to you, Mr. Speaker. It seems that some stakeholders have been given the impression that under this bill, those donations will be banned. Let’s be clear: This bill will give municipalities the ability to pass a bylaw banning donations from trade unions or corporations.
I support giving municipalities more authority to make decisions. We know they are a responsible level of government. What I disagree with is people who try to describe this bill as doing more than it actually does. This bill only gives municipalities the option to prohibit those donations by passing a bylaw. It does not require it. If none of the municipalities choose to pass that bylaw, then the corporations will still be allowed to donate up to $5,000 to candidates in each municipality, which means they could donate more than $22 million across Ontario.
This bill also does not prohibit corporations and trade unions from third-party advertising unless the municipality passes a bylaw preventing these organizations from contributing to campaigns.
Most of the rules applied to third-party advertising look like they’ve been copied from the rules that apply to candidates and campaigns. For instance, the bill contains a strange loophole that allows someone who is not normally a resident to contribute to third-party advertising if their spouse is a registered third party.
Similar to the rules for the candidates, this bill allows contributions to third-party advertisers of $25 or less, with no record of who was making the donation. For organized groups, especially organizations working across the province, this loophole may create an opportunity for misuse.
Copying the rules fails to recognize some of the significant differences between third-party advertisers and candidates. For example, if a candidate fails to file their financial documents after an election, they will now have 30 days in which to pay up, or pay a $500 late filing fee, after which they could then be removed from office and not allowed to register for the next election.
For an individual with a career in politics, removal from office and not being allowed to run in the next election is a very significant penalty. In fact, it’s so significant that when councillors applied to the courts, it was often overturned.
When a Woolwich township councillor—and I expect you would know this one, Mr. Speaker—had been acclaimed, and appeared in court after the last election to appeal the punishment, the judge was actually apologizing to him for his being stuck in this position. Now, we have to look at it: He didn’t actually run an election. He was acclaimed. But you still have to file your election return and he had missed the deadline. He got his seat back.
However, this bill applies the same rules to third-party advertising. It fails to recognize that if an organization isn’t allowed to register as a third party because they failed to file their financial paperwork after the last election, the people behind it can simply create a new organization. It’s one of the areas that we should look at in committee to ensure that the restrictions on third-party advertising are effective, if they’re going to be there.
But we need to ensure that there are controls on third-party advertising not just at the municipal level but at the provincial level. I think the minister spoke to that already. This came up in Municipal Elections Act review submissions. The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said that the discussions on third-party advertising should “consider, in a proportionate way, any provisions currently put in place with regard to the third-party advertising rules applicable for provincial and federal elections.”
On Friday, our leader announced six steps that we want to see to clean up political fundraising in Ontario. That would include all three levels of government. One of those was to put legislative limits on political advertising by third parties. We believe that elections must be fair. Without legislative limits on political advertising by third parties, special-interest groups will continue to make a mockery of the system. In 2014, special interests purchased almost $9 million in political advertising. Groups like Working Families spent millions to influence the outcome of the last few elections.
In his report following the election, Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer stated, “Of the jurisdictions in Canada that regulate third-party advertising, Ontario is the only one where third parties do not face advertising spending or contribution limits. The Chief Electoral Officer believes that this reality could very well produce a situation in which parties and candidates campaign on an uneven playing field.
“All other political entities in the electoral process are subject to spending and contribution limits as well as greater reporting and disclosure requirements. The rules related to third parties are not consistent with how all other political entities are treated and should be strengthened to promote greater transparency.”
We called on the government to address this problem and they ignored it. The member from Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound put forward a bill called An Act to amend the Election Finances Act with respect to third party election advertising, which would have put limits on the third-party advertising. The government, of course, voted it down. Third-party spending limits have been promised at the provincial level before, and we’re still waiting for real action. Now that this government has taken a step to put them in place for municipalities, we need to see them at the provincial level.
Mr. Speaker, I want to acknowledge that there are some positives in the bill, such as addressing corporation and union donations, and I hope that the government will support our amendments to make this bill democratic so that we can support all of the other measures.
One of the other things that is a step in the right direction is shortening the campaign period. Instead of beginning on January 1, under this bill candidates will not be able to file their registration until May 1. While most people agree with shortening the campaign period, there’s been a lot of debate about what the right date is for it to start to ensure that new candidates have the opportunity to meet the voters and that all the candidates have the opportunity to fundraise.
Mr. Speaker, in provincial politics, riding associations have the ability to fundraise throughout the term. But in municipal politics, candidates cannot raise any money until they have registered. To address this, AMO proposed that candidates be allowed to begin fundraising as of January 2 but that the campaign begin on June 1. Instead, the government has set both dates as May 1. I look forward to hearing from municipalities, AMO and other organizations to see whether this is achieving the right balance.
While this bill shortens the campaign period by starting it later, it oddly makes a change that may result in the active campaign being longer. In the past, the cut-off for nominations was the second Friday in September. That meant that people could wait until Labour Day to register, and in some cases until then to finalize their decision to run. The government has moved that date to the fourth Friday in July. That means that instead of the final campaign period being six weeks, it will now be 13 weeks. That’s two weeks longer than the last federal election campaign, which the Premier called unusual, unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
While 13 weeks of advertisements, signs, debates and fundraising may be exhausting for the general public, it has a far bigger impact on municipal employees because they are required to take a leave of absence to run for municipal office. This means municipal employees who choose to run will now have to take 13 weeks away from their jobs. That’s 13 weeks with no pay and, for the municipality, 13 weeks of scrambling to find someone to fill that position. That’s going to convince some good people with municipal knowledge that it isn’t worth the risk of running for office. And it doesn’t just include people working in the township office; it includes all municipal employees, such as firefighters, municipal police, paramedics and many more.
Mr. Speaker, municipal employees need to take a leave of absence beginning in July, but their campaigning is limited because they can’t get the candidates’ voters list until September. Imagine the challenges that will be created for someone running for a school board who needs to identify the people who are voting for the school board they’re running for.
While municipal employees previously had to take a leave of absence for a six-week campaign, the Municipal Elections Act was very clear that for this purpose volunteer firefighters were not municipal employees, which allowed them to continue to serve their community. The bill repeals that section. That means that people who are giving back to their community by serving as a volunteer firefighter are not allowed to volunteer during the 13 weeks of the writ.
Volunteer fire departments are in small communities where there isn’t the tax base or the volume for a full-time professional department. In some of these municipalities, preventing candidates from volunteering will leave the fire department short of people over those three months. But if their neighbour’s house catches on fire, our volunteers are supposed to just watch because they aren’t a firefighter during the three-month campaign. I just don’t believe that’s reasonable to expect. That doesn’t make any sense.
Volunteer firefighters are people who believe in public service and giving back to their community. Aren’t those the types of people we want to encourage to run for municipal council? Is this the first step towards preventing volunteer firefighters from volunteering while they are serving on council?
The lack of consultation with people regarding changes to the electoral system is not the only way this bill shows disrespect for democracy. Section 31 of the bill says: “If, in the opinion of the Lieutenant Governor in Council”—and we know that’s the Premier’s office with the cabinet around the table—“it is necessary or desirable in order to further the purposes of this section and this act, the regulation may vary the operation of any of the following provisions of this act or may provide that any of the following provisions do not apply with respect to a ranked ballot election.” It tells you that they can do anything they want with the ranked ballots. This means that everything we are debating in this Legislature, everything that the public is commenting on in committee, everything we pass in clause-by-clause and in this Legislature can all be overruled by regulation behind closed doors.
Mr. Speaker, the bill lists 10 sections of the bill that can be overruled by regulation, from the rights of candidates and scrutineers to the counting of votes to court orders. Even worse is the final point under the section which allows regulation to overrule “such other provisions of this act as the Lieutenant Governor in Council considers appropriate.” That means the government can overrule every single part of the Municipal Elections Act with regulations written behind closed doors. There’s no requirement for them to consult with the Legislature, municipalities or the people who vote in municipal elections. That doesn’t show respect for democracy, it doesn’t show respect for the legislative process, and it definitely doesn’t show respect for municipalities that took the time to put together submissions on changes needed and that will, given the opportunity, come to committee to tell us what other changes are needed.
We know that this bill is missing details around ranked ballots and the need for a referendum. Let’s look at what else the municipalities requested that’s not addressed in this bill.
A number of municipalities and organizations, including the city of Cambridge, suggested increasing the fee for candidates. This would help to ensure that the people running are serious candidates. In 2014, there were over 40 candidates for mayor of Toronto, and 22 of those candidates received less than 200 votes each.
Last summer, Joanne Chianello of the Ottawa Citizen wrote a column on the municipal election review, and in it she criticized the limited time municipalities had to submit comments, given the importance of the topic. She also put forward some suggestions for municipal elections, including increasing the nomination fee. She said, “More than 120 people registered as ward candidates in the last election. Eight signed up to run for mayor. And while participation in the democratic process is a good thing, the low bar to entry—$100 to run for council, $200 for mayor—did invite many non-serious folks to join the race, adding to the noise of campaign and making it that much harder for some voters to focus on the issues.” Under this bill, the nomination fee is now a personal expense, so any increase would have to be evaluated to ensure that it doesn’t become a barrier to people running for office.
There are a couple of other issues that came up in the municipal elections review that are outside of the Municipal Elections Act. One of them was the timing of the new council to hold inaugural meetings, and I spoke to AMO about that—I’m sure the minister remembers. Numerous groups suggested that the lame-duck period was too long. AMO recommended that the municipalities be given the flexibility to hold the first meeting 18 to 39 days after the election so they would have the freedom to address local circumstances. I know that the government is still conducting municipal legislation review, and I encourage them to address that issue.
One of the other things that we heard after the last municipal election and throughout the Municipal Elections Act review was about the inaccuracy of the voters list. As the municipality of Huron-Kinloss said in their submission, “It has repeatedly been identified by staff and council that the accuracy of the voters list is the biggest challenge to municipal elections.” In fact, MPAC’s election information specialist, Syd Howes, told Hamilton township council that the accuracy of the list was decreasing. In the 2014 election, it was 7% less accurate than four years before. The town of Kawartha Lakes reported that staff made close to 11,000 changes to the list, or 16% of the electorate, where the elector was deceased or had an incorrect mailing address.
A number of municipal officials complained that the province’s review of the Municipal Elections Act was too focused on ranked ballots when, in fact, the issue with the voters list was a much bigger problem for municipal elections. While there have been some steps towards improving the problems with the voters list in this bill, such as allowing the clerk to remove names without a hearing, I don’t believe these changes have solved the problem. I hope that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has taken steps to address this problem and will share those with us. Otherwise, municipalities, once again, will be left to pay the price.
Another thing that municipalities and AMO asked for in this bill was the authority and responsibility for clerks. We support that. However, every time we add a new responsibility and new requirements to report publicly, we need to recognize that there’s a cost to that. As the president of AMO, Gary McNamara, said during their conference last summer, “New requirements come at us almost on a daily basis which can feel like death by a thousand cuts. It starts to add up.” As we add new burdens, we need to review the existing ones to see which are no longer required. You need to look at what requirements are still written for a world where communication was done by registered mail.
In previous debates, I’ve repeatedly asked the minister to review the reporting requirements and remove one for each new burden that they are putting on municipalities. Since they have not taken that step yet, I have filed an order paper question asking the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing for a list of the reporting requirements. I look forward to receiving it so that we can look at the cumulative burden.
For instance, the bill adds a requirement for clerks to review contributions to municipal campaigns to look for people who have donated more than the limit of $750 per candidate or $5,000 combined to all candidates in a municipality. That is a change that was requested. It will help to ensure that municipal elections are fair, but it also adds a significant burden on municipal clerks, and that costs time and money. We need to recognize that municipalities have limited resources, and the province continues to ask them to do more and more with less.
It has only been a week since the bill was introduced and even less since it was available on the legislative website. Many municipalities are still reviewing it and have not had time to have discussions at council. We look forward to hearing from them and stakeholder groups as we move forward.
Already we’ve seen that there are places where the act has addressed what these organizations requested, and there are places where the bill missed the mark. We’re looking forward to this bill going to committee so we can put forward an amendment to require municipal referendums. We also look forward to it so that we can hear from municipalities, AMO, the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers and others who are impacted by this bill.
However, before it goes to committee, we want to ensure that there is a fulsome debate in this Legislature and that municipalities and municipal organizations have the opportunity to fully analyze the bill. Over the last two years, municipalities have been asked for a lot of comments on significant issues. Sometimes they have been asked to comment on multiple issues at the same time and sometimes with short deadlines. That can be a real challenge for municipalities. We heard about that challenge from smaller municipalities with limited resources, but we also heard about it from bigger municipalities across Ontario.
As the clerk of Niagara Falls said last summer, “Area clerks are meeting with ministry officials in early July. Comments are due July 27. Niagara Falls city council is on our summer schedule. We don’t have a meeting between the information session and the deadline for comments.”
In their submission, Richmond Hill asked for a minimum 90-day period once the legislation was introduced for comment and review by municipal council. That was in a submission that they submitted to the ministry last July. I appreciate that the ministry took the time to read and analyze all of the submissions they received, but I just want to make sure that everyone is clear on the timing.
I expect that before we are very far along in this debate, probably sometime this week, the government members will stand up and say that we need to rush the bill through because we’re only two years until the start of the next municipal election and municipalities need time to make changes based on the bill. But they don’t point out that there has been eight months since the public consultation finished and 18 months since the last municipal election. It would be highly unfair for this government to have taken all that time themselves before introducing the bill and then not give municipalities and stakeholder organizations the time to analyze it and put forward their concerns.
The government has had 18 months. So far, we have had seven days. In fact, the government didn’t provide notice to us that they were introducing this bill last Monday until less than two hours before. As of that morning, it wasn’t on their schedule. My point is that the government has taken 18 months and now they look like they want us to rush this legislation through. That isn’t fair to municipalities, to the candidates who will be running in the next municipal election and to the voters who want to have their voices heard. It isn’t fair to the members on the other side of the House who are trying to do their jobs to work with all of these groups to point out flaws in this legislation so they can make it better.
There are a lot of technical amendments to this bill to modernize elections, such as reducing the need for original signatures to allow electronic filing and removing the need for registered mail so that information can be communicated by email. The best people to tell us whether those amendments to the Municipal Elections Act will work are the people who run the elections and have been recent candidates. They’re the people who asked for the changes and they have the experience and knowledge to tell us what will work, what won’t and what isn’t included in this bill that should be modernized.
We also want to ensure that municipalities of different sizes and different regions have different opportunities to talk about the realities of campaigns in their communities. In the last election, the city of Toronto had almost two million eligible voters. That presents some election challenges. During the election, they made over 26,000 corrections to the voters list and added almost 200,000 names. That is more than the number of eligible voters in most municipalities.
Northern communities which cover large areas face a completely different challenge. Communities where people tend to move more frequently face their own challenges with voters lists. We need to hear from all of these municipalities about what in this act works and what needs to be changed. We need to hear where they need more flexibility and where they want clarification. That means we need more time at committee and, before that, we need to give them time to analyze it.
We’ve seen this government try to rush bills through and limit committee hearings, but when it comes to elections and democracy, we can’t afford not to take the time to do it right. We want to work with everyone to make sure that this bill will result in fair, effective and democratic municipal elections. As I said earlier, there is only one way that can happen and only one way that we can support the bill, and that is for this bill to ensure that the voice of the people will be heard by supporting our amendment to require a municipal referendum before allowing changes to the voting system.
Whether it’s the people who are in the galleries here today, the busy parents working on two jobs who may never get to city hall or the people who choose to come to our country because of our democracy, all citizens deserve a say in our electoral system. This bill, as currently written, would make it so the only people who have a say over which electoral system is used are the people who directly benefit from it.
No government should have that power. That is why we will be putting forward an amendment to ensure that decisions about our democratic system are made by the people and why we cannot support this bill unless the government agrees to that amendment.
Mr. Speaker, there’s widespread belief that there should be a referendum before any electoral changes have been made. A poll with Insights West this February found that nearly two thirds, or 65%, of Canadians said that a referendum should definitely or probably be held on any changes to the electoral system.
Mario Canseco, vice-president of public affairs for Insights West, said, “For all the talk about electoral reform that Canadians have been exposed to over the past few months, the only consensus is on the need to hold a referendum on any proposal that is made….”
A petition calling on the federal government to hold a referendum before making electoral system changes has garnered over 14,000 signatures in less than four months.
Matthew P. Harrington, a law professor in Montreal, said: “Canadians have always recognized that some substantial consultative process by which the voters themselves get a say is required for significant electoral reform. No province has sought to make changes in its electoral system without one.”
It is undemocratic when people benefitting from the changes to the electoral system have the sole authority to make the decision on what system is being used.
As I said at the beginning, changes to our electoral system are a greater responsibility. They require a higher standard and a greater consultation than other legislative changes. That has been demonstrated by London, England, by San Francisco, Oakland, Aspen, Minneapolis, Burlington, Berkeley, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island, and even by Ontario in 2007.
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank you for the time and to once again show that we understand our greater responsibility and our duty to the people of this democracy. I wish all the best in the debates thus far, and we hope that we can get that democracy built into the bill before it’s finished.