Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform: Putting the Public Back in Public Policy

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform: Putting the Public Back in Public Policy

Article excerpt

On the morning of April 15, 2007 in a non-descript room at Queen's Park, a group of 103 citizens cast their final vote concluding a remarkable journey that began eight months earlier. In doing so, they would set into motion a province-wide referendum--the first since 1921--on the election of provincial politicians. The decision of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform (OCA) will be put to all voters in the provincial election on October 10, 2007. The process that lead to its decision is an extraordinary one both in terms of citizen engagement as well as the capacity of ordinary citizens to reason on matters of complex public policy. This article will attempt to summarize the work of the OCA by examining its three phases and offer some tentative observations about its usefulness as a tool of public policy.

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While they arrived at their destination in April, it was November 18, 2004 when the OCA was launched by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. He announced plans to have a citizens' assembly examine the issue of electoral reform and promised to hold a binding referendum on the assembly's recommendation. From June to November 2005, an all-party Select Committee on Electoral Reform examined the options around electoral reform and recommended the terms of reference for a citizens' assembly including criteria for the assembly to assess electoral systems. These principles (1) would later form the basis of how assembly members understood and analyzed different electoral systems. The assembly was created on March 27, 2006 with the appointment of George Thomson as Chair.

The regulation that established the OCA (Ontario regulation 82/06) did provide some guidance as to the composition of the Assembly. Unlike the British Columbia citizens' assembly, the selection of OCA members would be done by the independent electoral office, in this case Elections Ontario. The regulation stated that there had to be one member from each electoral district and that the assembly had to be comprised of 52 females and 51 males. It also stated that one person had to be an identified aboriginal. Its list of those who could not serve was very clear. Members of the Ontario legislature, or Canadian parliament were unable to be Assembly members as were members of elected members of municipal governments. In an effort to ensure a reasonable level of neutrality, federal and provincially nominated candidates and officers of a constituency association were also prohibited from serving as members.

Members were chosen by Elections Ontario from May to July 2006. Over 120,000 initial letters were sent from Election Ontario's Register of Electors. The register had been recently updated to ensure that the list was as accurate as possible. Of those who received the letter 7,033 responded affirmatively to Elections Ontario's request asking if they would be willing to attend a meeting where a member from the electoral district would be chosen. In essence, they were consenting to be short-listed. From this pool 1,253 were invited to attend one of the twenty nine selection meetings held across the province where one member and two alternates from each electoral district were chosen by random draw. The alternates were to be used only if the members dropped out before the first meeting in September. Since no members dropped out during the entire eight month project no alternates were used. While this provided some good parameters for selecting members, one crucial element was missing. The regulation was silent on whether age would be filtered in addition to gender. There was a concern that if Elections Ontario did not control for age, the make-up of the Assembly might not reflect the age demographics of the province. Elections Ontario consented to control for age in its selection of the 1,253 potential members who were to attend the selection meetings and as the table below indicates the final random selection closely approximated the age demographic of the province. …

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