Boosting Diversity In Politics

Adolfo Lujan via Flickr_International Womens Day March in Madrid

Sunday’s Toronto Star asked: “Can Toronto council better reflect the city’s diversity?” The answer is yes. According to the Star, more than half of Toronto’s population comprises visible minorities while only 11% of our councillors reflect that diversity. We’re eager to elect people of colour, of diverse backgrounds and abilities to all levels of office. So why don’t we?

Photo: Adolfo Lujan via Flickr (International Women’s Day Demonstration in Madrid)

A lack of opportunity to run (and win).

Ontario has the lowest number of elected offices per-capita of any Canadian province. It is five-to-ten-times more difficult to get elected municipally or provincially in Toronto than in Atlantic Canada, Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

Fewer options to run for election with a realistic chance of winning is an unnecessary barrier keeping high-quality, diverse candidates out of government.

Toronto city councillors serve ten times as many constituents as their peers across Canada. My ward elects one councillor per 50,000 residents. The cities of Fredericton NB, Courtney BC and Brandon MB elect one municipal representative per 4500, 6700 and 5200 residents.

Provincially, our MPPs represent about 100,000 constituents. Their counterparts in Alberta, BC and Quebec represent half as many. Those in the Maritimes serve just 10,000-20,000 people.

An unfair advantage for established politicians.

Big wards and ridings favour seasoned, established politicians over first-timers. Upwards of 95% of municipal politicians win reelection in Ontario. Good luck unseating any incumbent!

Organizing within a neighbourhood or close cultural group benefits grassroots leaders who invest time and energy in personal relationship building. This is slow organizing and may take years to establish credibility within a vary large constituency.

As electorates grow, the advantage shifts to candidates who can afford professional campaign machinery and outside consultants. In Ontario, candidates are often coached to spend less than five minutes in conversation per potential voter.

A disengaged public.

The Conference Board of Canada gives Ontario’s voter turnout a “C”. Provinces with smaller member-to-constituent ratios are more politically engaged. Nearly 80% of Prince Edward Islanders vote in provincial elections. Similar numbers turnout in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Politicians with manageable constituencies can work closely with the people they represent—or aspire to. They don’t need to rely on fancy polling, analytics or focus groups to understand contentious local issues when a trip to Tim Horton’s will yield a statistically significant sample.

We’re electing less diverse candidates.

Designing ridings to reflect Ontario’s diversity would improve candidate experiences and prompt riding associations to seek out people of colour.

When Queen’s Park prioritized electing First Nations’ candidates, they carved out a new Indigenous-majority riding in Northwestern Ontario with a population of just 32,000—roughly 70,000 fewer people than my downtown riding.

If Ontario were to double the number of MPPs elected—roughly aligned with riding sizes in Alberta, BC and Quebec—we’d be able to carve our similarly diverse ridings in all regions of the province. For instance, splitting Brant into two ridings of about 40,000 each would produce a second Indigenous-majority riding.

Front line services suffer (particularly at the municipal level).

My city councillor routinely talks about working 16-20 hours per day. Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford bragged about a similar work ethic. Yet, studies show an 8-10 hour work day is optimal for productivity and candidate recruitment. Women and parents are particularly turned off by the daunting prospect of an eighty-hour work week.

Doubling Toronto’s total municipal wards would halve each councillor’s workload. Extra time could be spent on “big picture” questions and focusing on our city’s long-term ambitions.

What about the cost?

You get what you pay for in government. The United States is a cautionary example. Elected office holders there typically represent five times as many constituents as those in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom and ten times as many as is the norm in New Zealand.

Municipal and provincial politics should be a training ground for national office holders. Given the barriers diverse candidates face when considering whether to run, this approach to developing future leaders is not working in Ontario.

Investing in future leaders will provide long-term benefits. Smaller electorates require smaller constituency budgets allowing existing expenses to be redistributed. Shorter work days will boost politicians’ productivity and offset human costs with better program outcomes.

Ultimately though…don’t Ontarians deserve the same quality of representation as all other Canadians?

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