Evidence of meeting #28 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was referendum.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • John Hollins  Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

I'd like to call the meeting to order. We are in public today, again reviewing, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the Referendum Act.

We have a witness today who's going to share knowledge with us about the Referendum Act: Mr. John Hollins, the former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario.

Mr. Hollins, you have an opening statement, and then we'll ask questions of you after that.

11:10 a.m.

John Hollins Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Chair, committee members, and other members of the public, thank you very much for the invitation to appear before your committee today. As mentioned, my name is John Leslie Hollins. I was the Chief Electoral Officer for the Province of Ontario from 2001 to 2008, and to that end conducted Ontario's first referendum in over 80 years at the same time as the 39th provincial general election in 2007.

My comments today will address five subjects: my mandate, the statutory framework of the referendum, election and referendum administration, registered campaign organizations, and the public education program.

On the mandate, in 2007 I was given three mandates in connection with the 2007 referendum. These were to conduct a referendum at the same time as and in general accord with the rules and procedures for the 39th provincial general election; to provide for the registration and associated reporting for registered referendum campaign organizers; and to conduct a program of public education to ensure that electors throughout Ontario received clear and impartial information about the referendum process, the date of the referendum, the referendum question, and the content of the choices in the referendum.

Since there was no legislation in Ontario governing referenda at the provincial level--except the Taxpayer Protection Act, 1999, and it dealt specifically with changes in taxing matters--specific statutory authority was required to enable a referendum on electoral system reform to be held. The statutory framework for the referendum was established through legislation introduced some six months after the publication of the regulation that led to the creation of the citizens assembly in March 2006.

The key provisions of the bill: if the citizens assembly recommended the adoption of a system different from Ontario's current electoral system, a referendum on the recommended system would be held; if required, the referendum would be held in conjunction with the 2007 general election; the referendum question was to be defined by cabinet.

To be considered binding, the recommended electoral system had to be selected in at least 60% of all the valid referendum ballots cast, and in more than 50% of the valid referendum ballots cast in each of at least 64 electoral districts.

The legislation also defined the operational framework for the referendum, essentially paralleling the provisions of the Election Act. It also established the concept of registered referendum campaign organizers and the regulatory framework for referendum campaign finances. The referendum campaign finance rules were later established by Ontario regulation 211/07.

Administering a referendum in parallel with a general election proved to be a positive experience, particularly from an event management viewpoint. Modifications to poll procedures and training, additional ballot production, and adjustments to staffing and support were readily accommodated during preparatory activities and during the event. As a result, when electors went to the polls, they were greeted with an effective and efficient process. Voters received two ballots, one to elect a member of the Legislative Assembly and one to determine the results of the referendum on electoral reform. They were able to cast both ballots in a supportive environment.

Since differences between election and referendum calendars and poll administration procedures were not significant, shared initiatives and budgetary efficiencies were achieved that would not have been possible in a separate referendum event. For example, by pairing voter information mailings and notice of registration cards with referendum education materials, Elections Ontario was able to inform voters about both events at a significantly lower cost than would have been required if they had been separate activities. The successful delivery of the event depended on integrated planning and delivery of many separate but related activities, including staffing, training, communications, procurement, technology, supplies, and logistical support.

The total cost of the 39th provincial general election, referendum, and referendum education program was $94.56 million. To each eligible elector in Ontario, that was $11.14. The administration of the general election itself was $85.6 million, or $9.99 per eligible elector. The add-on referendum administration was $1 million, approximately 13¢ for every elector. The referendum education program was approximately $8 million, a cost of 92¢ per eligible elector in the province of Ontario.

In addition to operational responsibility for the referendum, the Chief Electoral Officer had to ensure that the regulation of referendum advertising was fair, transparent, and accessible to all Ontarians who wanted to participate directly in the referendum debate. Persons or entities known as referendum campaign organizers were required to register with the Chief Electoral Officer if they were spending $500 or more on referendum advertising promoting a particular outcome. Once registered, they were required to report on the contributions they received and the expenses they incurred to support their advertising.

As part of the registration process, the Chief Electoral Officer was required to review and approve the name of each referendum campaign organization to ensure that there would be no confusion with the referendum campaign organizers registered under the act; with a third party for the purpose of the election under the Election Finances Act; or with a candidate, political party, or political organization active anywhere in Canada. The legislation prevented registered parties and their constituency associations from registering as a referendum campaign organizer with the intention of conducting advertising to promote a particular result.

To this end, a guideline was developed to give clear direction to parties, constituency associations, and candidates on the limits to their participation in the referendum debate. To ensure that all potential referendum campaign organizations knew that there were referendum advertising requirements, newspaper advertisements were placed throughout the province.

Each registered referendum campaign organization was required to file a report with Elections Ontario detailing income and referendum advertising campaign expenses together with the name and address of anyone who contributed $100 or more for the purpose of referendum advertising. I might add that the rules were fashioned after the leadership rules in the Elections Finances Act in the province of Ontario. There were no limits on donations or expenditures. A total of ten referendum campaign organizers were registered for the 2007 electoral system referendum. Nine of the ten raised and spent funds. In total they spent $495,942.

The public education mandate was somewhat extensive, and there were key lessons to be learned. The question on the referendum ballot addressed a significant issue in the lives of Ontario electors by asking them to consider the fundamental aspects of the democratic process by which they are governed. Once they became aware of the issue, electors showed that they were interested and concerned, but they also wanted to evaluate the alternatives with experts on the proposed systems. Elections Ontario was not mandated to fill this role and could not develop a framework that would have allowed it to provide forums for the proponents to carry their messages to electors in all areas of the province. The provincial nature of the campaign meant that the opportunities to access prime-time television, for example, for anything beyond paid advertising was severely limited.

A neutral education program was difficult to craft, as would be the case under any circumstances. It had to rely on partners to share in the message delivery, whether for proponents of the status quo, changed choices, or representatives of the media. The former groups did not readily come to the fore during the campaign. In particular, the media was trapped between competing interests, and the election campaign took up most of their time. Post-event surveys of eligible electors confirmed that 50% of eligible electors thought they knew more than enough to vote at referendum time. Of course, this is in direct contrast to the 52.1% turnout that we actually received. It would be remiss of me not to point out the number of rejected, declined, and unmarked ballots during this process.

I will do this on a comparative scale. In Ontario 20,000 ballots were rejected in the 2003 election. In the 2007 election in Ontario there were 19,000. In the referendum there were 28,000. In the 2003 election in Ontario 2,600 ballots were decli ned. In the 2007 election there were 3,400 and in the referendum, 21,000. In unmarked ballots, in 2003 in Ontario there were 7,000. In 2007 there were 10,000. In the referendum, there were 111,000.

I thank you for your time here today, Mr. Chair.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

Thank you.

We'll move to a round of questioning. We're going to start with a seven-minute round but I ask you please to try to keep within that. I've been fairly flexible over the last little while. We have some more business later today and the more time we take here, the less time we'll have for that.

First, I'm not certain how they want to do it, Mr. Proulx or Mr. Cuzner, if they want to talk at the same time or split their time. I think Mr. Proulx is going first.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Hull—Aylmer, QC

We talk at the same time enough during the day; we'll do it separately this morning.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you very much for accepting our invitation and being here this morning, sir.

In 2007 you administered a referendum and a general election at the same time.

11:20 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

That's correct.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Hull—Aylmer, QC

I'm appalled at the numbers you just gave us on rejected, blank ballots, and so on. Besides that, I'm not sure you're going to be able to answer in the sense that this particular referendum was on electoral reform.

11:20 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

That's correct.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Hull—Aylmer, QC

So it's not the same situation as the different referendums we've had. I'm thinking of the Charlottetown referendum or the multitude of referendums we've had in the province of Quebec. What I mean by this is that we have the pro-side and the con-side, or the yes and the no, and then we've got different smaller groups within the yes umbrella and within the no umbrella.

Do you feel it's appropriate to have a general election and a referendum at the same time? I'm thinking more, sir, along the lines of how you would split the expenses in the sense that in your referendum I presume most politicians did not get involved in the debate, probably did not start a campaign saying they were in favour or they were against. I assume it was left fairly neutral.

11:20 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

Completely neutral.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Hull—Aylmer, QC

It was up to the government to advertise and for the public to decide. Right?

11:20 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

Yes. The political entity stayed away from it per se.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Hull—Aylmer, QC

So if you were to run a referendum.... Were you there at the Charlottetown referendum, sir?

11:20 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

No, I was not.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Hull—Aylmer, QC

I see. But if you were to run a similar referendum to Charlottetown, would you be tempted to run it at the same time as a general election? If yes, why? If no, why not?

11:20 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

I'm really of mixed opinions on this for a couple of reasons. Yes, it obviously saves money if that's the purpose, and of course you would do that. Does it cloud the issue? In my experience, I would suggest it did. There were two horses in the race fighting all the way along--the candidates to be noticed and the parties to be noticed. The other side was the education of the electorate to understand the second ballot they were going to receive. We certainly noticed that when I was trying to compete to get media time, to get exposure for the question itself.

So I believe, yes, if you wanted to be single-focused and your primary objective was the referendum to get a clear answer from everybody. Is there a fear to that? Of course there is. I would guess, and it's purely a guess, that the turnout would not have been nearly as good if the referendum had been presented by itself. I think it brought more people out. But then that's the interesting part of our democracy: we get to either vote or not vote, unlike in Australia, where it's mandatory.