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

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Hull—Aylmer, QC

Thank you, sir.

My colleague will have the other half.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

Excellent. Thank you, sir.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Thanks very much for the presentation as well.

There were more people out, and I see the cost savings. Thirteen cents per voter is pretty impressive, but with that number of spoiled ballots, can you still refer to it as successful?

11:20 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

The decision was clear: it was 63% one way and 37% the other. Would the 111,000, if they had been included on either side of that, have made a difference? They would not whatsoever. To me, the 111,000 suggests that not everybody was there to vote for the referendum. They just clearly weren't. You had two events going on at the same time. I think that's a clear sign that you had two events going on at the same time.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

You did some surveying prior to or post-vote as to whether the people going in were aware of the issue of the referendum question?

11:25 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

Yes. In fact, from the education perspective, we started in the month of June. That was when we were handed the education portfolio. Right away we polled to see how many people understood what was going on and felt comfortable that they could actually make a decision. We ran at about 8%.

Then we worked out our strategy, going forward to educate the public. We put a program together, which we monitored every month. Of course July and August were certainly a challenge, and the numbers didn't really come quickly. By September, we started to see a pretty good move. Our goal was 74% of the population. Why was that? I should probably qualify that. In 2003, in the last general election, we did post-election surveys. We always do that so that we understand the metrics, our success rates, and things of that nature. At that time they said that in our population in Canada right now, a 100% turnout would actually be 74% of your eligible voters, because 26% have no interest and have declared that they will never participate in democracy.

So we set that as our target, 74% of people having enough knowledge. As we worked through, by the time we came out—it was five days before The Globe and Mail ran a story saying that we in fact were sitting somewhere around 68% or 69%--we felt that from a goal perspective we were probably there, and we set that goal fully knowing that we were the optimists, because our last turnout was 56%.

I thought that the people who participated probably participated with good knowledge. If they didn't, there were probably unmarked ballots.

I hope that helps.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

That's good.

Just out of curiosity, has electoral reform been discussed any further, or has it been dealt with?

11:25 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

I believe that there will always be people pushing that agenda. Are they getting less press time today than they were then? Yes, they are.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Okay.

11:25 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

I don't know that the Legislative Assembly is even talking about it at this point.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

Thank you, Mr. Cuzner.

Mr. Lukiwski.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Mr. Hollins, for appearing today.

I'd like to go over for a moment a few of the things that have been raised by Rodger and Marcel on the rejected ballots. You've identified the fact that probably—and I think you're quite correct—the reason there was such a high level of rejected or spoiled ballots is that people were there to vote in the general election and didn't really care about the referendum question. Therefore, they just left the ballots blank.

That obviously lends itself to the larger question as to whether or not referendums should be held in conjunction with general elections. We had a witness yesterday, Professor Boyer, who stated unequivocally—I'm not sure if you saw the testimony or heard it—that he believed referendums should not be held in conjunction with elections. He stated a number of reasons. One example he gave was what happened in 1976 in Saskatchewan. The provincial government, the Progressive Conservative government of the day, brought forward a referendum question on public financing of abortions. His interpretation—and I agree with him, and I was in Saskatchewan at the time—was that he believed the PC government of the day wanted to have this question on the ballot paper as a referendum question in an attempt to get people out to vote against public funding of abortions, and those people would more than likely have voted for the PC Party.

In other words—although he didn't say so in these words—I think the impression was that he felt that political parties might be able to use referendum questions to manipulate public opinion one way or the other politically. He felt that those two events should be separated. I'm wondering first if you have an opinion on that, or if you still believe that referendums should be held in conjunction with elections. I think that's one of the primary questions this committee is going to have to grapple with when we get down to discussing.

I'll be quite honest with you. My original thought process was that for cost savings, there is no reason for me to think otherwise than that the referendum should be held in conjunction with elections. I used to share exactly the same opinion as you just stated this morning. After Professor Boyer's submission yesterday, I'm starting to rethink my position. I think that's a big question that we're all going to have to come up with an answer to, whether referendums should be held in conjunction with general elections. You've stated that you think they should. Based on what I've told you about Professor Boyer's opinion, do you have any reason to doubt that your position is the one you want to stay with?

11:30 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

Because I trust the political entity entirely, I don't know that I would ever suggest that it would take advantage of a situation like that.

I'm not convinced that they should be run at the same time, actually, because I think the waters become muddy; however, I don't know what the risk-reward ratio is. It will cost you more money to get a lesser turnout to get the decision, and it goes back to the political entity's asking, can we really move on a referendum initiative that gets a 35% turnout? In Ontario, that's what you're going to get municipally. If it wins by 50% of that, say, you're going to have a situation in which 20% of the population is going to make a decision on a referendum.

It's really a question of what the will of the political entity is when they go forward with the referendum to ask the question. In the States it's done very differently.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

I have one last question, on expenses, but very quickly. I asked this question to Professor Boyer yesterday. What happens if you have a stand-alone referendum and only have, say, a 15% voter turnout, and the vote is split almost equally between yes and no? Let's say that 51% say yes to whatever the question is, which means that roughly 7.5% of the entire population is casting the winning opinion on a binding referendum.

Do you think there should be minimum turnout levels required before any referendum is binding?

11:30 a.m.

Former Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario, As an Individual

John Hollins

I think that would fly in the face of our right to not participate.