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Where Is Canada Headed Next On Electoral Reform? The Liberals have agreed to change the makeup of the committee that is looking into electoral reform. Some pundits believe that means Justin Trudeau's preferred option of ranked ballot is less likely now. What will the changes actually mean for the way we elect governments? Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin debate that in the ONW Salon.


John Capobianco:

The electoral reform debate has taken an interesting turn these last few days.

The Liberals promised during the election campaign that they would change the way Canadians vote. To paraphrase their platform, the 2015 federal election would be the last to use the first-past-the-post system.

Since assuming power, the PM and his Democratic Institutions Minister, Hon. Maryam Monsef, have been on a path to convince Canadians that a change in the voting system is necessary. But they have rebuffed opposition calls for a referendum to take place to actually gauge whether Canadians want this change.

The government is keen to say that the electorate voted for the Liberals, thereby giving full support for the system to change, so therefore they have the obligation to make the changes necessary.

Some will argue that the reason the Liberals won the election had nothing to do with the pledge to change the electoral system.  In fact, there were many issues debated during the election and electoral reform was barely even mentioned. That said, the Liberal have every right to fulfill their promise of electoral reform.

But how they do it will be very important, since they will be making a fundamental change to how Canadian vote and have voted for many, many years.

The Minister at first created a committee to review this issue that was stacked in favour of the government and was widely viewed as being unfair to the process. However, the Conservatives, along with some media and third party groups, have been calling for the government to hold a referendum (the NDP has agreed to a referendum after the new system has been tried once) but the government has made a change to the committee structure in the hopes that the moves will divert attention away from a referendum.

The move to give up control of the committee was being forcefully pushed by NDP Democratic Reform Critic Nathan Cullen, who believed the make-up of the committee should at the very least reflect how Canadians actually voted in the last election.

Well, this is a start but not nearly enough to appease Canadians.


Richard Mahoney:

The work of electoral reform is difficult stuff. I agree with John's view that the Liberals campaigned on changing the system and did get a mandate. They then quite properly turned to Parliament to study the issue, consult with Canadians and recommend options for reform.

Of the many people with a profound interest in how we elect parliamentarians, no one is more interested, some would say vested, in how we do this than political parties themselves.  In particular you can imagine how parliamentarians elected under our current system might not be wildly crazy about a political opponent with a majority in the House, and therefore a majority on parliamentary committees as of right, having more say than they do in making the change. So there was lots of criticism by Opposition MPs, before the committee got down to work, about the makeup of the committee and just how many seats each party had.

Impressively, and after listening to the arguments of their political opponents, the government compromised and supported the motion of Nathan Cullen to change the composition of the committee to ensure that the government did not have a majority on it, even though they have a majority in the House.

I think that was a very fair minded compromise and probably surprised some people, given that governments, as a rule, don't usually surrender power to their political opponents, particularly over something as sensitive as how we elect Members of Parliament. In fact, the move was in marked contrast to the way we have come to expect governments to behave. It is a promising start to what will be an intense period of deliberations, with lots of options on the table.  


Tom Parkin:

I am quite pleased with the changes to the committee.

On one hand, Nathan Cullen and the NDP caucus did a good job pushing the issues and taking some tactical opportunities. But I think the Liberals need to be recognized for pulling back from what - in my opinion, anyway - was a course of action that was going to end the discussion.

On the committee, I expect the new distribution of opinion means the ranked ballot idea is a non-starter.

But it could still be the spoiler. If some Liberals advocate ranked ballots and some advocate proportional representation, we may not be able to get a sufficient consensus on the committee to move forward with reform.

I think we can assume the Conservatives will continue to support the status quo. Not only is it the system of Winston Churchill, it is probably the only system that can generate a win for them.

It is also unclear where the BQ stands. They advocated proportionality in the election, but a source with Fair Vote Canada says that position may be shifting. As a regionally based party, their self-interest might bring them to ally with the Conservatives and support first-past-the-post.

The NDP and Ms. May will almost certainly support proportionality.

And so the question really is whether there is an electoral system the Liberal, NDP and Green - and maybe Bloc - can all support. If such an animal can be designed I think we might have something to go with.

As for the need for a referendum, I personally am not convinced. I certainly know from my political experience that referenda are biased to a no answer - it is simply too easy to raise concern after concern and put the Yes side on the defensive.


John Capobianco:

It was a bold move for sure by the Liberals to change the makeup of the committee, and according to the Conservatives (especially MP Scott Reid) it smacks of a deal being cut between the Liberals and the NDP. 

Also according to Scott Reid the committee is “wildly undemocratic.” His argument is that any changes to the electoral system would be unconstitutional if a referendum does not take place.

Former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley has recently weighed into the debate by saying that a referendum isn’t necessary or possible under our current laws because electoral reform is not a constitutional matter and that only constitutional matters can be determined via a referendum.

Despite the former Chief Electoral Officers musings, the Conservatives are having a fun time quoting current Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, who in the past in a speech he gave to Fair Vote Canada mentioned that changing the voting system is “not an easy task” and suggested that a referendum would not pass at that time due to a lack of understanding by Canadians of the various options - his words, according to the Opposition.

Tom raises a good point, with which most observers will agree, that ranked (or preferential) ballot is likely not going to take, but other options such as proportional representation (PR) and the various versions within this system could be seen more seriously by the committee.

That is when the debate will begin in earnest. The complexities of these systems and how they will profoundly change Parliament will be of much discussion.

The government's biggest challenge is time - much like the assisted dying bill which has passed the Supreme Court's deadline, this too can create a huge headache for the PM if it also gets punted down the parliamentary calendar road and doesn't make it for the next election.


Richard Mahoney:

First, there will not be a referendum per se, as federal law does not allow referenda unless it is on a constitutional issue. Electoral reform does not require constitutional change.

In response to this topic's original question, it is impossible to predict where this will end up. If a consensus of sorts emerges on the committee around a preferred option, I think it is reasonable to say that the government, and Parliament, could argue that that consensus should be made into law.

If, as many expect and both Tom and John suggest, the NDP and the Greens simply use the process to push for their preferred option of proportional representation, and are unable to convince others to embrace that, then we will be without consensus, and the chances of reform will be diminished.

There is no perfect system. Our current system of first past the post has its advantages and disadvantages. PR has its attractions, but the experience with it in other jurisdictions is not great. It usually results in many different parties, who work to motivate their base in order to get their proportional share. Sometimes, that helps more extreme viewpoints come to the electoral fore. It tends to motivate politicians to divide, rather than unite, and often gives power to parties on the extremes who are able to convert their small share of the vote into raw power in coalitions with parties looking to stay in power, as happened this month in Israel, where they elect their Parliament proportionally.

Whatever we do, it seems to me the wisdom of Canada has always been tolerance and respect for the other. So we should seek political systems that push our politicians towards leadership that builds consensus, listens to other points of view and reflects the values of consensus and pluralism. Most of our greatest leaders have done that and do that, and I for one favour a system that encourages them to continue that approach.


Tom Parkin:

A bit more on the politics.

I think Scott Reid’s responses were embarrassing. There clearly was no “backroom deal” between the NDP and the Liberals – the NDP had to push the Liberals into it. And just as clearly, section 41 of the Constitution gives Parliament sole authority over the method of its members’ election. The Constitution Act sets out the number of seats in the Commons. There is no need for a referendum to change that - it is done by a bill. When people have to shade the truth to make their argument, it’s probably not a very good argument.

Now on the substance. I am an unabashed enthusiast for proportional representation. It is the most used system in the democratic world. It is a modern system that has grown up to respect responsible government and the strong caucus unity in modern political parties.

We all know it gets rid of the problem of false majorities, but it has other electoral benefits, too.  Most significantly it discourages policy micro targeting because it eliminates bastions and battlegrounds.

If you live a riding that always votes for one party – a bastion -- why bother vote? And why should a party target their platform on your riding?

And if you live in a battleground – it’s usually a two-party battleground – you often have to choose to “strategically vote.” And the competitive parties will use policy micro targeting in an attempt to win.

I don’t like those dynamics. Proportionality eliminates battlegrounds and bastions. It means each vote is counted toward your party and candidate of choice regardless of how your neighbours vote.

There is an argument about stability. Well, if that is our prime concern, let's not stop at first-past-the-post; let's just go for a junta!

For every example of an unstable polity using proportionality, there are examples of the opposite. I have never seen any data showing proportional representation is related - or not - to stability. Instability is related to all sorts of cleavages and crises - class, region, economic, military, religious, social, and linguistic. Those are the factors that make for a weak polity.

I do think some advocates of proportionality oversell it. It’s not a panacea. It won’t make Canada fantastically feminist or progressive – that is and should be dictated by how we choose to vote, not our voting system.

If I can offer any advice to proportional representation advocates, it’s this: simply show people the simplicity of the ballot and its benefits. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it is a superior electoral system – which is why most of the world uses it.

Upshot: with the Liberals' reversal, there is now a chance they can keep their election promise, but it is not a guarantee. There is a lot of work to be done to educate Canadians and develop a proportional variant that meets our needs. But at least the project is back on the table.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues.  


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