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The ONW Salon: The Liberal government has launched an online survey to gauge Canadians' views on electoral reform.  Minister Mayem Monsef quickly apologized for criticizing the committee report into the issue and Justin Trudeau is ensuring all that he means to fulfill his promise of a system for the next election.  Is the government serious about that commitment and, if so, are systems other than ranked ballot - such as proportional representation - really on the table? Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin weigh in.

Richard Mahoney:

The healthy maintenance and improvement of our democracy is an important responsibility of Parliament, and a responsibility that extends to each and every one of us. Too often, we take the health of our democracy for granted. Like our own personal health, our electoral system needs care and nurturing.

One thing I learned from the experience of running for office was that there are as many opinions as there are electoral systems in the world. Much of what we have works well, but there are warning signs, and we do damage when we don't heed them.

That is what happened when the Harper government pushed through changes, via the so-called Fair Elections Act, without any consultation with other parties, which had their own views. As a result, changes were made that were favoured by one party and in particular, one leader, rather than coming from a broader, pan-Canadian interest. Some of those changes were recently reversed by the Trudeau government, fulfilling another election commitment.

The commitment to reform our voting system was coupled with a commitment to do things differently - to have options studied by a parliamentary committee, and to consult Canadians on the various ideas out there to improve our system.

The release of the online survey site my this week, much criticized by the NDP and the Conservatives, gives 15 million Canadian households an opportunity to give input on changes they would like to see in the outcomes of this reform process.

That is a good thing and I hope as many Canadians as possible weigh in, not just those of us who are involved in the political process.  

Tom Parkin:

Trudeau and company has really mismanaged this file.

Clearly this government is not serious about electoral reform or it would not have sent out its Minister of Democratic Institutions to undermine the work of the electoral reform committee. It would not be dismissing the input of the tens of thousands of Canadians who participated in meetings across the country and it would not be subjecting Canadians to the insulting electronic consultation.

Whether the Trudeau government is trying to disrupt the signal so it can reintroduce its ranked ballot approach is unknowable. The Minister has said she and Trudeau have a preferred system in mind, but they lack the honesty to tell us what it is.

The Trudeau promise was very clear. And it has been clear for months now that he is trying to wriggle out of it.

This is damaging them in two ways. First, there is a group of people who are passionately - perhaps obsessively - interested in democratic reform. Those people will be profoundly angry at this betrayal.

Second, it hurts the trust and perception of Justin Trudeau's honesty.

This isn't a scarce money question, it isn't hard - it's simply a question of keeping his word. Through this episode Justin Trudeau is communicating to every Canadian that he doesn't care about keep his word.

And I am very sure this is hurting the government. I know this because Liberal spinners spend so much time telling the political shows that Canadians are either not smart enough to understand the issues or they are just not interested.

I have heard that line of defence from many governments, many times. It is a sure signal they have no plan except to hope the issue goes away on its own. It won't.


John Capobianco:

The word democracy gets thrown around a lot in a way that would lead you to believe that we are just now starting to talk about bringing it to Canada.

I am a firm believer that the current system works just fine, and like Richard, I also ran for office and lost in our current system. I believe I might have won under a different system to be honest – as Richard would have as well. That aside, I think the bigger issue is to get more Canadians engaged in elections and increase voter turnout.

PM Trudeau made it abundantly clear during the campaign that the "2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post." Ok, fair enough, a bold statement for sure - one that he and his government are now working hard to deal with either by delaying the process or making it go away. What Richard doesn’t say in his submission above is that the PM’s promise to see the last of first-past-the-post will be gone in time for the next election, only three years away now.

The Minister in charge of this, Hon. Maryam Monsef, is having a very difficult time with this file, to say the least. Not only did she have to apologize for dissing the very committee she had formed, albeit after much delay, but now after apologizing and saying she appreciates the work the committee did, she is still going to send out a survey to Canadians with questions the committee and opposition parties say are designed only to get the answer the government wants.

The time required for electoral reform, in order for it to be effective by the 2019 election, is fleeting, with some experts already saying that it has passed. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Maynard says it is likely already too late for a ranked ballot referendum - and that is if a straightforward question is asked of Canadians. In fact, even the Liberal members of the committee are encouraging the Minister and the PM to let this go - perhaps a wise thing to consider.


Richard Mahoney:

In his haste to sharpen his partisan dagger, Tom has made a number of allegations about the Liberal “mismanagement of the file."

The good news is that none of the allegations are true. The government did not “send out its Minister of Democratic Institutions to undermine the work of the electoral reform committee.” The Minister made one criticism of the committee’s conclusion, and she immediately apologized for doing so. Hardly a mission to undermine, I would say. But overstatement and exaggeration are rhetorical tools, I admit.

It also did not “dismiss the input of the tens of thousands of Canadians who participated in meetings across the country."  It does have a moderately different perspective than the NDP and the Conservatives but it is inaccurate and misleading to say that, simply because the government does not agree with the NDP or other members of the Opposition. Tom is confusing fact with opinion here.

It is also a huge exaggeration to say that the Liberal government is “subjecting Canadians to the insulting electronic consultation” of the website. Perhaps an imperfect website, but “insulting electronic consultation”? John honestly describes this website as something the Opposition “say” is designed to get the answer the government wants, as opposed to stating it as fact.

The important thing here is this: yes, Justin Trudeau made a commitment. But changing our electoral system is something that will require input and buy-in from many Canadians. The thousands who gave input to the committee’s work are one part of that. MPs are one part of that, but only a part. There is no one in the country with more vested interests in how we elect people than people who are elected. That is a fact.

So we need to get this option of proportional voting out there and understood by Canadians. We need to look at the options al system they would recommend.)

And we need time to get this right. The worst result would be changes rushed through in one or more political parties’ interest, without a rigorous debate on alternatives. And my sense is that that work is a long way from complete.  


Tom Parkin:

In reaching to defend his Liberals, Richard has gone post-fact. The Minister complained that the electoral reform committee did not reach consensus - something it was not asked to do. And the fact of the matter is that the single party standing in the way of consensus was the Liberal party. Nathan Cullen tried hard to make things work, Trudeau's caucus members tried hard to make sure they didn't.

Second, the committee did recommend a system: it recommended proportional representation. It did not go further than that, into the exact model, because it was not asked to do so. The Liberals have tried to obscure that fact by attacking the committee and ridiculing its report with their props.

These are the facts of a government wiggling out of their promises. The Liberals middle-class tax cut gives maximum benefit to people earning $200,000. They broke their word on stock option income tax treatment. They broke their first year funding promises on First Nation Kindergarten to Grade 12 and post-secondary education. They're being dragged through the courts to live up to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders. They said they would open tender military aircraft, but they didn't. They said they would use historically low interests rates to build infrastructure but they're using high-cost private finance.

In twelve months this government has devolved far and fast. Now they are down to talking points and props and suggesting the army will put down protest. And I've just scratched the surface. But sunny ways!


John Capobianco:

Wow, Tom... something you ate over lunch?!

Notwithstanding the delay in setting up the committee caused by disagreements on its make-up and terms of reference, among other issues, and notwithstanding the recent comments and later apologies from the Minister - I do believe the committee did its work and consulted many Canadians – both individuals and stakeholder groups, from coast to coast to coast.

In its 348-page report, the majority portion recommends that the government hold a referendum that would pit the current system against a system of proportional representation.

Clear and simple. If the PM wants to do away with the current system, then dispense with further surveys and delays and let Canadians deal with the question at hand as recommended by the all party – and proportionally represented I might add - committee.

Richard, I know you are doing your best to defend and deflect this mismanaged file, because I am pretty sure if the Conservatives were in power and this was going on, you would be all over me crying incompetence (ok, not crying, but yelling!)

There is a reason the PM and to some extent his Liberal MPs on the committee are saying that the recommendations are "rushed" and "too radical" - in fact, they are even suggesting that it would be "irresponsible" for the government to move ahead in "haste" to meet the 2019 deadline. The reason is that this issue doesn’t charge Canadians - I would venture to say they are just fine with the current system.

What they care about and what the PM needs to focus on is the economy and pocketbook issues - that is what matters to Canadians, Oh, and the fact they we have a new U.S. President who wants America to be first in everything, including trade, should be of concern to us.

That is what we need to focus on and that is what Canadians want the government to focus on.


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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