The Liberal government’s commitment to electoral reform has been enshrined in their party platform since the outset of the Fall 2015 election campaign. Their website confidently assures Canadians of the party’s commitment to this issue, stating that “…2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” (Liberal.ca) To achieve this end, the Liberals have committed to convening an all-Party Parliamentary committee that will review a variety of reforms (including ranked ballots, mandatory voting, proportional representation and online voting), and have also committed to introducing legislation on this issue within 18 months of forming government. So, here we are, almost halfway through the proposed time-frame, and I’m sure you’re wondering – where in the world do we stand?
On Tuesday, May 10, a motion to create a “special committee” that would study possible alternatives to our current voting system was put forward by the Liberals. The initially proposed committee was meant to consist of 10 voting members: six Liberals, three Conservatives and one New Democrat (CBC). The alternative voting systems studied by this special committee would be judged on the basis of the following five principles: effectiveness and legitimacy, engagement, accessibility and inclusiveness, integrity, and local representation. The committee would also invite MPs to conduct locally-focused engagement forums within their individual ridings, and the committee itself would conduct a “national engagement process,” which would include both written and online submissions (CBC).
Since the proposal of this committee almost one month ago, a number of key events have unfolded. Immediately following the introduction of this motion, criticisms abounded regarding the composition of the committee – accusing the Liberals of ‘stacking the deck’ in their own favour. In response to these criticisms, and in response to a specific NDP motion proposing that more say be given to opposition members, fundamental changes have occurred. On June 2, the Liberal’s completely altered the proposed composition of the ‘special committee’ as outlined in their May 10 motion, handing over the balance of power to the opposition (The Globe and Mail). Within the newly proposed committee, there will be 12 voting members: five Liberal members, three Conservatives, two NDP, one Bloc Québécois MP and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef said she hopes these changes “…assure members that the government comes to this process with an open mind (The Globe and Mail).” For Canadians, these changes also demonstrate inter-party co-operation as a practical possibility.
Though these recent changes to the electoral reform committee arguably should have been in place to begin with, they are changes that merit positive recognition. Undoubtedly, a special committee composed as a reflection of the first-past-the-post majority which the Liberal government has so profoundly condemned, would be unfair and completely contradictory. However, for the Liberals to respond to criticism from the opposition in such a substantive manner is an indication that they are, in fact, committed to being a cooperative, collaborative and more open government.
Despite all these positive developments, I strongly believe that a special committee, no matter how equal in its composition, is simply not enough to institute such a groundbreaking change. For the Liberal Party to navigate electoral reform in the most legitimate way possible, they must directly engage with the electorate whose vote it is they are debating. In tactical terms, the most obvious (and most talked about) way to do this would be to hold a national referendum – as is commonly promoted by Rona Ambrose, interim Conservative Party leader. Since winning the election the Liberal Party has flip-flopped on whether or not they will hold a referendum on this issue. The latest commentary from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says ‘referendum campaigns are tremendously exciting in terms of selling newspapers,’ but cast doubt on whether they lead to better outcomes for Canadians (CBC). The Liberal Party has maintained their argument that the ‘special committee’ is more important, but that they are not ruling out a referendum later in the process.
Understanding where we stand when it comes to electoral reform begs an even more important question: where should we stand? For an issue of national interest and concern – and one cannot argue that our electoral system is any less – direct public engagement is imperative, and a referendum appears to be the most viable way to achieve this. For this public engagement to be effective, however, the Liberal government and the opposition parties must engage with Canadians every step of the way. This might mean holding nationally televised debates where the alternative electoral systems are discussed and debated, or creating multiple ‘special committees’ – committees that include academics, think tanks, university students, the judiciary, etc. Whatever the outcome, the process to achieving electoral reform is incredibly important, and Canadians deserve a process where legitimacy is the number one priority.
Authored by Emma McKay, Co-Founder mPolitics.co