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Can the Liberals actually achieve electoral reform?

A Liberal promise to change the electoral system hits a snag—and early cynicism
Maryam Monsef Mark Holland
Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef is joined by fellow MP Mark Holland, left, as they arrive to speak to reporters in the foyer of the house of commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 2, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau leaves the polling station with his wife Sophie, sons Hadrien (L), Xavier (C) and daughter Ella-Grace (R) after voting in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Justin Trudeau leaves the polling station with his wife Sophie, sons Hadrien (L), Xavier (C) and daughter Ella-Grace (R) after voting in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When Liberals contacted him early last week and airily proposed more co-operation in Parliament, Nathan Cullen wasn’t excited at first. “They reached out and said, ‘We think we can work together.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I heard you the first thousand times,’ ” the NDP MP says. Earlier talk of that sort had led nowhere. In fact, partisan strains only worsened this spring, especially as the government pushed through its doctor-assisted dying legislation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s strange rush across the House aisle one day last month, during which he accidentally elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau aside, left no doubt that Parliament Hill was on edge.

But Cullen soon found that this time, the Liberals meant it. After two days of talks, they agreed to drop their plan to install a majority of Liberal MPs on a key House committee being set up to study electoral reform. In a surprise move, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef accepted Cullen’s proposal for a committee lineup that would force government MPs to seek opposition support if they hope to carry the day: five Liberals, three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one from the Bloc Québécois, and Green MP Elizabeth May. “This seems to be a much less cynical process,” Cullen says.

Explaining the concession, Trudeau admitted there was something to opposition complaints “that we were perhaps behaving in a way that was resembling more the previous government than the kind of approach and tone that we promised.” Monsef sounded relieved to have a fresh message to deliver after weeks of doggedly batting away NDP demands to give up the committee majority. “We recognize that good ideas come from all parties,” she said. “We recognize that Canadians expect us to co-operate and collaborate.”

Now, though, the Liberals must somehow convert their surprise climbdown into a politically saleable solution for revamping Canada’s voting system. Trudeau first promised about a year ago, as an opposition leader, that the 2015 election would be the last fought in the familiar “first past the post” way, under which the candidate with the most votes in a riding gets to be MP, and the rest get nothing. It amounted to a daring vow to re-engineer the DNA of Canadian democracy, but was overshadowed in last fall’s campaign by clashes over subjects like whether or not to run deficits, or allow veils at citizenship ceremonies.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef is joined by fellow MP Mark Holland, left, as they arrive to speak to reporters in the foyer of the house of commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 2, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef is joined by fellow MP Mark Holland, left, as they arrive to speak to reporters in the foyer of the house of commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 2, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Yet all parties expect Canadians to soon wake up to this sleeper issue. The stakes are too high to ignore, the deadlines too tight. The House committee has only until Dec. 1 to report back on what sort of voting system Canada should adopt. As well, MPs are being asked to hold town hall meetings on the options in their ridings and report back on what they hear by Oct. 14. To have the new rules in place in time for Elections Canada to prepare for the next election, legislation would have to be passed sometime next spring.

Is it possible in only a year to jettison a century and a half of voting history, with no sign of a groundswell of discontent about the system as it stands? The case against first-past-the-post rests on what its critics disparage as “false majorities.” That’s when the winning party gets most of the seats in the House on fewer than half of the votes cast. It happens often in Canada, including last fall, when Trudeau’s Liberals won in 184 of 338 ridings with 39.5 per cent of the popular vote.

Some experts see false majorities as the fatal flaw in first-past-the-post, which is called a “single-member plurality” system. Yet most Canadians don’t seem bothered. A poll late last year by the Ottawa firm Abacus Data, conducted for the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, which lobbies for fundamental electoral reform, asked Canadians to choose their top five from a list of 15 possible goals for a voting system. The top pick, chosen by 55 per cent, was a simple ballot—and marking an X by the name of the candidate you want as MP, the old-fashioned way, is as simple as it gets. Next most popular, at 51 per cent, was a system that produced strong, stable governments—and false majorities accomplish exactly that.

Related: Why serious electoral reform is a hard sell

The status quo’s stubborn appeal is a nagging problem for reform advocates. Among the many alternatives, two broad concepts tend to dominate. One is mixed-member proportional representation (PR), under which voters would vote twice, once for their riding’s MP and again for a party, and seats in the House would reflect that blend. The other is preferential voting, under which voters would rank candidates on the ballot from most to least preferred. If no candidate received more than 50 per cent of the top picks, the candidate with the fewest would be eliminated. If a voter’s first choice were knocked off, their vote would automatically transfer to their next highest choice. This would be repeated until one candidate scored a majority.

The NDP has long favoured PR. Its key selling point is that smaller parties that often can’t win many, or even any, ridings would finally see their vote share converted into seats. The Liberals adopted ranked balloting as party policy in 2012, though Monsef says the government has an open mind. Suspicions linger, though, that Liberals naturally like the look of ranked balloting in traditional ridings, since broad centrist parties like theirs tend to be the second choice of a lot of voters, giving them a chance to pick up extra seats where no candidate is the clear majority winner.

That sort of partisan calculation is the main reason any electoral reform bid is met with suspicion. Back in 2001, three academic experts stressed this point in a paper called “Getting From Here to There: A Process for Electoral Reform in Canada,” published by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy. One of its authors happened to be Matthew Mendelsohn, who last year worked for Trudeau as a key platform architect, and was later appointed by Trudeau as a top federal bureaucrat in charge of making sure those platform promises are kept. “Debates about electoral reform led by political parties are fuelled by self-interest,” the IRPP analysis said. “There is, not surprisingly, a close correlation between parties’ positions on the need for change and their expected benefit from any new system.”

Pages and staff prepare the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 2, 2015.  (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Pages and staff prepare the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 2, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The likelihood of electoral reform being seen as a bid by the ruling party to strengthen its hand has prompted, in the past, the creation of arm’s-length processes. The two most elaborate tries at non-partisan reform in Canada were the citizens’ assemblies set up in British Columbia in 2004 and in Ontario in 2006. Both brought together large groups of randomly chosen citizens, who met over several months to study reform ideas, and finally recommended sweeping change. In both cases, however, those proposals were shot down in provincial referendums.

Still, for those who took part, the citizens’ assemblies are remembered as shining examples of democracy as it should be. Former Simon Fraser University president Jack Blaney chaired B.C.’s citizens’ assembly. Now retired and living in Vancouver, Blaney still sounds emotional when he recounts how, at the end of 10 intensive months of weekend meetings, the B.C. assembly arrived at the moment of truth. It had come down to two possible models—PR or a complex system called the single transferable vote. In a morning session at Vancouver’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, a meeting space where they sat in banks of concentric circles, they hashed out the final choice. Intensity was written on their faces, Blaney recalls, but the tough final argument was unfailingly civil. “It brought me to tears, actually,” he says. “If Parliament could work that way, it would be a blessing.”

Related: Rapid-fire politics on the surprise electoral reform decision

After all that, the B.C. assembly’s recommendation, the single transferable vote, was rejected. It won nearly 58 per cent support in a 2005 referendum, but B.C.’s government had set 60 per cent as the threshold for pressing ahead. In a second referendum in 2009, status quo forces triumphed with nearly 61 per cent. A similar pattern played out in Ontario, where a citizens’ assembly called for a mixed-member proportional system, but voters opted overwhelmingly to stick with first-past-the-post in a 2007 referendum. No wonder Trudeau recently said, “Referendums are a pretty good way of not getting any electoral reform.”

That remark drove pro-referendum Conservatives to distraction. Tory MP Scott Reid, his party’s critic for electoral reform, said Trudeau’s position amounts to saying, “The voters are never right.” And Reid said the NDP’s enthusiasm over the Liberals giving up their dominance of the committee misses that larger point. “Support of one other party, or indeed of every other party, is not a replacement for the people,” he said, arguing that only a referendum can lend any reform legitimacy.

And Reid argued that the committee’s real purpose isn’t to come up with a proposal anyway; it’s to waste time. He contends that Trudeau has already decided he wants ranked balloting. The other main reform options—including mixed-member PR—likely require riding boundaries to be changed. But the longer the government spends consulting, the less time will be left before the next election to redraw the electoral map. “So how do you get the Prime Minister’s preferred option on the table?” Reid said. “Talk out the clock.”

Although Trudeau and Monsef haven’t ruled out a referendum, making good on the Liberal promise to usher in change before a 2019 election leaves very little time to plan and conduct one. That’s just as well, according to some battle-scarred veterans of the B.C. and Ontario attempts. Blaney doubts most voters would back serious reform. “They simply won’t understand the complexity of the question before them, and they are afraid of change,” he said, adding, “I can understand the hesitancy of people.”

MORE: How the Liberals turned electoral reform into a slo-mo car crash

If a referendum isn’t in the cards, the Liberals must make their consultation process look credible. Queen’s University political science associate professor Jonathan Rose worked as academic director for Ontario’s citizens’ assembly. Like Blaney, he came away convinced that process is “the gold standard.” Still, he says the Liberals have a chance to make the combination of committee hearings and town halls convincing—if they are not dominated by groups already persuaded of one alternative or another.

Rose says the worst outcome would be if the committee hearings look like Ottawa’s annual pre-budget consultations. “If it’s like that,” he says, “then it’ll be people coming to the meetings with an opinion and stating it. There’s not going to be any listening and there’s not going to be any feedback.” Town halls are often no better. For instance, Rose called the meetings held by the 1991 Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future—better known as the Spicer commission, after its chairman, Keith Spicer—a kind of “national primal-scream therapy,” dominated by an airing of grievances. “That’s satisfying at a gut level,” he says, “but it’s not really solid policy advice.”

One problem the Liberals face is that PR has by far the largest contingent of well-organized enthusiasts. Along with the Broadbent Institute, PR is backed by Fair Vote Canada, which has been around for 16 years and gained deep experience on the losing sides in the B.C. and Ontario referendum battles. “We used to support referendums fully, and I wouldn’t say that we don’t support referendums,” says Kelly Carmichael, the group’s executive director. “But we’re a little bit skeptical that that’s the best solution.”

This time, Fair Vote is focusing on trying to encourage thoughtful town halls. “There’s a piece of this that is missing from all parties, and that’s the education piece,” Carmichael says. “What will these town halls be? Will they be a free-for-all of fearmongers, or a well-guided discussion, a factual discussion, with some educational tools?” The fearmongering she mentioned is, from Fair Vote’s perspective, the case often made by PR’s opponents that it tends to promote small parties and thus fractured legislatures. Monsef has seemed to allude to this weakness. “Our electoral system must ensure that governments appeal beyond a narrow base of Canadians and encourage the building of a national consensus,” she said. “Elections should unite Canadians and not appeal to narrow constituencies.”

A woman holding a baby enters a polling station to vote in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015.  Canadians go to the polls for a federal election on Monday.  (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
A woman holding a baby enters a polling station to vote in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. Canadians go to the polls for a federal election on Monday. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

That sounded to some PR fans like a rejection of their preferred reform. Brian Tanguay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and lead author of a landmark 2004 Law Commission of Canada report, “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada,” which called for PR, heard Monsef that way. “[PR] allows niche or boutique parties, or whatever you want to call them, to emerge, to focus on particular ideologies, particular ideas, particular constituencies,” Tanguay says. But he said it’s wrong to dismiss that as divisive. Under first-past-the-post, big-tent parties tend to act as broad coalitions in order to win elections. Under PR, Tanguay says, parties might be more sharply differentiated, but they must forge coalitions with partners after elections if they hope to claim a share of governing power.

By accepting the NDP’s call for the electoral reform committee to reflect roughly the share of votes parties got in the last election, rather than the number of seats they won, the Liberals have made the committee a kind of small-scale PR experiment. Will it splinter along party lines? Or will the Liberals be able to make common cause with at least one opposition party to deliver a majority report?

At the outset, it’s hard to see how. After all, the NDP, Greens and Bloc all strongly favour PR, and ranked balloting, which many presume remains the Liberals’ strong preference, would almost certainly hurt their future electoral chances. The Tories are set on a referendum, and seem bound to reject any proposal from the committee that fails to call for one. Without either cross-party support or a referendum’s seal of popular approval, whatever reform Trudeau tries to implement might face a powerful backlash.

Yet some of the country’s most seasoned electoral reform experts aren’t so sure. Blaney and Rose, for instance, view the sort of citizens’ assembly processes they worked on as the inspirational best practice. Still, they both accept the idea that Trudeau has a mandate to change the way Canadians vote, having run and won on that explicit promise last year. “I think we’ve had a referendum: the election was a referendum on whether or not we should keep first-past-the-post,” Blaney says. Rose agrees that the clarity of the Liberal platform position matters: “In the end, our system of government says if you have a majority, which is one of the benefits of our first-past-the-post system, you are allowed to implement your mandate.”

That points to an irony that will run through the coming months of debate on electoral reform. The Prime Minister presides over a House majority, won on the basis of a minority of the popular vote, which leaves it entirely up to him if he chooses to put an end to the very system that gave his Liberals such unfettered legislative clout. The question is how much opposition support, or public buy-in, Justin Trudeau decides he needs to establish before wielding that power to alter the most fundamental act in any democracy—the way a citizen votes.