Hopes fade for federal electoral reform

Maryam Monsef’s response to a Parliamentary committee report all but ends hopes of reform before 2019

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

OTTAWA – Any hope that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will keep his promise to reform Canada’s voting system in time for the next federal election all but vanished Thursday after his democratic institutions minister misrepresented the conclusions of a special all-party committee and accused it of shirking its job.

Maryam Monsef continued to insist that the government remains committed to Trudeau’s campaign promise and to working collaboratively with opposition parties on replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system. She said she still hopes to introduce legislation in the spring.

But Monsef flabbergasted opposition parties with a dismissive, hostile response to the majority report of the opposition-dominated committee on electoral reform, which recommended that the government design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge public support for it.

Liberal members of the committee dissented, arguing that Canadians are not sufficiently engaged in the issue as they urged Trudeau to abandon his self-imposed deadline to change the voting system in time for the October 2019 election.

Pressed by Conservatives and New Democrats in the House of Commons to accept the majority report, Monsef asserted that “the only consensus that the committee found was that there is no consensus on electoral reform.”

She then expressed disappointment that the committee didn’t recommend a specific voting model.

“On the main question on the hard choices that we had asked the committee to make, the members of the committee took a pass,” Monsef told the Commons.

“We asked the committee to help answer very difficult questions for us. It did not do that.”

In fact, the mandate given to the committee by Monsef was to “identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system.” She did not direct the committee to recommend a specific voting model.

More: The circular logic and mixed messages on electoral reform

Monsef also misrepresented the majority report’s recommendation that any new proportional model designed by the government should score no more than 5 on the so-called Gallagher index, a mathematical formula for measuring the degree of disproportion between the share of votes received by parties and their share of seats in the legislature. The lower the score, the more proportional the outcome.

Monsef accused opposition parties of wanting to pose a referendum question on the “incomprehensible formula,” asking “would Canadians like to take the square root of the sum of the squares of the difference between the percentage of the seats for each party and the percentage of the votes cast.”

In fact, the index was recommended only as a tool to ensure the proportionality of whatever new system the government proposes. As for the referendum, the majority report recommended that Canadians be asked to choose between first-past-the-post and the proposed new system, leaving open the possibility that other voting models could be added to the mix.

Monsef, who has never disguised her dislike of the referendum idea, dismissed the united opposition front on the issue, noting that both the NDP and Greens expressed reservations about a referendum in their own supplementary reports.

The NDP and Green members agreed to drop their opposition to a referendum in order to win Conservative and Bloc support for a proportional voting model.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose called Monsef’s performance “an absolute disgrace” and said she might have called for the minister’s resignation had Trudeau been in the Commons.

Committee members, who worked long hours for five months, travelling the country and hearing from hundreds of experts and thousands of Canadians, compromised to come up with a consensus majority report, Ambrose said. She accused Monsef of insulting committee members because she doesn’t like their conclusions.

“Minister Monsef and Justin Trudeau are trying to find a way out of this because they don’t like the answer they got.”

Green party Leader Elizabeth May accused Monsef of “disrespecting” committee members.

NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen said Monsef’s response raises more doubts about the government’s sincerity when it comes to reforming the voting system.

“You start to wonder at the authenticity, the honesty of who you’re dealing with because at some point you’ve got to say, ‘Okay, look, Trudeau. You made a promise to Canadians. There was no asterisk. There was no fine print … Let’s get it done.”’

The Liberals have sent numerous signals that their enthusiasm for electoral reform has waned since they won a majority of seats last fall – garnering less than 40 per cent of the popular vote in the process.

More: Electoral reform committee urges proportional vote, referendum

Trudeau has suggested that public interest in reform has diminished since the Liberals won power. And Monsef has repeatedly said she’s detected no consensus around any particular voting alternative and has warned that the government won’t proceed without the broad support of Canadians.

Cullen said a “strange scenario” seems to be developing, with “the Bloc Quebecois, the Conservative party, the NDP and the Greens finding enough room for consensus to help the Liberals keep a Liberal promise and the Liberals not so interested in it anymore.”

In their “supplementary” report, the committee’s Liberal members urged the government to undertake “a period of comprehensive and effective citizen engagement” before proposing any specific voting system, all of which they said “cannot be effectively completed before 2019.”

“We feel it would be irresponsible for the government to act in haste just to meet the 2019 deadline,” Liberal MP Matt DeCourcey told a news conference shortly after the report was tabled in the House of Commons.

But it was Trudeau himself who set what his MPs now view as an arbitrary deadline. Before, during and after the 2015 federal election he repeatedly promised it would be the last to be conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

Monsef has conducted her own hearings and is about to launch a postcard campaign inviting 15 million Canadian households to take part in an online survey. She said the government will take into account all the feedback it receives, including from the committee, in crafting an alternative voting system.

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