A surprise turn for Canada’s debate on electoral reform

By giving up their majority on the House committee on electoral reform, the Liberals inject new energy into the process for changing how Canadians vote

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 Huse of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 2, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Back on Dec. 4 last year, on the day the new Liberal government’s first Speech from the Throne was delivered, Dominic LeBlanc, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s boyhood friend and now, as House leader, his point man in Parliament, sat down for an interview with Maclean’s.

LeBlanc’s mood was buoyant, and he sounded confidently relaxed—particularly when he spoke about the Liberals’ campaign promise to end Canada’s traditional first-past-the-post system for electing MPs. Even though the Liberals had won a majority, LeBlanc said “changing the electoral system in a perfect world should be done by consensus, or with broad support in Parliament.” He added, “I never thought that one party with a majority rewrites the rules that apply to everybody else.”

And yet, when LeBlanc and Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef announced their plan last month for a House committee to study electoral-reform options, they gave their own Liberal MPs the usual majority of the seats. That’s normal on House committees, but opposition MPs cried foul in this instance—and given what LeBlanc had said about “rewriting the rules” for elections being different from other policy briefs, they had a point.

Today, the government conceded that point. Monsef appeared this morning in the foyer of the House to announce that the committee is being restructured along lines proposed by the NDP. To carry the day, the committee’s five Liberals will now have to coax over to their way of thinking at least some of its opposition members—three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one from the Bloc Québécois, and Green MP Elizabeth May.

“Today is about us demonstrating that we continue to be committed to our promise to listen to Canadians,” Monsef said. “We recognize that good ideas come from all parties. We recognize that Canadians expect us to co-operate and collaborate.”

That’s the sort of honeyed talk that generally prompts eye-rolling around Parliament Hill. But it’s hard to deny the potency of a majority government voluntarily diluting its power on such a key committee. That’s not how Ottawa usually works. “The impetus for all of this is to get the conversation beyond one on process and for the committee to begin its work of hearing from all Canadians,” Monsef said when asked why the Liberals bowed to NDP pressure. “That is our motive for all this.”

MP Nathan Cullen led the NDP push for a committee not dominated by Liberal MPs. Asked today if Monsef deserves credit for accepting his advice, he said, “Yes, yes.” But then he added that on other fronts, the Liberals have not been so benign, mentioning, for example, their refusal to adopt proposed opposition amendments on the contentious physician-assisted dying bill.

Cullen first proposed the novel idea of the Liberals surrendering their committee majority back in early February. At the time, few in Ottawa imagined he was likely to get far with it, although, thinking of LeBlanc’s remarks from late last year, I interviewed Cullen about the idea. I have to admit, though, that Cullen’s concept seemed to me more like an interesting gambit than a likely blueprint.

I wonder if even he really thought it stood a chance. Was there just a hint of dazed wonderment in his tone today as he reacted to Monsef’s move? “This seems to me a much less cynical process,” he said in the House foyer. “The biggest winner out of this is Canadians who want to see our voting system changed in a positive and hopeful way, that the parties work together. I know: radical notion.”

But a radical notion the Conservatives are not in a mood to salute. Their main demand is not for the Liberals to accept the need for some opposition buy-in, but rather for whatever reforms emerge to be put to all Canadians in a referendum.

That’s not the Liberal preference. Digging again into archival interviews, I cast back to something Trudeau said way back last spring, when he first floated the promise to change the way Canadians vote: “We’ve committed to strong, open consultations. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed by people that electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites.”

He means referendums on getting rid of the old first-past-the-post system that have failed in B.C., Ontario and Prince Edward Island, plus Britain to boot. Monsef wouldn’t be drawn today into a clear yes-or-no answer on a referendum. She wouldn’t speculate on exactly what will come at the end of the process ahead.

That process can be sketched as something like this: MPs hold town halls on electoral reform in their ridings this summer and early fall; the House committee holds hearings and reports back by December; Monsef and LeBlanc do their own outreach, likely including trips to rural and remote communities; and the government tables new election legislation about a year from now and, if all goes according to plan, passes it before summer 2017.

About a year is not a long time to rethink and revamp how Canadians elect their federal governments. After all, it took the new government nearly eight months to get to today’s breakthrough. The pace is about to pick up and the stakes for Canadian democracy, as has always been the case in this simmering debate, are extraordinarily high.

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