Do the Liberals have a mandate for electoral reform?

Even before the House of Commons can debate the options for electoral reform, it is arguing over how to choose. Is this a fight the Liberals want?

<p>Canada&#8217;s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada December 7, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)</p>

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada December 7, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada December 7, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons December 7, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

“Mr. Speaker,” ventured the leader of the Opposition, “when we change the rules of democracy everyone gets a say.” And Rona Ambrose’s deputy leader concurred. “Mr. Speaker,” Denis Lebel said, “Canada’s history shows that when a government wants to change the building blocks of our country, it consults Canadians.”

A day after the minister of democratic institutions had excited Conservatives with an interestingly worded response, the official Opposition pressed yesterday to mark a potential weakness in the government’s promise of electoral reform: specifically, the Liberal side’s reluctance to commit to a referendum before legislating some alternative to our first-past-the-post system.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister should be very careful in assuming that his election victory gives him a mandate and entitles him to make a change in the election system and our democracy,” Ambrose warned. “When the Prime Minister actually has a clear proposal for a new voting system, will he take it to the people and hold a referendum?”

In response, the Prime Minister committed variously to “consult Canadians,” “engage Canadians” and “engage substantively with Canadians.” But he did not allow for the possibility of a referendum.

By the letter of its party platform, the Liberal government is committed only to implementing changes to the electoral system—”We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system”—after an “all-party” committee of parliamentarians has reviewed the options and made recommendations.

The challenge now for the new government is how to go about doing that without coming to deeply regret ever having made the commitment.

That a change to the electoral system should necessarily be submitted to a referendum is an interesting proposition, and the Conservatives are not quite beyond reproach in making it. There was no referendum to endorse the Conservative government’s Fair Elections Act, the 2014 legislation that changed various rules around voting. Nor did the Conservatives hold a referendum before pursuing Senate reform. There is something here of the debate that ensued when Justin Trudeau vowed that he would whip any vote related to abortion—however much that topic has been considered a matter of “conscience,” it is difficult to draw precise lines around what should be given such special consideration and why. The House of Commons now includes 184 Liberal MPs who were elected on a platform to implement electoral reform. If fulfilling that promise should be prefaced by a referendum, why not a referendum on, say, whatever new targets the government settles on for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Electoral reform might be more foundational than Senate reform or anything in the Fair Elections Act, but at the same time the federal government is not currently required by law to hold a referendum before amending the Constitution Act. Indeed, only two provinces—British Columbia and Alberta—currently require referendums before implementing constitutional changes.

Of course, the Liberals don’t need to win an academic point, they need to win a political debate. And the case for a referendum is strong, in part because the Liberal commitment was not to a particular alternative to first-past-the-post and particularly if you believe, as the Liberal platform would seem to concede, that the system for electing those 184 Liberal MPs is inherently flawed.

But while the Liberals aren’t committing to a referendum, they are also not categorically dismissing the idea. That response of Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions, seemed to hint at the possibility. Yesterday, Monsef’s parliamentary secretary, Mark Holland, told Evan Solomon’s Everything is Political podcast that the Liberal plan for consultation “doesn’t preclude” a referendum.

It would thus seem possible that the all-party committee could return to Parliament with a suggestion that a referendum be held. It’s also possible that a referendum will come to be seen as the best way out of the electoral-reform morass.

The public would seem to be rather divided about whether and how we should change the way we elect MPs. Of the available options, the possible implementation of a ranked ballot is already being linked to Liberal self-interest. Similar selfishness could be read into Conservative and NDP positions—at least now that the NDP, its 2011 gains wiped away, is no longer getting a boost from FPTP. And possibly forgotten here is how split the Liberal caucus might be. In a House vote last December, 16 of 35 Liberal MPs effectively endorsed mixed-member proportional representation.

The potential for a fraught and agonizing debate seems great.

One of Lester B. Pearson’s signature accomplishments as prime minister was the adoption of a new flag. But the famously contested debate over that flag played out over seven months of his five years in office, as unforeseen scandals and distractions otherwise battered his government. One of Pearson’s closest advisers, Tom Kent, later lamented for the energy and attention the flag debate required. But Pearson really wanted a new flag. When it was over, Pearson had a new flag. It is said to have been his most cherished accomplishment, and even a rallying cry for his caucus. Is this to be Trudeau’s flag debate? It is obviously impossible to know that now. But it is a foundational matter, and a long-standing and potentially emotional concern. Even before the House has gotten to dealing with the options for change, it is clashing over the question of how we should choose between those options. The end of the debate seems hard to make out from here.