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The battle over Canada’s electoral system begins

An expert parses Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef’s approach to changing how we vote
A voter enters a polling station for the Federal Election in Toronto, May 2, 2011. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
A voter enters a polling station for the Federal Election in Toronto (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
A voter enters a polling station for the Federal Election in Toronto (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Of all Justin Trudeau’s policies, his vow to end the “first past the post” system for electing MPs has the greatest potential for leaving a permanent mark on Canadian democracy. Trudeau first pledged last spring that, if he became prime minister, the 2015 election would be the last one conducted the traditional way, under which the local candidate who gets the most votes goes to Ottawa and the rest get zilch. That promise was included in the Liberal election platform, but didn’t draw much attention during last year’s campaign.

It’s getting plenty now. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef and House Leader Dominic LeBlanc struck a parliamentary committee this week, giving the MPs only seven months to report back with proposals for a new way to vote. The main options include proportional representation (PR) and preferential balloting. There are endless variations of both ideas, and electoral reform enthusiasts often bemoan the difficulty of explaining them, which they say tends to drive popular opinion toward the status quo.

Under one form of PR, voters would cast two votes, one for their local member and another for a political party. The House would be made up of some MPs representing their ridings, others their party’s vote share. A typical preferential balloting system would ask voters to rank candidates, with their second and third choices being counted only if their first-choice candidates were dropped due to lack of support. Tallying would go on in this way until a winning candidate had a majority of the votes.

Expect months of argument about it all. To begin bringing clarity to the debate, I called Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brian Tanguay, a political science professor who was the lead author of the influential 2004 Law Commission of Canada report Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada. Almost everybody who acquires serious expertise in this field ends up favouring one model or another, and Tanguay is for PR. I asked him to comment on specific points Monsef made this week at a news conference. Here’s what she said, annotated with edited versions of his replies:

Big tents vs. niche parties

What Monsef said: “Our electoral system must ensure that governments appeal beyond a narrow base of Canadians and encourage the building of a national consensus….Elections should unite Canadians and not appeal to narrow constituencies.”

Tanguay’s reaction: “This does seem as though it’s a rejection of proportional representation, or at least a questioning of the basis of PR systems. PR systems translate votes into seats rather simply—a party that gets 30 per cent of the votes gets 30 per cent of the seats, plus or minus five percentage points, or something like that. That allows niche or boutique parties, or whatever you want to call them, to emerge, to focus on particular ideologies, particular ideas, particular constituencies. PR systems just have a different way of going about consensus-building, and that’s through the forming of coalitions.”

Town halls everywhere

What Monsef said: “First, the all-party special committee will invite MPs to host town halls with Canadians across the country and to consider together the democratic principles that should be reflected in our electoral system… The vision we have is 338 reports from 338 town halls, and testimony from witnesses.”

Tanguay’s reaction: “It’s an interesting wrinkle, I’ll give it that. Given the timing of this whole process, it’s a bit disappointing that something like a citizens’ assembly, which produced such good work in British Columbia and Ontario, was ruled out right from the beginning. The results of both the British Columbia and the Ontario citizens’ assemblies [in which groups of citizens studied electoral reform options in depth] were really impressive exercises in a sort of intensive, small-scale democracy.”

Not hitched to a referendum

What Monsef said: “The referendum question is much like putting a cart before the horse… A referendum is one of a number of tools that can be used to engage Canadians in a conversation and I believe in the 21st century we have a range of tools available to us…”

Tanguay’s reaction: “I think this does reflect lingering unhappiness with the referendums that were held at the provincial level, in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia. The Conservative party now endorses referendums no matter what, and that can be seen as a way of halting or circumventing election reform. Because what we found in the referendums was that most voters, a large number of voters, did not feel that they knew enough about the alternative systems being proposed to vote intelligently on them. You had this tremendous, substantive work done by citizens’ assemblies being derailed by referendum campaigns.”

So many wonkish questions, so little time

What Monsef said: “We’re confident that the committee… will put their narrow partisan interests aside and bring forward their recommendations so we can bring legislation.  We’re confident we’ll be able to make the timelines.”

Tanguay’s reaction: “Things are getting very tight, and when you work against a tight deadline sometimes it produces work that isn’t the best. That’s the worry. We’re heading into the summer, I’m not sure how much is going to get done then. That puts a lot of burden on this committee during the fall. I’m skeptical, I suppose, about how the minister can come up with legislation that will be in place within the 18-mont deadline that the government gave itself. It does make some of us scratch our heads about why the government has waited so long to start this process.”