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Time to Repair Our 'Damaged' Democracy: Stephane Dion

New foreign affairs minister, a long-time vote reform advocate, dishes on fixing our system.

By David P. Ball 5 Nov 2015 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

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Long-serving democratic reform critic Stephane Dion insists his own ideas will have no bearing on reform committee recommendations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's choice to represent Canada on the world stage, Stephane Dion, will have his work cut out for him promoting the Liberals' brand of democracy as foreign affairs minister.

The former party leader and 19-year veteran MP said protecting democracy at home continues to worry him, too.

"We have been elected to change the policies of the country," the Saint-Laurent MP said in an interview with The Tyee yesterday, "but also to change the way these policies are decided -- the process by which we may improve our democratic practices in Canada, our Parliamentary democracy and our democracy in general... a democracy that has been damaged over the last 10 years."

Today, Dion was handed the high-profile foreign affairs portfolio at a swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa.

Maryam Monsef, an Afghan refugee who at 30 became one of Canada's youngest-ever MPs* after winning jailed Conservative Dean Del Mastro's seat, became the country's first Minister of Democratic Institutions.

But as the federal Liberals' long-time critic for democratic reform, Dion will likely be sought out for advice and remain connected at least behind-the-scenes to the electoral reform file.

He has extensively studied alternative voting systems used around the world, most prominently various types of proportional representation that attempt to align popular vote with the number of seats in Parliament. But which alternative to choose has long divided electoral change advocates, and that's the task ahead for Trudeau's promised parliamentary committee tasked with recommending reforms.

In fact, Dion has invented his own personal voting system he's dubbed "P3" -- proportional-preferential-personalized vote. In a nutshell, rather than one MP per riding, he proposed there be five in much larger ridings than today. Voters would rank parties in order of preference; then rank the five candidates put forward by their chosen party.

But Dion insisted his own ideas will have no bearing on the reform committee's recommendations, which he said will be "an open book."

"You know my views," he said. "You're not interviewing me about my views, but as a spokesperson for the new Liberal team. We want to have an open mind and try to find a way that the way Canadians will choose their MPs will be more optimal than the current way."

Battling skepticism

With Trudeau reportedly reconvening Parliament in early December, Dion said that a cross-party committee will be struck "pretty soon" and will issue its recommendations "within 18 months," paving the way for new legislation enacted well before the next election.

University of B.C. political scientist Max Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, expressed skepticism about whether the government will live up to its reform promises, which could potentially dampen the party's chances next election. Additionally, inviting other political parties to the committee table could make agreement difficult.

"The skepticism isn't necessarily based on an assumption about their intentions or good will," Cameron explained, "but rather the complexity of actually getting it done. It's common for governments to promise such things, but they often find it difficult to do them. In our history with electoral reform, we get great ideas but they get shut down in referenda."

Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, added reform has been studied at the federal level nearly a dozen times without significant changes.

"Every time the committee or study came out with recommendations for some type proportional representation," she said. "But often we end up with the exact same legislation (that was) put before the committee at the beginning."

How does Dion respond to skeptics who think Trudeau may be tempted to keep the formula that won him a majority?

"They are legitimate criticisms," Dion admitted with a chuckle. "It's true that MPs, once they win with (current) rules, have difficulty changing the rules by which they won."

"But this time, Mr. Trudeau has been very clear; we have made such a commitment... and Mr. Trudeau will honour his commitments that he put in the platform."

Referendum ruled out

With Trudeau vowing during the election that this would be the last election under the British first-past-the-post voting system, some voters interpreted that as a signal he was promising German-style proportional representation for the 2019 election. Not so fast, experts caution.

The electoral reform committee could investigate ranked ballot and runoff voting systems, which address some voter concerns, but do not produce proportional results. "We're hoping this new government really is going to make a commitment to a fair process," said Carmichael.

In a previous interview two years ago, Dion sat down with The Tyee to talk about his electoral reform hopes in the basement of a Vancouver pub. At that time, he expressed opposition to the New Democratic Party's promise to enact a mixed-member proportional system, by which voters get two votes -- one for a local candidate and one for a political party of their choice. Such an approach, used in New Zealand and Germany, ensures voters' party preference is reflected nationally, while not punishing strong local politicians.

In his 2013 interview, Dion expressed opposition to the NDP's plans.

"I don't think we are ready now, as a party or as a country, to agree about another system," Dion said at the time. "But we may put this discussion on the table... in order to discover a way to solve our problems without creating other problems. If we don't do it correctly, properly, we may end up with a worse electoral system than the one we have."

Yesterday, Dion ruled out having a referendum on selecting a new electoral system, similar to unsuccessful referenda in B.C. and Ontario. Rather, the parliamentary committee will consult Canadians and experts for advice before suggesting reform legislation.

"When you watch the results on TV, you always wonder to yourself, 'Which region of my country will be out of the executive branch with this kind of system?'" Dion said yesterday. On Oct. 19, Grits were declared decisive winners after sweeping Atlantic Canada -- even while British Columbians were still casting their ballots on the West Coast.

Carmichael said that Canadian citizens will benefit from a switch to proportional representation, and it will likely "change the way people vote," but that depends on adequate consultation with citizens, she said.

"In a first-past-the-post system, what we saw on Oct. 19 was massive mobilizations to remove a prime minister who was very undemocratic," she said. "If you had a proportional system, you could be guaranteed to have some representation closely aligned with your values.

"It removes imperative to get rid of somebody. You could vote with your heart."  [Tyee]

*Updated Nov. 5 at 8:43 a.m.

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