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Window Closing on Electoral Reform, Warns NDP's Cullen

Liberals vow committee to study issue will be struck 'soon.'

Jeremy Nuttall 3 May 2016TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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Advocates for electoral reform are getting anxious that the federal government will miss its chance to change how Canadians vote in time for the next federal election, as another month passes without any progress on the issue.

NDP critic for democratic reform Nathan Cullen said months ago that he was worried the government would not have a plan in place for the 2019 election. A committee to study the issue has still not been struck.

"We should already be well into the legislative and consultative process," Cullen said. "We have no timeline. We have nothing."

Cullen made his comments after participating in a panel discussion on electoral reform in Ottawa on Monday evening. The panel was hosted by Fair Vote Canada, an electoral reform advocacy group.

Other panelists included Conservative deputy critic for Democratic Institutions, Blake Richards; and Liberal Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Democratic Institutions, Mark Holland.

Part of the Liberal party's successful campaign in the October election was a promise to reform Canada's electoral process in order to better represent the voting intentions of Canadians.

Critics of the current first-past-the-post system argue the method mutes the voices of millions of voters, because whichever candidate gets the most votes in a riding is sent to Ottawa.

The system essentially ignores the will of everyone who casts a vote for someone other than the winner, they argue.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he wants a system that includes the voices of those who didn't vote for the person who ended up with the most votes.

Such a solution could include something like the ranked-ballot system used in Australia.

But despite government promises to form a committee of MPs to study potential changes to the system, the process has not started.

Cullen warned the window on getting such changes accomplished before the next election is closing.

He said it would take time to draft and pass a bill, and then make any necessary reforms to Elections Canada guidelines, such as boundary changes, to accommodate the legislation.

On top of such legislative changes, there also needs to be enough time to properly educate voters on how the new system works, he said.

"There is not the luxury of time," Cullen said. "I don't understand this very casual lack of urgency approach from the government."

He said the Liberals have "no good reason" for the delay, arguing that Ottawa has already started work on many other issues since being elected in October.

Committee coming 'soon'

Cullen had reiterated his complaints in early April, and at the time the minister for Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, told the Globe and Mail the committee would be struck "very soon."

The Liberals' Holland echoed that comment during the question portion of Monday's panel, when he told an audience member that such a committee would "soon" be struck.

"We're as anxious as anybody else, so (it will be established) in the immediate future," he said after the event.

He said there's no reason at this point to think a new system would not be in place by 2019.

Though Holland said he's confident the window to make such changes in time for the next election won't close, he stopped short of making a guarantee.

"I'm unfortunately not clairvoyant," he said. "I don't know what other things might happen in the future or how the opposition parties will comport themselves or how cooperative they might be."

Holland said the process is complicated, pointing out that even within the Liberal caucus the opinions on what changes should be implemented vary vastly.

But it's such differences that make the need to open the discussion pressing, argued Cullen.

He said many people voted for the Liberals because of their promise to reform Canada's voting system, and if they don't deliver they could be punished next election.

The laughs and groans from the audience at Monday's event when Holland declared to the crowd that Canada's democracy is one of the greatest in the world suggest Cullen is not wrong.

"I'm noticing a shift in the last two months or so at these types of events right across the country, where the patience is very thin now with those who care about this issue," Cullen said. "This group should not be taken for granted."  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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