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Not So Fast, Trudeau: We Need a Referendum on Electoral Reform

No matter which system Liberals choose, Canadians should have the final say.

Bill Tieleman 15 Dec

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

"No government has the moral right to alter the precious process of elections without the approval of the people." -- Professor Patrice Dutil, Ryerson University

If you think democracy means that voters get to decide how we elect governments rather than politicians, get ready for one hell of a fight.

That's because the new Liberal government has promised to radically change the way we elect governments -- but without giving Canadians a vote through a binding national referendum -- and that's totally undemocratic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal campaign platform said: "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system."

But the Liberals did not even indicate what kind of electoral system they would introduce, how it would work or what process they would follow to get there.

Change that lasts

How we vote in a democracy is an absolutely fundamental question requiring Canadian voters to give their approval through a binding national referendum -- because it will affect every election thereafter in a way far more important than any budget or policy decision.

And an electoral system change would last long after this Liberal government's term is over.

Think about this contrast: at my strata condominium, our government-mandated rules state that on key questions the owners must vote 75 per cent in favour for many changes to pass.

So why would we fundamentally change our entire Canadian electoral system indefinitely without at least a binding majority vote by Canadians?

If major issues in a strata condo like buying a new boiler with reserve fund need a three quarter majority, why would the country's electoral system be deemed less important?

The disparity is unbelievable.

It should not be easier for Canada's Members of Parliament to change how we elect governments forever than for condo owners to repair their roof!

This undemocratic proposition cannot stand.

Canadians must come together to demand that Parliament put a clear proposal on electoral change to a national binding referendum -- regardless of personal preference, only a vote can make that decision.

Nothing else is fair. Nothing else is democratic. And nothing else will do.

Democracy comes first

Some may say the Liberals are just keeping their election promise. Rubbish -- the Liberals did not promise not to hold a national referendum on electoral change.

And they are already breaking significant promises -- with some understandable reasons -- such as the pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year's end or to keep the federal deficit under $10 billion.

The New Democrats and Greens are also wrong in not backing a national referendum.

While the Conservatives now demand a referendum, they made a number of negative changes to electoral laws with no mandate and no referendum when they were in power.

So no party has completely clean hands -- but they can all make that right by now promising to support a fair, democratic vote on electoral systems.

There is at least some hope that common sense will prevail.

Liberal government House leader Dominic LeBlanc said last week that: "I never thought that one party with a majority rewrites the rules that apply to everybody else."

That's a good start.

But now we need a solid Liberal commitment to a national referendum on a clear question and for the NDP, Conservatives and Greens to back that position. Anything less is unacceptable.

Fair and informed lessons

I have been through two B.C. binding provincial referenda on electoral systems before, in 2005 and 2009.

As volunteer president of NO BC STV I helped lead opposition to an electoral change proposal that would have meant a radical change for the province. Single transferable vote was only rejected the first time because it did not reach the required 60 per cent in favour set by former BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell.

Campbell rightly believed such a change required a strong majority in favour because the consequences would last lifetimes.

That decision was proven correct in 2009, when after four years had passed and a more fulsome public discussion took place, British Columbians rejected the STV proposal overwhelmingly with 60 per cent against, 40 per cent in favour.

Those results mirror those in the two other provinces that held electoral change referenda -- Ontario rejected proportional representation by a 63 per cent vote in 2007 and Prince Edward Island voted 63.5 per cent against it in 2005.

The United Kingdom did the same in a referendum on electoral systems in 2011 where 68 per cent voted "no" to an alternative vote system.

That's how it should be -- in all three provinces, like the UK, voters could get all the information they wanted and then made an informed choice -- and they decided to keep the first-past-the-post electoral system that has served our democracies well here since 1867.

But those who want change have every right to call for it -- I have no disagreement there whatsoever and support a full and free debate on what would serve Canada best -- so long as it is decided by a national referendum.

However -- and amazingly -- an advocacy group called Fair Vote Canada that claims it wants more democracy refuses to demand a binding vote by Canadians.

"This election was a referendum on the last false-majority government," Fair Vote Canada said in October after the election.

"Fair Vote Canada and its supporters are asking Justin Trudeau to be brave. We are asking him to lead and put the country and its citizens before his party and build a representative democracy where all Canadians have the opportunity to equally participate in the governance and policy making of our country," their news release of Oct. 20 reads.

They want a "fair vote" in the next election -- yet won't demand that Canadians fairly vote on any proposed change to the electoral system -- hypocritical and sad.

Let voters decide!

Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by the Broadbent Institute that purports to show support for a change in electoral systems to proportional representation actually produced an interesting result.

While 42 per cent thought the electoral system requires major changes or needs to be changed completely, 58 per cent of those polled said they believe the system only needs minor changes [41 per cent] or no changes at all [17 per cent].

And of the five top issues cited by respondents, the first four are achieved by our existing system.

Those five are, in descending order of priority:

First-past-the-post -- our current system -- clearly meets the first four priorities and is not dramatically off on the fifth, while other systems are not close by comparison.

Advocates of mixed-member proportional, STV, preferential ballots and a host of other electoral systems will clearly disagree -- and their point of view is very welcome.

But that's exactly the kind healthy, democratic debate Canada needs -- not the imposition of another system to replace our existing one -- without the full and explicit support of voters through a national referendum.

If the other systems are so superior, their advocates should have no complaint about letting the voters decide -- not a handful of politicians without a clear mandate to implement an undetermined change.

If you think democracy means voters get to decide instead of politicians on how we elect governments, please join my new Facebook group Canadians for Democracy on Electoral Change and send all parties a clear message -- no change without a vote!  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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