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Why Trudeau Must Honour Electoral Reform Promise

Canadians want fairer elections, and proportional representation is the solution, says Fair Vote Canada.

Kelly Carmichael 20 Oct

Kelly Carmichael is the executive director of Fair Vote Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a clear promise to Canadians in the 2015 election campaign. A Liberal government “will make every vote count,” Trudeau said, pledging electoral reform in his first term.

But that promise is under attack by politicians who oppose change and claim the government doesn’t have a mandate to replace the current first-past-the-post system and a referendum is required.*

They’re wrong.

There was already a referendum on electoral reform — the 2015 election. The Liberals, NDP and Green parties all promised to change the electoral system. And those three parties were supported by 63 per cent of voters.

Academic research, expert testimony, citizen feedback and the consistent recommendations of previous commission and studies in favour of proportional representation constitute a powerful case for change.

They give the government a clear mandate — indeed a duty — to act and bring in a proportional representation voting system, one that ensures the results of the election reflect the popular vote.

Canadians want a system that respects our intentions. If we cast 30 per cent of our ballots for a party’s candidates, then 30 per cent of our MPs should be from that party.

The government is moving forward with its promise in a unique way. Last summer, in a show of good faith, the Liberal government broke with the tradition that allowed them a majority on the parliamentary committees and created a special parliamentary task force with a membership that reflected the way Canadians voted. This provides an innovative opportunity to see how proportional representation treats citizens more fairly.

Providing the committee respects the recommendations of the experts and opinions of Canadians, it will deliver a strong mandate to the government for a new electoral system based on proportional representation.

The special committee on electoral reform has heard from more than 150 expert witnesses. To date, of 99 experts who expressed a views on changing the electoral system, 89 were supportive of proportional representation. Only five supported the alternative vote system, which is based on the use of ranked ballots in single-member ridings.

Canadians also participated in hundreds of electoral reform town halls at the invitation of their MPs, undeterred by summer heat and vacation time. Citizens turned out en masse — more than 200 in Peterborough, 300 in Waterloo Region, 250 in Victoria, more than 300 in Whitehorse. Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef complemented the town halls with her own “Engaged In Democracy” events. Meanwhile, Canadians initiated a slew of citizen-lead community dialogues in church basements, community centres and Tim Hortons across the country.

Fair Vote Canada has received feedback on approximately 70 per cent of the town halls. The message was resoundingly clear: only a system of proportional representation will fix the problems that citizens have identified with Canada’s antiquated voting system.

In addition to those who participated in the process, hundreds of thousands of Canadians have expressed their support for a fairer system under the banner of the Every Voter Counts Alliance that pulls together women’s groups, student unions, Canada’s largest labour unions, civil society groups and environmental groups.

It would be an act of defiance for the government to reject the recommendations of the special committee on electoral reform, the only body that fairly represents how Canadians voted. Anything less than a proportional system would be seen as a self-serving, cynical move.

Canada and the provinces have already conducted 13 commissions and studies that have all recommended proportional representation. In fact, this issue has been more extensively studied in Canada than anywhere else.

Canadians are ready for real democratic change. They know that in winner-take-all voting systems like first-past-the-post or the Alternative Vote (Australia’s single-member ranked ballot system), voters are not equal. Voter intention is not respected because riding boundaries act like silos to effectively disenfranchise voters.

In 2015, 52 per cent of voters — more than 9 million people — could not elect a representative aligned with their values. Under the current system antagonism between regions is exacerbated, a minority of voters can manufacture “majorities” and voters in swing ridings have more power than voters in strongholds.

Much of the media discussion on electoral reform has focused on issues of process and legitimacy rather than the actual substance of reform and the design of an electoral system best suited to Canadians’ needs and values. The need for legitimacy is obvious, and we salute all those who seek to apply the legitimacy test to both the process and outcome.

But media coverage of the electoral reform consultations has been virtually non-existent. In describing why, a senior National Post political reporter tweeted, “Cuz they’re repetitive news-free fora!” The Fifth Estate may be regarded as an integral part of democracy; but how disappointing for citizens to find out democracy is not an integral part of the media.

Canadians should be concerned that the media has opted to fill their pages with opinion pieces on electoral reform rather than reporting on the testimony of experts. How are Canadians supposed to make decisions without factual information? How, under such conditions, could a referendum possibly be a viable standard for legitimacy in matters of electoral reform?

We agree that it would not be legitimate for the government to push through a reform based on its own partisan interests, especially when they are beneficiaries of the unjust system that rewarded them a majority of seats in the house with only 39 per cent of the popular vote.

However, if the government were to bring in a proposal for proportional representation in collaboration with two or more of the opposition parties, this argument ceases to apply.

Canadians who have participated in the process thus far are those who care deeply about democracy. The existence of a number of voters who are passionate about the issue and took the time to attend town halls or committee meeting shows the extent to which people feel disenfranchised by the current electoral system and should be reason enough for reforming it.

Where representative democracy provides a variety of ways to study, analyze and deliberate, referenda provide an opportunity to say “yes” or “no” to a question that may or may not be related to what citizens really want.

A referendum does not help to answer fundamental questions. How much importance do you attach to having a local MP? Do you think votes should be reflected fairly and accurately in seats? Would you prefer to have one MP who may or may not be aligned with your values or would you like a team of MPs to choose from? Would increasing your riding size be a problem? Would you like a system that would encourage more women to run? Would you be comfortable voting only for a party or would you like to vote for all your MPs?

Every one of these questions is linked to values Canadians would like to see in a new voting system and deserves careful consideration. Every answer has implications for how a proportional system for Canada should be designed. These nuanced questions cannot be answered in a yes/no referendum in which the answer are all or nothing.

Pierre Trudeau did not hold a referendum on our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and no one asked Canadians to cast a ballot to allow women and Indigenous peoples a vote. It was the right thing to do, just as ensuring voter equality is the right thing to do.

The government has a mandate and a duty to act in the best interests of all Canadians. When the special committee travelled to Prince Edward Island to hear from Leonard Russell, former chair of the Commission on P.E.I.’s Electoral Future, he shocked members when he revealed that the parties that designed P.E.I.’s referendum did not want electoral reform and set the process up to fail.

This reality was described as the elephant in the room, and MPs added they believe the same could be said of the unsuccessful electoral reform process in B.C.

Many worry that the same elephant will rear its head once again in the federal process. Government politicians must be brave enough to follow through on the mandate that has been provided by the citizens.

We expect the special committee to recommend a new system in December and the government to present legislation in May. The timeline provides enough time for Elections Canada to prepare to hold the next election under the new system.

Based on all the information, the committee’s only legitimate only option is a recommendation for proportional representation.

Once that recommendation has been made, it will be incumbent on the minister to carry that it forward and the government to respect and support it. Leadership will be required to educate, champion and promote the recommendation.

Dennis Pilon, a York University professor who has researched and written on electoral reform, set out his position boldly in a July 28 presentation to the special committee.

“I would argue that this committee’s job is to move forward and just recommend that the government change our voting system to a proportional system. The only real barrier is political will. The government has a majority, and we have parties that represent a majority of Canadians whose parties supported this issue. I think there are plenty of reasons for the government to move forward, and here I would argue that the government shouldn’t really worry about critics, because I think the critics’ arguments are mostly politically self-interested. We’ve had a number of commentators suggest that there will be public outrage if there’s not a referendum, but frankly, the only people who are outraged are the ones who are writing such editorials.”

This week, Trudeau suggested that Canadians were so happy with his government that they may be less interested in electoral reform. Trudeau was right when he said Canadians didn’t like one-man-rule before 2015; it takes a lot of chutzpah to suggest they like it better now.

In the 2015 election, the majority of Canadian voters cast their ballots for parties that promised to improve Canada’s democracy. It is now time for the government to be brave and honest enough to implement voter equality as promised and on time.

*Typo corrected Oct. 27 at 9:35 a.m.  [Tyee]

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