A surprise turn for Canada’s debate on electoral reform

By giving up their majority on the House committee on electoral reform, the Liberals inject new energy into the process for changing how Canadians vote

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef is joined by fellow MPs Mark Holland, right, and Greg Fergus as they speak to reporters in the foyer of the house of commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 2, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef is joined by fellow MPs Mark Holland, right, and Greg Fergus as they speak to reporters in the foyer of the Huse of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 2, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Back on Dec. 4 last year, on the day the new Liberal government’s first Speech from the Throne was delivered, Dominic LeBlanc, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s boyhood friend and now, as House leader, his point man in Parliament, sat down for an interview with Maclean’s.

LeBlanc’s mood was buoyant, and he sounded confidently relaxed—particularly when he spoke about the Liberals’ campaign promise to end Canada’s traditional first-past-the-post system for electing MPs. Even though the Liberals had won a majority, LeBlanc said “changing the electoral system in a perfect world should be done by consensus, or with broad support in Parliament.” He added, “I never thought that one party with a majority rewrites the rules that apply to everybody else.”

And yet, when LeBlanc and Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef announced their plan last month for a House committee to study electoral-reform options, they gave their own Liberal MPs the usual majority of the seats. That’s normal on House committees, but opposition MPs cried foul in this instance—and given what LeBlanc had said about “rewriting the rules” for elections being different from other policy briefs, they had a point.

Today, the government conceded that point. Monsef appeared this morning in the foyer of the House to announce that the committee is being restructured along lines proposed by the NDP. To carry the day, the committee’s five Liberals will now have to coax over to their way of thinking at least some of its opposition members—three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one from the Bloc Québécois, and Green MP Elizabeth May.

“Today is about us demonstrating that we continue to be committed to our promise to listen to Canadians,” Monsef said. “We recognize that good ideas come from all parties. We recognize that Canadians expect us to co-operate and collaborate.”

That’s the sort of honeyed talk that generally prompts eye-rolling around Parliament Hill. But it’s hard to deny the potency of a majority government voluntarily diluting its power on such a key committee. That’s not how Ottawa usually works. “The impetus for all of this is to get the conversation beyond one on process and for the committee to begin its work of hearing from all Canadians,” Monsef said when asked why the Liberals bowed to NDP pressure. “That is our motive for all this.”

MP Nathan Cullen led the NDP push for a committee not dominated by Liberal MPs. Asked today if Monsef deserves credit for accepting his advice, he said, “Yes, yes.” But then he added that on other fronts, the Liberals have not been so benign, mentioning, for example, their refusal to adopt proposed opposition amendments on the contentious physician-assisted dying bill.

Cullen first proposed the novel idea of the Liberals surrendering their committee majority back in early February. At the time, few in Ottawa imagined he was likely to get far with it, although, thinking of LeBlanc’s remarks from late last year, I interviewed Cullen about the idea. I have to admit, though, that Cullen’s concept seemed to me more like an interesting gambit than a likely blueprint.

I wonder if even he really thought it stood a chance. Was there just a hint of dazed wonderment in his tone today as he reacted to Monsef’s move? “This seems to me a much less cynical process,” he said in the House foyer. “The biggest winner out of this is Canadians who want to see our voting system changed in a positive and hopeful way, that the parties work together. I know: radical notion.”

But a radical notion the Conservatives are not in a mood to salute. Their main demand is not for the Liberals to accept the need for some opposition buy-in, but rather for whatever reforms emerge to be put to all Canadians in a referendum.

That’s not the Liberal preference. Digging again into archival interviews, I cast back to something Trudeau said way back last spring, when he first floated the promise to change the way Canadians vote: “We’ve committed to strong, open consultations. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed by people that electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites.”

He means referendums on getting rid of the old first-past-the-post system that have failed in B.C., Ontario and Prince Edward Island, plus Britain to boot. Monsef wouldn’t be drawn today into a clear yes-or-no answer on a referendum. She wouldn’t speculate on exactly what will come at the end of the process ahead.

That process can be sketched as something like this: MPs hold town halls on electoral reform in their ridings this summer and early fall; the House committee holds hearings and reports back by December; Monsef and LeBlanc do their own outreach, likely including trips to rural and remote communities; and the government tables new election legislation about a year from now and, if all goes according to plan, passes it before summer 2017.

About a year is not a long time to rethink and revamp how Canadians elect their federal governments. After all, it took the new government nearly eight months to get to today’s breakthrough. The pace is about to pick up and the stakes for Canadian democracy, as has always been the case in this simmering debate, are extraordinarily high.


A surprise turn for Canada’s debate on electoral reform

  1. I want a referendum at the end of all the jawing.

  2. As much disdain as I have for Trudeau and Liberals in general, I have to concede that this was a good move, if all the other members of the committee can vote, which was not the case in the original format for this committee. Your article failed to mention that. Will all the MPs on this committee be able to vote? Or do the Liberals still have a voting majority? Saying they gave up the majority of seats on the committee while retaining voting majority is exactly the kind of “transparency” that JT campaigned on. If they truly gave up their majority VOTE then I applaud them.

  3. Talk about Harper being a dictator, that’s exactly what the Turd was trying to do.

    • There’s a FAR BIGGER TURD in the punchbowl now-our new narcissist-Mr. Selfie-Trudeau # 2. His old man nearly ruined the country with runaway spending which led to 18% mortgage rates and the boy isn’t nearly as smart as his old man

    • I thought this was a checkmate move on behalf of the Grits, it says to NDP supporters, remember when the next election comes around, the Grits will be there for you, so don’t forget to vote for us to help keep the conservative government from ever being in power again. I love it whenever I see and hear the cons have a conniption.

      • Oh yes, it’s a bad day for Tom Mulcair when Nathan Cullen and the NDP get credit for this. It’s a sign the Grits are willing to work with Cullen and the NDP, and not Mulcair and the NDP. Another election promise by the Liberals.

  4. As far as I can see the ND’s will support the liberals so nothing has change. Let Canadians decided through a referendum.

  5. They already tried a REFERENDUM in Ontario. They had a referendum alright – with zero information. People don’t vote for something they don’t have the slightest idea about.
    And that’s exactly what they’ll do again: a ‘referendum’ with no publicly available announcements explaining what its about.
    Some people in Ontario EVEN thought it was the ‘referendum’ about Quebec separation.
    They will NEVER give up a system that gives them a majority govt. with less than 40% of the vote. We have a non-democratic system and they like it that way.

  6. The NDP are unaware of it, but they’ve just stepped in a giant cow pie.

    And the Cons followed them. LOL

    It’s one of those ‘third rail’ items like Constitutional talks….

    Plus we’ve already had 2 failed referendums on it…..Ont and BC

    Nobody wants a ‘pizza parliament’

    Smooth move, Justin!

    • Failure of referendums in Ontario and BC is not a reason to not have a federal referendum.

      If the pro-reform side can’t make a compelling case for change and have it accepted by the populace via referendum, then it doesn’t deserve to have that change implemented.

      And I say this as a person who would like to see reform in the form of the Ranked Ballot (or, if not, STV or AV+).

      • While I prefer the FPP system as representative democracy (it is the constituency that is being represented, not individuals in the British Parliamentary system). I agree that when we are possibly changing the system that a national referendum is required. The fact that the referenda in BC and Ontario “failed” is misleading. The majority did not want a change. It’s that simple.
        Generally it is the small groups that want a change as they cannot have a look-in otherwise. The system in Israel is touted by some of the reformers but I have just concluded the reading of Israeli history and that system has been a bane; fragmented parties leading to endless coalitions where the very extreme end up influencing matters because of the need to have a coalition majority. Hence Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party which has been a barrier to peace negotiations. Fortunately, we are not surrounded by hostiles but fragmentation and coalition is not the answer. Too much political blackmail.

    • Re: EMILYONE on ‘third rail’
      Yup, Ms. May gave it away: keywords are “equal rights.”

  7. Well that’s stuff Harper never did! If they put Ambrose on the committee perhaps after listening to her inane babble for a while, some of them will just beat themselves unconscious. There’s no legal basis for naming the federal government after yourself, perhaps reformed elections can fix that with a vote for king.
    There were several references to British practice in the article – don’t you think it’s about time for Canadians to stop being colonial toadies?

    • Oh, don’t be racist. No British-bashing. Case in point: William Wilberforce.

  8. Not only is there no need for a referendum, as has been pointed out by people like Conservative critic Scott Reid and Green Party leader Elizabeth May, under current legislation, electoral reform does not qualify for a referendum. In other words, those demanding a referendum have no legal basis for such a demand. If the government proposes reforms that are approved by the majority of the committee, which of necessity will need to be supported by two or more parties, it will have all the support it needs to put those reforms into law. Rather than demanding a referendum, the Conservatives would do better to participate fully and constructively in the committee’s deliberations so that the resulting reforms will be in the best interests of all Canadian citizens.

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