Do the Liberals have a mandate for electoral reform?

Even before the House of Commons can debate the options for electoral reform, it is arguing over how to choose. Is this a fight the Liberals want?

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada December 7, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons December 7, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

“Mr. Speaker,” ventured the leader of the Opposition, “when we change the rules of democracy everyone gets a say.” And Rona Ambrose’s deputy leader concurred. “Mr. Speaker,” Denis Lebel said, “Canada’s history shows that when a government wants to change the building blocks of our country, it consults Canadians.”

A day after the minister of democratic institutions had excited Conservatives with an interestingly worded response, the official Opposition pressed yesterday to mark a potential weakness in the government’s promise of electoral reform: specifically, the Liberal side’s reluctance to commit to a referendum before legislating some alternative to our first-past-the-post system.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister should be very careful in assuming that his election victory gives him a mandate and entitles him to make a change in the election system and our democracy,” Ambrose warned. “When the Prime Minister actually has a clear proposal for a new voting system, will he take it to the people and hold a referendum?”

In response, the Prime Minister committed variously to “consult Canadians,” “engage Canadians” and “engage substantively with Canadians.” But he did not allow for the possibility of a referendum.

By the letter of its party platform, the Liberal government is committed only to implementing changes to the electoral system—”We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system”—after an “all-party” committee of parliamentarians has reviewed the options and made recommendations.

The challenge now for the new government is how to go about doing that without coming to deeply regret ever having made the commitment.

That a change to the electoral system should necessarily be submitted to a referendum is an interesting proposition, and the Conservatives are not quite beyond reproach in making it. There was no referendum to endorse the Conservative government’s Fair Elections Act, the 2014 legislation that changed various rules around voting. Nor did the Conservatives hold a referendum before pursuing Senate reform. There is something here of the debate that ensued when Justin Trudeau vowed that he would whip any vote related to abortion—however much that topic has been considered a matter of “conscience,” it is difficult to draw precise lines around what should be given such special consideration and why. The House of Commons now includes 184 Liberal MPs who were elected on a platform to implement electoral reform. If fulfilling that promise should be prefaced by a referendum, why not a referendum on, say, whatever new targets the government settles on for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Electoral reform might be more foundational than Senate reform or anything in the Fair Elections Act, but at the same time the federal government is not currently required by law to hold a referendum before amending the Constitution Act. Indeed, only two provinces—British Columbia and Alberta—currently require referendums before implementing constitutional changes.

Of course, the Liberals don’t need to win an academic point, they need to win a political debate. And the case for a referendum is strong, in part because the Liberal commitment was not to a particular alternative to first-past-the-post and particularly if you believe, as the Liberal platform would seem to concede, that the system for electing those 184 Liberal MPs is inherently flawed.

But while the Liberals aren’t committing to a referendum, they are also not categorically dismissing the idea. That response of Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions, seemed to hint at the possibility. Yesterday, Monsef’s parliamentary secretary, Mark Holland, told Evan Solomon’s Everything is Political podcast that the Liberal plan for consultation “doesn’t preclude” a referendum.

It would thus seem possible that the all-party committee could return to Parliament with a suggestion that a referendum be held. It’s also possible that a referendum will come to be seen as the best way out of the electoral-reform morass.

The public would seem to be rather divided about whether and how we should change the way we elect MPs. Of the available options, the possible implementation of a ranked ballot is already being linked to Liberal self-interest. Similar selfishness could be read into Conservative and NDP positions—at least now that the NDP, its 2011 gains wiped away, is no longer getting a boost from FPTP. And possibly forgotten here is how split the Liberal caucus might be. In a House vote last December, 16 of 35 Liberal MPs effectively endorsed mixed-member proportional representation.

The potential for a fraught and agonizing debate seems great.

One of Lester B. Pearson’s signature accomplishments as prime minister was the adoption of a new flag. But the famously contested debate over that flag played out over seven months of his five years in office, as unforeseen scandals and distractions otherwise battered his government. One of Pearson’s closest advisers, Tom Kent, later lamented for the energy and attention the flag debate required. But Pearson really wanted a new flag. When it was over, Pearson had a new flag. It is said to have been his most cherished accomplishment, and even a rallying cry for his caucus. Is this to be Trudeau’s flag debate? It is obviously impossible to know that now. But it is a foundational matter, and a long-standing and potentially emotional concern. Even before the House has gotten to dealing with the options for change, it is clashing over the question of how we should choose between those options. The end of the debate seems hard to make out from here.


Do the Liberals have a mandate for electoral reform?

  1. “…the Liberal platform would seem to concede, that the system for electing those 184 Liberal MPs is inherently flawed….” Er, well, Mr. Wherry, there were also 45 MPs elected from the Green & NDP parties. Collectively, with the LPC, these parties represent 63% of voters. All three parties made electoral reform a key plank in their election platforms.

    As well, we live in a representative democracy. As Michelle Rempel so ably pointed out in a Calgary debate with Elizabeth May, it is the job of MPs to represent their constituents in Parliament. Heaven only knows I, like most Canadians, have my own job to do. I can’t presume to be a weekend jockey overriding what the MPs are supposed to do on my behalf.

    As a citizen, I can educate myself and others on the issues, write letters, lobby MPs, appear at committees and even march in the street. But short of insurrection, MPs are stuck with the task of making decisions on our behalf, at least until the next election. Referendums are not even binding on government.

    Certainly, all Canadians must be consulted along with experts and other parties on this very foundational issue. The process must be fair, transparent and comprehensive. Anything less and the Liberals would be “crucified” by Rona Ambrose and the media.

    Similarly, it would be extremely foolhardy of the Liberals to try and game the process by pushing for another winner-take-all system, such as AV (ranked ballots in single-member ridings) when the press has so clearly pointed out how prejudicial it would be to other parties – not to mention voters.

    And as you twittered on Dec 7th, ” A referendum would be a handy way to kill electoral reform.” So really, the referendum proponents being rather dishonest about their motives?

    The Liberals have promised cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building. Citizens need to get engaged, educate themselves and prepare for a debate about electoral reform.

  2. Why waste time and money? Why not follow the recommendation of every one of our law commissions and the example of most democracies around the world? PR. Lets just get on with it.

  3. “Do the Liberals have a mandate for electoral reform?” I don’t think ANY party has a mandate to legislate a reform that is in its partisan interest and against the public interest. For instance, an attempt to bring in preferential ballots as part of another winner-take-all system would be met by resistance from every opposition party, the media and civil society. There is no mandate for it, and it is not going to happen.

    However, if four out of five parties with seats in the house at this time – the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Green parties – representing close to seventy percent of voters were to propose some variant of proportional representation after widely consulting the public, then that is more than enough for me.

    The movement to bring in such a reform is quite possible unstoppable. Too many Canadians now understand the need for reform and the evidence backs them up that proportional systems are better at delivering the goods. Hopefully, more and more conservatives will come to realise that they should join this movement rather than fight it – conservatives in the Maritimes, in Quebec and Toronto, for example; or progressive conservatives who find the current CPC does not represent them adequatesly. What we really need is for the various parties to do what is right for Canadians. Legitimacy will come from a multi-party agreement in favour of the proposed reform.

  4. The mandate for electoral reform is clear, but it is not a one-party mandate. The Liberals got only 39.5% of the vote, and just over 25% of those voters have responded that they would have preferred a Liberal minority government; they were voting to stop Harper, not for another one-party government. The day before the election, pollsters were still expecting a minority government. So were many Liberal candidates. So most new Liberal MPs know how they won. The mandate for proportional representation is from the public, who have told pollsters for the past ten years that they want proportional representation.

    The Liberal platform on Electoral Reform began “We will make every vote count.”

    Many Canadians who voted Liberal want assurance that never again will a divisive political leader win 100% of the power with 39% of the votes. And never again will voters have to vote against something, or vote for a less-preferred candidate to block the election of one even less preferred.

    Only proportional representation will respect the wishes of supporters of all parties to cast votes that are not only counted, but count to elect their first choice.

    Only proportional representation will make every vote count.

  5. Proportional representation would be a disaster, just look at Italy or Israel. We should not be reckless about changing the fundamental structure of our democracy, which has served us (and all other British parliamentary democracies) for so many years.

  6. As I said in a previous post:
    Well, the CPC would almost certainly not support PR or ranked ballots – no more vote splitting. The NDP would likely not support anything that does not have significant PR content – PR gives the 3rd place party the possibility of being a coalition partner. And, the LPC likely really, really wants ranked ballots and does not want PR – ranked ballots likely benefit the LPC (at least initially), and PR means an eternity of being a senior coalition partner at best.
    I’d be absolutely amazed if anything resembling an all-party consensus could be reached.
    If the above comes to fruition, only a referendum could break the logjam.

    I’d also argue, that
    1) There is no downside to holding a referendum, and the only reason to fear a referendum is if you don’t believe “your side” can make a convincing case (in which case, it doesn’t deserve to win).
    2) A referendum has the upside of reflecting what the people of Canada actually want, and not what a government committee says we should want.
    3) The people of Canada deserve to have the final say on something as fundamental as how we choose our MPs and, by extension, leader.
    4) ON, BC, and PEI have set something of a precedent by all holding referendums/plebiscites on electoral reform (if it was good enough for the largest and 3rd largest provinces, then it should be good enough for the country).

    Full disclosure:
    – I’m a big supporter of ranked/preferential ballots. I voted for BC-STV both times.
    – I’m in major opposition to PR.
    – I’m in opposition to basic MMP.
    – I would give careful consideration to something along the lines of the Jenkins Commission Report which recommended a mix of ranked ballot and PR. See: h$ttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/203948.stm .

    • STV is a PR voting system.

      There are two basic families of voting systems 1. Winner-Take-All (majoritarian, plurality), and 2. Proportional Representation (PR).

      Ranked/preferential ballots can be used in both proportional and non-proportional voting systems. With its multi-member ridings, STV is a proportional voting system.

      h$ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-4_yuK-K-k The BC -STV video

      AV or IRV is the proper name for “ranked ballots in single member ridings”, although its promoters seem to come up with a new name for it every week. AV is the winner-take-all (i.e., NOT proportional) voting system that the media is ranting will greatly increase the Liberals seat count and ensure Lib majorities until the end of time.

      AV is commonly used for single-winner elections such as party leader, mayor or Speaker. But it is a lousy voting system for legislative bodies, i.e. MPs. It may even be worse then FPTP.

      Jenkins-inspired MMP is a blend of winner-take-all and PR. It’s a great system.

  7. Actually there’s an enormous downside to holding a referendum on this or on any question requiring more than a few days’ worth of conscientious examination. Namely, we’d be at once unburdening our elected representatives of the very duty we’re paying them for, and consigning it instead to a self-appointed authority—us—bound by absolutely no standard of due diligence and no debt of accountability.

    Barring dictatorship, I can’t think of a more reckless way to run a country.

    As voters it’s not our job to determine policy; it’s our job to collectively determine the people who should, and to hold them to the task.

  8. The only mandate these people have is getting their golden pensions…. with deep love and concern for all people I am sad to inform you these people don’t know who voted for them, nope, just ask them. All they know is here they are the next set of humans who won’t solve even the basic issues we face, and continue to distract us while the weather gets it’s hate on and comes for payment……nice clothes and haircuts though and that should count for something…right ?

Sign in to comment.