On electoral reform, Maryam Monsef wants to ‘get this right’

This is not about partisanship, says the minister, as she puts Liberals in charge

Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, and Dominic LeBlanc, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, make an announcement regarding electoral reform during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, and Dominic LeBlanc, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, make an announcement regarding electoral reform during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

“This is not about advancing a skewed partisan interest,” Maryam Monsef said yesterday as she announced a new parliamentary committee to discuss electoral reform. A majority of the members on the committee are Liberals, but you’re not being helpful when you point that out.

“We need to move beyond a system that pits neighbour against neighbour,” said Monsef, the youngest minister in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet but, I suspect, nowhere close to the most naive.

“In a multi-party democracy like Canada,” she said, “first past the post”—the system that gives each riding to the candidate with the largest number of votes, regardless of whether that candidate came close to winning a majority of local votes—”distorts the will of the electorate.”

It was first-past-the-post that produced—well, most of Canada’s majority governments. Let’s put it that way, in an effort to avoid pitting neighbour against neighbour. If I pointed out that the current government, led by Justin Trudeau, controls 54 per cent of the seats in the Commons based on a little more than 39 per cent of the popular vote, it might pit you against your neighbour. If I point out that the previous government, led by Stephen Harper, controlled almost the same fraction of the seats in the Commons based on almost the same fraction of the popular vote, your neighbour might rise up and smite you. And today just isn’t about smiting, all right? It just isn’t.

“Our government believes all Canadians’ voices should be heard,” Monsef said. And: “We want to ensure that Canadians across our diverse society are involved in this historic change.” Does that include some Canadians in particular? It sure does. “This includes Canadians that often go unheard such as women, young people, seniors, Indigenous persons, new Canadians, those of modest means, those Canadians living in rural and remote communities.” Excellent. But beyond those groups, which together actually add up to a large majority of Canadians, is this process also about the rest?

It sure is. “We’ll be looking for opportunities to inspire all Canadians to vote and to be active participants,” Monsef said.

So. All Voices. Across our diverse society. Because the current system distorts the will of the electorate. To avoid pitting neighbour against neighbour. Because skewed partisan interests are not what this is about advancing. Gotcha.

Onward to questions from the surly gallery. Here was the second: “You’ve got a committee with 10 members and I think you’ve got six.” “You” in this sentence means the Liberals, which I suppose is true if you insist on taking a skewed partisan interest. “It looks like you hogged all the seats. So how is it not skewed?”

Monsef: The committee “reflects the composition of the House of Commons.” With bonus added diversity, in the form of Bloc and Green MPs who will not have voting privileges but will be welcome to listen and talk.

More questions from the surly gallery, this time in French, which were taken by Monsef’s colleague, the government House leader Dominic LeBlanc. One question was on referendums. “The referendum question is much like putting a cart before the horse,” Monsef said. “Right now our priority is hearing from a broad range of Canadians from across the country. I’m particularly interested in hearing from those Canadians who don’t normally engage in the democratic process and don’t normally vote.”

This was all Kabuki theatre. The party composition of the committee matters because the main parties have different ideas about how, or even whether, reform should happen. Justin Trudeau knows this. He even apologized to the Commons last week for suggesting his opponents’ views have slowed down his government’s consultations.

Related from Maclean’s: Do the Liberals have a mandate for electoral reform?

Most Liberals like a preferential-ballot system, in which you rank your choices, because many voters who prefer a specific party to the Liberals’ left or right will list the Liberals as second choice. This would tend to encourage Liberal majorities built, in large measure, from shrugs and why-nots.

The NDP, with a disproportionate number of support from voters who would shrug and why-not the Liberals on their undercard, prefers a proportional system in which first choices would count and endure.

The Conservatives, who won three elections on splits, the way elections are usually won in this country, don’t like any of this talk. They want the people to decide, in a referendum, essentially rediscovering the Reform Party’s taste for popular democracy after Stephen Harper low-bridged that element of his Conservative party’s heritage for a decade.

Related: The quagmire of electoral reform and the hunt for legitimacy

Now, here’s the thing. Each of these positions is legitimate, in the sense that each position protects some values while giving others short shrift. A ranked ballot would be simple but it’s bad at ensuring diverse opinions get represented in the House. (As long as you represent the big non-diverse opinion a ranked ballot tends to lift up, you like this result, and you view it as “not advancing a skewed partisan interest.”) Proportional representation lets a hundred flowers bloom but it can be hard to explain to bored or distracted voters (who are, incidentally, allowed, in a democracy, to be bored or distracted; and in any case are hard to excite or focus). Referendums do give each voter a voice, although that doesn’t make them perfect: they’re best only for simple choices, and by that same token they can exaggerate, and worsen, regional differences.

It would be really excellent if Canada’s minister of democratic reform would demonstrate an understanding of these disputes. I promise you this one understands them very well. I’m not even entirely sure she has cooked this process to produce the Liberals’ favourite outcome, although one notes that everything in this process makes the Liberals’ favourite outcome the likeliest.

But the minister’s determined insistence that there is (on one hand) a commonly accepted common interest and (on the other hand) no particular need to put that notion to a population-wide vote, produces a paradox: She seems so nice. And she is acting the way someone would act if she were trying to pull a fast one.

Will she act on the committee’s recommendations or will the cabinet do what it wants? “The feedback we receive from the committee will be invaluable.”

Yes, but once the committee reports, who will have the final say? “The final decision will be a decision made by 338 MPs in the House of Commons, and then Senate will have an opportunity to review the legislation.”

She wants to get this right. She said so three times. “We want to get this right.” Apparently we’ll have to trust her.


On electoral reform, Maryam Monsef wants to ‘get this right’

  1. The committee was given a mandate that a proposal must reflect five principles… the choice of these principles restricts the options to the Liberals preferred plan.

    There should be a debate about what principles Canadians think are important; the choice of priniciples implies a preferred system.

  2. No party should have a majority of seats without a majority of votes. If 40% of the votes can rule the country – something is really wrong. If would be great if we knew that of the 60% who didn’t vote Liberal, at least 10% are fine with it. Or that means a minority government. That’s cool too.

    I genuinely don’t understand the opposition to ranked ballots. If you are a dedicated Conservative voter, you can vote for just them and walk away. If the NDP endorse the Leap Manifesto, you can vote for all the other parties in order. If you want to support the Green party, but feel you have to support the NDP to keep out the Liberals – you can do that.

    • You start off by suggesting that parties should receive a similar number of seats in Parliament as their share of the vote. It seems unfair that the Liberals with 39% support got 54% of the seats

      The opposition to a ranked ballot is that under a ranked ballot the Liberals would have got 66% of the seats with only 39% support during the 2015 election.

      We could move to a ranked ballot with many representatives to be elected per riding (STV). This would make the seats won a lot closer to the share of vote won by each party.

      • It is impossible to say definitively that under a ranked ballot the Liberals would have got 66% of the seats with only 39% support during the 2015 election.

        The reason for this is because
        a) Nobody knows for a fact what voters’ 2nd and 3rd choices would have been (we can only *guess*). And since most (nearly all?) MPs were not elected with over 50% of the vote in the last election, 2nd and 3rd choices would have mattered a great deal.
        b) Strategic voting, as happened in the last election under FPTP and which gave the LPC its win, would not have happened – as a main point of the ranked ballot is to eliminate the need for strategic voting.

        Indeed, it’s quite likely that a significant number of NDP supporters voted LPC in 2015 in order to get rid of the Harper government; and under ranked ballot they would have voted NDP first, followed by LPC, resulting in more NDP MPs at the expense of LPC MPs.

      • David read up in more detail on how ranked ballots work. If the Liberals got 66% of the seats it would only be because 39% of voters selected them as their first choice PLUS a majority of voters who didn’t select Liberals as their first choice selected them as their second choice. It is like an instant consensus and is more democratic and representative of the will of the majority. That is why the Conservatives just selected Rona Ambrose using a ranked ballot. And that is why all the politic parties use a ranked ballot to select their leader.

        I am not sure how much you have read up on STV but it is a cumbersome system with complicated math. The BC Citizen’s Assembly tried to push that on us in BC in 2005. They were not being honest when they said that it was “Simple as 1, 2, 3”. The “yes” vote received 58% in 2005, but it was really a vote for change. I say “change” because every one of my friends who I talked to who had voted “yes” could not explain to me what STV was, yet they had supported it. Which illustrates exactly why you don’t make decisions using referendums; the public doesn’t take the time to inform themselves even though lots of information is available.

        The Citizens’ Assembly blew our chance at electoral reform in BC for years to come.

    • I bet you got a lot of “Participation” awards as a kid.

    • My issue with a ranked ballot is that I find it to be an illegitimate method to obtain a bogus majority. How exactly does 40% of first votes, and 55% of second votes equal a majority? Because the Liberals say that it does? At the end of the day, if one party can only get 40% of the popular vote, then that’s all they can get. We can certainly have discussions regarding restricting their level of influence and control in Parliament, but what is not productive or honest, is coming up with systems that rig up false majorities under the guise of democracy. What is even more infuriating is this silly charade that they insist on playing, in which they claim that they are consulting all Canadians, and that all voices will be heard. Meanwhile, they say that the status quo is not an option, they won’t put it to a referendum, oh, and that committee that will supposedly reflect the views of Canadians, well that will be 60% Liberal, and then put to an “open” vote in a Parliament that is 54% Liberal. The Harper government had its share of issues, but when they were subversive, they kept it hidden from the public. This government pisses in your face and insists that it is pleasant morning dew.

      • Well then if you don’t understand how ranked ballot works read up on it! It is not that difficult to understand. And it is not rigged to one party another. It is a simple tweak to our current first past the post system that results in a much better reflection of the will of the majority. The Conservatives just selected Rona Ambrose using a ranked ballot. That should tell you all your need to know about it. The other political parties also choose their leaders using a ranked ballot as well. It is an instant consensus. And it would be repeated 338 times across the country in each riding.

        As for a referendum, there have been lots of even bigger electoral changes over the last 150 years but never with a referendum because the changes were just the right things to do. Do you think women getting a vote should have been decided with a referendum? Improving our current system to better represent the broader majority of the electorate is also just the right thing to do.

        Here is a link about previous electoral reforms that you might find interesting:


  3. It’s refreshing that Maryam Monsef knows there is such a thing as right and wrong, even in voting methods. The BC Citizens Assembly report got it right. For many years, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg had it right.
    Richard Lung.
    Free e-books (Smashwords): Peace-making Power-sharing.
    Scientific Method Of Elections.

    • Richard, the BC Citizen’s Assembly proposal was an absolute debacle. Instead of keeping it simple (like the preferential ballot for example) they tried to do a heart and lung transplant on the electoral system. The result was the STV (Single Transferable Vote) which they very dishonestly promoted as being “Simple as 1,2,3”. Then, when the “Simple” idea was challenged the argument “You don’t have to understand the inner workings of a car (computer, watch) to use one” was used. Really? We don’t need to understand how our voting system works?

      The Citizen’s Assembly alone selected the one and only choice that we had to vote on. They should have given a choice between a very simple tweak to our current system (most likely the ranked ballot) to the more complex proportional types (which could have been MMP or STV). The referendum ballot could have been divided into two parts. First, do you want to change our electoral system, yes or no? Then for those who chose “yes”, the second part could have asked them to choose one or rank their preferred system from the two or three choices. If enough voters chose “yes” then the next referendum could have been between the top two choices for electoral reform if there was not a decisive winner.

  4. [as I wrote in a previous post on this]

    Something this game changing definitely requires a referendum. BC, Ontario, and PEI all had referendums on electoral change, so I do not see how the federal government could say it’s not needed at the federal level.

    FWIW, I favour ranked balloting, followed by STV, although “alternate vote plus” (Jenkins Commission) looks very interesting to me.

    Andrew Coyne wrote an article in which it was suggested to have the referendum *after* the system had been changed. So, committee does its thing, system is changed based on its recommendation, election is held under the new voting system, and then a few years after that (allowing us to live under the results of the changed system for 2 or so years), a referendum is held to decide whether to keep the new system or revert to the (bias alert) utterly stupid FPTP. I though that was a reasonable compromise.

  5. Paul Wells: If I and the neighbours on either side of me vote Liberal, Conservative, and NDP, but only one of us gets an elected representative of our choice because of the voting system, that’s “pitting neighbour against neighbour” in the competition to get represented; and that’s why we need proportional representation (PR) for all.

  6. Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world. First-past-the-post means national parties in Canada have to be big tent parties that broker the interests of the regions and socio-economic classes internally. In radically changing what has made Canada an extremely successful country, one should be wary of the unintended consequences of supposed good intentions. All systems have strengths and weaknesses.

    • What do you think this is? Italy? France? All these alternative systems mean splintered parties – France still has a Napoleonist party and a Degaullist Part and god know what Italy has, except that they seem to change the government as often as they change their sheets. I don’t think the issue is whether a particular party has a majority of votes as opposed to a majority of seats because it is not individuals who are represented but constituencies. If it were individuals, why can’t we vote Trudeau out by voting against HIM? A seat represents a constituency and everyone in that constituency that has a vote. I am all for keeping the first past the post. The cry babies are those whose representatives don’t have a hope in hell of commanding the loyalty of more than a few voters – such as Elizabeth May and her Green Party, and will not likely in a million years – or some other splinter group.

  7. Since the different voting system preference is differentiated on partisan support, it makes one wonder if the discourse will start tending towards a vote (FPTP) on the voting system as more appropriate than a referendum, (and perhaps still including FPTP as one of the options, rather than ruling it out).

    • On that I disagree. The only way to resolve this is to put any system recommended by the committee to a referendum as they did in BC. While seat votes are best represented in FPTP, the choice of system should be individually approved or disapproved as the proposal in this case will be reviewed by a committee consisting of a majority of Liberals.

      • And exactly how many voters will actually take the time to independently educate themselves on the topic at hand before voting in a referendum? I voted in the 2005 referendum in BC when 58% voted “yes” and I can tell you that every last one of my friends who had voted yes for STV (single transferable vote) could not explain STV to me. They had simply voted for “change”. They knew very little as to how STV worked. And that is why we should’t have a referendum. There has never been one to the best of my knowledge in a 150 years of federal electoral reforms.

        • Re: both comments from Blacktop and Francis Lundhagen

          Would it be prohibitively expensive to hold an FPTP vote, followed by a referendum vote? And also, although the preferences are differentiated along partisan lines in the elected House, if an FPTP vote were to be held on this single issue of a voting system, would it be reasonable to expect the electorate to be less differentiated in the same manner? In this light, the liberal majority in the committee could be justified, if they have one voting system allowed per party (4, if including the Green party), all of which must meet the criteria set out by the liberal majority, and so demonstrate that they are indeed governing in the fair and just manner that they were democratically elected to do.

          However, while an FPTP vote could be informative to the public (via compare/contrast), would this create artificial and unnecessary divisions in the country? Or would a referendum following this render them moot, if whatever voting system that comes out of the FPTP vote is subjected to the referendum?

          • Sorry, can’t count. 5.

          • Hey SWSC: I wasn’t quite sure what you meant. Are you suggesting that we have a FPTP vote on 5 types of voting systems put forward by each party and then have a referendum on the voting system that got a plurality of the votes? What is the Green Party and the NDP both want proportional representation, then would there only be four choices?

            I still have the same concerns about referendums that I articulated above.

          • Yes, in principle, 5 would be the maximum. The tricky part about including FPTP would be the status quo factor. So, say we want Canada-wide discussion to involve everyone, it may seem useful to leave out FPTP, and really talk about how much better other options are over FPTP. If FPTP were to be left out, the 5 parties could form coalitions to give the voter 2, 3, or 4 choices on the initial ballot. If we have only 2 choices, it would become regional referenda. If 3 or 4, then the danger of vote-splitting. Therefore, if three or four, demotivate vote-splitting by guaranteeing a non-regional referendum on the top two choices. And then, because of the onus of overturning the status quo, there must be a final referendum between the country’s top reform choice vs. FPTP.

  8. Minister Monsef’s logic-bending is incredulous; knowing there would be a referendum could >>>>>>>>>> “prejudice the outcome of that consultation process”.

    The outcome of the consultation process is to let Canadians VOTE before any bill is enacted which CHANGES our electoral process. It’s not up to the self-serving politicians and political parties to decide what they think is best for us.

    Furthermore, the referendum must be held before the next election. I prefer that it coincide with election as its more cost efficient and that it could dramatically increase voter turn-out would augers well for democracy.

    Ms. Monsef a referendum is the process of referring a “political question” to the general electorate. What could be more political than changing the nature of our electoral process? Not having a referendum.

    A referendum is quintessential to the integrity of the process, Ms. Monsef, please let us “plebs” vote!

    • Again, Maureen, how many people will actually independently educate themselves before they vote. You know that it will be very few. Would you, as a woman, have liked your right to vote to have been determined by a referendum?

  9. I think both the media and the public know very well that there would be absolute gridlock if the Liberals didn’t retain a majority. All parties are represented on this committee and they all will have their input but the ultimate decision to move on will be the Liberals as it should be. Regardless of what is done the Conservatives will not be happy. And the NDP won’t be happy unless it is proportional representation. However, whatever the Liberals decide upon, it will be an improvement over first past the post.

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