The circular logic and mixed messages on electoral reform

A committee made up of all five parties delivered its much-anticipated report on electoral reform—and a predictable jumble of interests ensued

Members of the House of Commons special committe on electoral reform Luc Therault Bloc Quebecois, left to right, Scott Reid Conservative Party, Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Party, Nathan Cullen NDP, and Elizabeth May Green Party hold a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, Decemeber 1, 2016. A special all-party committee is recommending that the Trudeau government design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge how much Canadians would support it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Members of the House of Commons special committe on electoral reform Luc Therault Bloc Quebecois, left to right, Scott Reid Conservative Party, Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Party, Nathan Cullen NDP, and Elizabeth May Green Party hold a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, Decemeber 1, 2016. A special all-party committee is recommending that the Trudeau government design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge how much Canadians would support it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Francis Scarpaleggia was put in a very odd position on Thursday morning.

As chair of the special committee on electoral reform, the Montreal MP was front-and-centre presenting recommendations on one of the government’s signature election promises, to change the federal voting system before Canadians next head to the polls. However, Scarpaleggia and other Liberals on the committee insist citizens are simply too apathetic right now to risk putting the complex issue to a checked-out electorate in a referendum, which was one of the committee’s central recommendations.

“We’re of the opinion on the Liberal side of this committee that Canadians as a whole are not enough engaged on the issue of electoral reform,” he argued in a press conference unveiling the committee’s report. “If there’s a referendum and people aren’t engaged in the issue and they haven’t assimilated the issue properly, what you’re going to have is a referendum result that doesn’t reflect the valid question, and that’s a very dangerous thing.”

It’s curiously circular logic, in a way. If there are no concrete choices on the table, serious debates or advertising campaigns going on, there’s not much to seize the public by the lapels when it comes to an undeniably esoteric, though important, issue. And if the government believes it’s prudent to wait for some undetermined level of interest to be aroused before it acts, it’s unlikely any of those things will take shape that might, in fact, get people to tune in.

MACLEAN’S EXPLAINS: What are all the options for electoral reform?

The Liberals have made it clear they don’t want a referendum. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who pledged on the campaign trail that the 2015 election would be the last under the first-past-the-post system, has argued that status quo is the most likely outcome of putting the issue to a vote, meaning “referendums are a pretty good way of not getting any electoral reform.” Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, told the committee in July that she was skeptical a referendum was the best way, because it was divisive and a blunt instrument to decide complex matters. She has instead repeatedly insisted the government will not move forward without broad public support, but has not been specific about what that means.

On Thursday, in a lengthy press conference that included members of the electoral reform committee representing all five parties in the House, the tone shifted as time went on. What started out as cheery, collegial back-slapping about the hard work and cross-partisan bonding the committee members had done as they travelled across the country hearing from citizens and experts eventually slid into testiness and factional impatience. Near the end of the event, Nathan Cullen, an NDP MP on the committee, expressed frustration with the vague way the Liberals have defined the conditions they now see as necessary to alter the voting system.

“This test of the public has to have some undefined level of engagement before we can act: well then, when would government act?” he asked. His hope is that citizens would tune in simply because the whole exercise is central to democracy, he said. “And at some point, the minister is going to have to define what the hell she means by broad consensus, broad support. It’s a term that’s thrown out there but yet never defined,” Cullen continued in exasperation. “Well, that can be a self-defeating prophecy if you’d like.”

Later on Thursday afternoon, Monsef—who was not present at the morning press conference—appeared to further distance her government from its commitment to swift electoral reform. She threw the committee members under the bus, chiding that they didn’t offer a specific alternative to the current voting system and “did not complete the hard work we expected them to.” And on the same day the committee tabled its report, Monsef was set to launch another listening exercise on electoral reform. In a mass mailout, more than 13 million Canadian households will receive postcards inviting them to provide online feedback about their democratic values. “I don’t want to pre-judge what she’ll find with that, but we’re just saying that as of Dec. 1, we don’t believe Canadians are sufficiently engaged to have a referendum tomorrow on this,” Scarpaleggia said.


The circular logic and mixed messages on electoral reform

  1. There is no need for a change. The call for a change comes from those parties and individuals who do not have a party and following that will ever get them into government, but on some other system they hope top get a look in. That’s nuts.

  2. Having followed the issue over the years, especially in BC, and having attended a regional meeting on the issue, several things seem clear to me:

    1. the majority of voters agree that the current system does not reliably give results that represent the majority view.
    2. the main complaint seems to be that small but significant parties have no hope of reaching representation in the house proportional to their national vote (e.g. the Green party). Proportional representation would resolve this, but transferable balloting will not.
    3. there are so many variations on proportional representation, of variable validity, to select the “one” best system is an almost insurmountable task.

    I suggest that is more than a little disingenuous for the Minister to criticize the committee for not completing an impossible task within unnecessarily tight timelines.

    If we truly want a parliament that represents the views of all Canadians, a change in our election system is necessary, but the change more serious and informed discussion than has so far been allowed.

    • I’d agree with you on most of what you said; however, I do disagree with you’re third point. While there certainly are a number of PR variations, I really don’t think it’s as difficult to settle on a best choice (or two) as people think; countless commissions and Citizen’s Assemblies have been able to do so in the past, within similar time frames (or shorter). Yes, the study of electoral systems can be complicated; but it’s not that complicated.

      So, on reflection, I actually do understand where Monsef was coming from in her criticism in that regard, as I suspect the lack of specific PR recommendation(s) reflects more on the presence of committee members who are simply there to blockade and sabotage electoral reform.

  3. So Monsef is going to have another “listening exercise on electoral reform” Lucky us. This from Wikipedia: A person who receives and understands information or an instruction, and then chooses not to comply with it or to agree to it, has listened to the speaker, even though the result is not what the speaker wanted.[2]. Monsef’s exercise is a study in how to delay, dissemble and deny.

  4. One big shortcoming of the Canadian (and other) systems for electing politicians is that an enthusiastic and a reluctant “Yes” vote carry exactly the same weight in an election. A better system would be an option on each ballot to vote for “None of the Above” as well as the least odious candidate. In other words, an option to say: “I don’t want any of these candidates; but, if I am forced to choose one, then it would reluctantly be “X”. When the election results are published following an election; then the count of voters who voted for each candidate as well as the count of “None of the Above” voters would be clear. If a majority of the winner’s votes were also “None of the Above” then the plausibility of the winner claiming to have some sort of “mandate” from the public would be checked.

  5. I must admit I’m disappointed in this committee’s failure to make a clear recommendation. A lack of detailed interest by a large proportion of the electorate is to be expected. After all, people expect their elected representatives to, well, represent them, not bumble around re-asking the electorate for guidance time and again so they don’t have to actually get up on their hind legs and actually make a decision. If the electorate wanted to make detailed decisions on each piece of legislation, we could eliminate parliament completely, save a lot of money, and just run referendums on each bill.
    The electorate spoke in the last election and supported a major election plank by the Liberals for real electoral reform. The problem related to the documented bad effects of our current FPP system. What more in the way of marching orders is needed? So, all the committee had to do was recommend the best alternative that addressed the various shortcomings of the existing system. And yes, there are always pros and cons and no method is perfect, but it was clear from the beginning that one of the forms of PR clearly addresses these problems the best, and as for which form of PR, well, that’s just the fine points and surely the committee could have wrestled that minor mouse to the ground. Further there are lots of precedents from other countries that have addressed this issue and have selected a form of PR that works well for them. So, really @#$%@&!!.
    What creates difficulties is political partisanship, and the insistence on a referendum is nothing less that a cynical strategy to avoid any real change. When politicians start talking about how complicated an issue is, what they’re really saying is how complicated it is to make it appear they are being decisive without actually doing anything or taking any political risk. Also cynical is Monsef’s admonishment to the committee since we all know that had the Committee actually done it’s job and produced a clear recommendation, the government would have then started dissecting and tweaking and watering down the recommendation as it did with the Assisted Death Committee’s clear recommendations earlier in the year.

    The problem is not an apathetic public, but partisan politics on this committee and in the house. As usual. Electoral reform won’t deal effectively with that problem unfortunately.

    • Many good points. I agree that the voters really did give the government a mandate to change the system – it really was a major plank in their platform. A referendum always sounds so positive and democratic, but is seems a referendum is NEVER about a rational discussion of ideas. Rather, they become hugely partisan conflicts where truth of ideas is the first victim and whoever lies most convincingly carries the day.
      I agree that proportional representation is the only option that can ever give a voice to the minorities, which I think most Canadians would like to see. However, there really are so many variants to PR (such as who selects the minority reps, and how? Which if any riding do they represent? Is there a threshold, and if so what is it, that allows a party to have representation?) These are questions that can be answered, but not by the committee alone, and definitely not in the time frame originally presented.
      Glad to see that the Minister has now stepped back from unjustified criticism of the committee.

    • The problem with your premise is with your contention that the electorate clearly backed real electoral reform when they voted for the Liberal party in the last election. Over 60 percent did not vote Liberal so in fact only 39 percent of the Canadian electorate backed real electoral reform. The Libs don’t have a clear mandate to reform our voting system as no other party ran on this platform. It is the height of hubris to suggest that 39 percent of voter support provides a mandate to change the electoral system and that is why the Libs had to strike up a non-partisan committee although they would have preferred one made up only of LIbs and that is why Canadians want a referendum. If provinces can have referendums on fluoridation, certainly the country can have a referendum on our voting system. I agree fully with your assessment that the Liberals watered down the Assisted Death Bill and their final result did not reflect what Canadians wanted and expected in a physician assisted suicide bill. Evidence has shown that they are now not being completely honest with what they have found with intereactions with Canadians on the issue of election reform. It seems Canadians want a referendum. Naturally, the Libs would want a ranked ballot because they are a centrist party and that would be most advantageous for them. Perhaps they worry that Canadians won’t support that kind of ballot. I know I would not because every lousy premier we have ever gotten has arisen from a ranked ballot where we have had a tight race and the #3 choice has ended up winning when #1 and #2 have cancelled each other out.

      • I think you’ll find the NDP and Green voters were also very much in favour of electoral reform, as were many conservatives for that matter. Most Canadians would agree I think that better representation across the board is a good thing, even if some of that representation does not agree with us. A majority parliament with 39% of the vote certainly isn’t good representation any way it’s sliced.
        I’d agree that ranked balloting is no solution toward getting better representation. If we end up with a ranked balloting system, I for one will simply only give a 1st choice on the ballot to avoid supporting that 3rd choice bozo. Yes, that effectively puts us back to FPTP after a lot of reform angst, but what can you do if the Liberals back party partisanship instead of improved representation and ‘interpret’ the results of their fluffy survey to their own advantage. My bet is the Liberals will use results (or the lack of them) to justify doing nothing, based on a lack of the ‘broad-based support’, what ever that means, required in the original electoral promise. Any takers?

  6. Seems to me the real issue here is that the Liberals like their majority and know the only way they have a shot at keeping it is under FPTP.

    When they made the promise, they thought the best they could hope for was a minority government – so switching to some other system wouldn’t be any riskier. Now, though, with a majority, an unusually long “honeymoon” period, and both major opposition parties leaderless and in a bit of disarray, they have 2nd-term-majority dreams – something only possible under FPTP.

    And so they will look for any excuse to back away from this promise.

    We need to hold them to it.

  7. No change can be made to the electoral system without the consent (referendum) of the Canadian people. Full stop….