electoral reform

Liberals create committee to study electoral reform

Trudeau government is proposing to hold town halls in every riding to discuss the issue

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, January 25, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period January 25, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is creating a long-awaited special parliamentary committee on electoral reform and proposing to hold town halls in every riding to discuss the issue.

“We deserve broad, representative politics, a stable government and an opportunity to shape our democracy,” Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef said in announcing the plan.

“That’s why our government is determined to meet our commitment that 2015 was the last election to use a first-past-the-post system.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during last fall’s election campaign to create a committee to examine electoral alternatives and report back with recommendations within 18 months.

But as his fledgling government passed the six-month mark last week with no committee on the horizon, advocates of proportional representation worried that Trudeau was planning to rag the puck long enough that there wouldn’t be enough time to implement reforms by the next election in 2019.

A Commons motion to set up the committee should help reassure them that Trudeau intends to stick to his promised timetable.

It specifies that the committee is to study “viable alternative voting systems, such as preferential ballots and proportional representation” as well as mandatory voting and online voting, and to present its final report no later than December 2016.

Related: The quagmire of reform and the hunt for legitimacy 

But ordinary folks will have a say, too.

“The vision that we have is 338 reports from 338 town halls and testimony from various witnesses,” Monsef said at a news conference today.

She said the key is getting a dialogue going.

“We’re at a point where we’re opening up the conversation; that’s Step 1 and I believe building this whole process on the right foundation is critical.”

The makeup of the committee is already stoking fears that it will produce an alternative voting system that would favour the ruling Liberal party.

The 10-member committee is to consist of six Liberal MPs, three Conservatives and one New Democrat. One member of the Bloc Quebecois and the Green party’s lone MP, Leader Elizabeth May, will be also be members but without the right to vote or move motions.

“We’re happy to see that the committee has at least been proposed,” said New Democrat Nathan Cullen. “Unfortunately it’s tainted with some disappointments, of course. The Liberals have chosen to maintain their false majority on the committee, stack the decks.”

He said that calls into question the legitimacy of the whole enterprise.

Related: The Liberal plan for electoral reform

The NDP had proposed that membership should include all parties with seats in the House of Commons, proportional to each party’s share of the popular vote in last October’s election.

Trudeau has refused to commit to holding a referendum on any proposed change to the electoral system, as Conservatives have been demanding. He has suggested there are other ways to gauge the wishes of Canadians.

Monsef said she wants to see what the committee comes up with.

“I’m not comfortable prejudicing the outcome of the committee work and look forward to the solutions and the possibilities that they propose to use.”

Related: Liberal plan to eliminate first-past-the-post is flawed

The committee motion says a proposed alternative voting system must reflect five principles, ensuring that it will:

— Increase Canadians’ confidence that “their democratic will, as expressed by their votes, will be fairly translated” and that it will reduce distortion between a party’s share of the popular vote and the number of seats it wins in Commons.

— Encourage voting, foster greater civility and collaboration among parties, and enhance social cohesion and inclusion of under-represented groups.

— Avoid “undue complexity” in the voting process.

— Ensure reliable and verifiable election results.

— Maintain accountability between MPs and their local communities.

Time is a factor. Elections Canada will need time to tool up for a new system before the next election.

“The timeline is incredibly tight to get this through,” Cullen said.

He said it could be late June before the committee is even set up.

And he complained that the town halls would have to be held in summer, when Canadians traditionally are little engaged with politics of any kind.