How NOT to Achieve a New Electoral Process

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The Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, has announced the creation of a special committee to investigate and oversee what sort of electoral process should be adopted in time for the next federal election, currently slated for 2019. In my view, the committee approach she is using is fraught with problems. No matter how “good” its recommendations may be, they will be viewed as the product of a Liberal government-biased committee and will not bear the hallmark of impartial legitimacy that any electoral process must have.

First, let us look as some simple facts. In the last election, the results were as follows:

Party                                      Percentage of Popular Vote           Number of Seats

Liberals                                           39.5                                               184
Conservatives                                31.9                                                99
NDP                                                   19.7                                               44
BQ                                                       4.7                                                10
Green                                                 3.5                                                 1

Total                                                 100                                                 338

The committee originally struck by Minister Monsef (until today) is comprised as follows:

Party                                      Number of Committee Members             Voting or Non-Voting

Liberals                                            6                                                               Voting
Conservatives                                 3                                                              Voting
NDP                                                    1                                                              Voting
BQ                                                       1                                                              Non-Voting
Green                                                 1                                                              Non-Voting

Total                                                 12 (10 of which could vote)

Today, the Minister announced that the Liberal government would support the NDP’s proposal that would give no party a majority on the committee.  Now the committee will have the following structure (all voting members):

Party                                             Number of Committee Members

Liberals                                            5
Conservatives                                 3
NDP                                                    2
BQ                                                       1
Green                                                 1

This is clearly an improvement and the government, as well as the NDP, must be commended for rendering the committee more balanced and less overtly partisan. This being said, the committee is still populated by partisan politicians intimately concerned with electoral matters.

Minister Monsef has proclaimed that the “first-past-the-post” (“FPTP”) electoral system “distorts the will of the electorate”. Well, if by the expression, “the will of the electorate” Minister Monsef means “the voice of the majority of electors”, then she is correct. FPTP elections often result in majority governments but for which a significant minority of votes were actually cast. Indeed, the problem is that a minority of voters actually voted for the Liberal Party in the last election: only 39.5 percent of voters in fact.

The problem with leaving the matter of electoral reform in the hands of committee  is that, even if the members of the committee are open-minded, impartial and fair, the product of this committee will be seen as partisan and political in nature, self-serving and illegitimate.
The electoral process does not belong to the political parties. It does not belong to the House of Commons. It belongs, or should belong, to the people. I am prepared to go on record as being a voter who would like to see a change to the FPTP system. I think that, while the FPTP system gives more majority governments than proportionate representation systems and thus, arguably allows for more stable governance, it also creates perversions in the political and electoral process. These perversions can allow a government to act contrary to the overwhelming wishes of a majority of the citizens provided that the government can count on the support of a core minority group. The Conservative Party used this to its advantage under Stephen Harper. The Liberals did so very successfully under Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau.

The body considering reforms to the electoral system should be separate from the political parties. Partisan considerations should not be the foremost factors in the minds of those charged with coming up with the recommendations to the Election Act. In my view, the models used in British Columbia and later in Ontario, while not ultimately successful in those two cases, should be reviewed and considered. A citizen forum or committee, populated with members having diverse backgrounds, should be independently appointed. It should be given resources to retain experts who can advise on the pro’s and cons of different electoral processes. Their report should be tabled in the House of Commons.
The question then is whether the House of Commons should then consider a bill to implement the recommendations or whether it should go to a referendum. In a previous post, I referred to Lawrence Martin’s suggestion that we should hold an initial election under the new process first before putting it to a referendum. That is another possibility, one which I find quite attractive.

But no matter which way we ultimately choose to seek to implement the recommendations for electoral reform, a consultative, non-partisan, citizen-based body’s recommendations will be viewed as more legitimate and less politically driven than the committee model that Minister Monsef and the Liberal Government have adopted, even with today’s commendable improvements.

I remain

Constitutionally yours,

Arthur Grant

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