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I’d be shocked if the Liberals didn’t abandon electoral reform

By Tim Powers      

It’s much easier to talk a good game than play one.

Minister for Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef told The Toronto Star any change to the way we elect people to go to Ottawa would require 'broad' public support. Photograph courtesy of Jean-Marc Carisse
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OTTAWA—Last week, in between the duelling Liberal and Conservative policy conventions, Minister for Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef gave us an important sense of the Liberal government’s fidelity to electoral reform. Foreshadowing—not much!

In an interview with The Toronto Star she said any change to the way we elect people to go to Ottawa would require “broad” public support. She did not spell out how “broad” would be defined. No surprise there.

Minister Monsef and her colleagues are quickly discovering making any changes to our systems or institutions is the dog’s breakfast of new governments. Ask Stephen Harper about Senate reform or Brian Mulroney about constitutional change—thankless tasks and energy-sapping endeavours. Getting a lobotomy is easier than changing how Canadians vote.

Is Monsef already giving herself a way out by talking about the need from some yet-to-be-defined “broad” support requirement? Maybe Joe Clark will come out of retirement to run a series of conferences to help forge this unknown consensus. Historians acknowledge that went really well. Not.

Reforming the way Canadians vote is not as simple as telling a bunch of Liberal Senators they are no longer part of a parliamentary caucus. Though that was a compelling move by Justin Trudeau, it was easier to do, as only he alone got to make the call. The prime minister is wise enough to know a similar approach here would blow up in his face.

The Liberals are already taking significant fire for establishing a parliamentary committee dominated by their members to study reform. In other circumstances this wouldn’t be such a big deal but when you are talking about historical reform involving the entirety of a system that has existed since Confederation, it has rightly been pooh-poohed. Also, by not committing to a referendum by all Canadians on electoral reform the legitimacy of the Liberals’ commitment to this exercise gets called out.

In a study commissioned by the Broadbent Institute done by Abacus Data last November to address this subject, data suggest both that “broad” support will be elusive and there isn’t an overwhelming appetite for major reform. Specifically, Abacus found:

  • Forty-two per cent thought the system needs major change or needs to be changed completely. Forty-one per cent thought the system only needs minor changes. Seventeen per cent felt no changes were needed.
  • Twelve per cent of Canadians said they were extremely concerned about electoral reform. Thirty-six per cent said they care a lot about the issue. However, 40 per cent of the public surveyed said it is not really an issue important to them, and another 12 per cent say they couldn’t care less about the subject.
  • When asked to choose five of their most important goals for a voting system, 55 per cent said ballot simplicity was a priority and 51 per cent noted that a system that produces strong stable governments as one of their most important goals.

What this research and other research since has shown is that a herculean effort will be required to convince Canadians that major reform is required. And then the question needs to be asked as to who benefits? Will it make the system more competitive for all parties? Parties may want to stack the deck in their favour, but most Canadians won’t want that.

Frankly, it might not be a bad thing for Monsef to wave a white flag of surrender sooner rather than later if her government is not fully committed to doing the ugly, messy work required to ditch the first-past-the-post model. These initiatives can drive governments to distraction and contribute to their undoing.

To succeed with systemic change you need to be fearless and patient. Modern Canadian politics doesn’t usually possess an abundance of those characteristics despite the rhetorical tidal waves of reform-minded politicians. It is much easier to talk a good game than play one.

Shock and amazement will grip me if the Liberals don’t abandon reform. The Valium is on standby but it likely won’t be needed.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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