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Keep an open mind, cabinet deputy tells democratic reform committee

By Selina Chignall      

'We don’t have much time,' Green Leader Elizabeth May says of electoral reform.

Mark Holland (left), the government's parliamentary secretary to the minister of democratic institutions, pictured here speaking to Electoral Reform Committee chair Francis Scarpaleggia, says the committee should try to determine what values Canadians want to underpin a reformed electoral system. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Members of the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform should remain open minded as they hunker down to hear hours of witness testimony on potential changes to the way Canadians choose their government, says the Liberal government’s deputy on the democratic reform file.

Mark Holland (Ajax, Ont.), the parliamentary secretary to Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, told The Hill Times that members of the committee should not come to the table with preconceived notions about electoral reform, which could lead to “jumping to conclusions.”

The Electoral Reform Committee is comprised of five Liberal MPs, three Conservatives, two members of the NDP, one from the Bloc Québécois, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, B.C.).

The Trudeau government ceded the Liberal majority on the committee last month after the Conservatives and NDP accused it of stacking the deck in the government’s favour.  The government ultimately agreed to give the opposition a majority, in part by including Ms. May and Bloc MP Luc Thériault (Montcalm, Que.) as full members.

The committee is planning a busy summer, hearing from witnesses in Ottawa before hitting the road to hear what Canadians believe a new electoral system should encompass.

“You can expect the committee over the summer time to lay the foundation for what the questions [are] we will be asking, what problem we are trying to solve—before we head out on the road,” said NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), one of the committee vice-chairs.

The committee has to submit its final report with recommendations by Dec. 1, 2016.

Ms. May hinted that Ms. Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) would most likely be their first witness, followed by Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand.

“I think we are all aware that we don’t have much time given the enormous importance and the huge opportunity this discussion allows us,” she said.

“We’ve had an extremely positive start with a lot of flexibility for everybody involved,” she said, adding that all members of the committee get equal time to pose questions to the witnesses.

Besides hearing from experts and the general public, the committee must examine different voting structures and methods of getting people to the ballot box before it can make recommendations, said Mr. Holland, who will be sitting in on many of the committee’s summer meetings but is not a member.

Apart from the mechanics of voting, there is a need to have a discussion of which values should underpin the new electoral system, or, “what hopes Canadians have out of the process, so they have their voice better reflected in the democratic process,” he said.  

Mr. Holland said he hopes this question will get clarified when the committee hits the road later this summer. The dates of the tour have not yet been determined, but the committee is planning to have an open mic period during these meetings where anyone will be able to add their two cents to the discussion. They will also be taking the public’s questions and comments via Twitter with the hashtag #ERRE #Q.

Mr. Cullen said he is looking forward to the opportunity to hear from those who are often less engaged in the political process, like youth, First Nations, and those who more economically disadvantaged. He wants to ensure all voices are heard from as to prevent a ‘status quo mentality.’

Referendum a potential ‘Pandora’s Box’

As the committee moves forward on addressing electoral reform, the Brexit referendum is also on the mind of some of those tasked with examining Canada’s electoral system.

Mr. Cullen said he understands why some may want a referendum on electoral reform, but said he’s hesitant to have one before a new system has been implemented, because, as in the case of the Brexit, a referendum could be a “Pandora’s Box.”

“The question you start with it not always the question people seek to answer. Often it’s a comment on the government itself. It can raise difficult issues that lay just below the surface.”

While Mr. Cullen expressed his hesitation on the subject of a referendum, at least until a new system has been tested during a few elections, his fellow committee vice-chair, Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.), favours a referendum.

“Without a referendum [on electoral reform], it’s the equivalent of Brexit without a referendum. It would be like saying, ‘we are going to leave the European Union without a referendum.’”

The Tories have threatened a Senate blockade of any electoral reform legislation without a referendum.

While there could be a scuffle down the road between the Grits and the Tories on changing the electoral system, Mr. Cullen said what matters most at the moment is “getting a good voting system that serves us all regardless of political affiliation.”

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