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Electoral Reform Committee report almost in works, but PM comments cast shadow

By Laura Ryckewaert      

Based on comments last week, it seems unlikely the committee will recommend adopting either online or mandatory voting in Canada.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef, right, and Isabelle Mondou, an assistant secretary at the Privy Council Office, participate in a July 6 session of the Electoral Reform Committee. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The Electoral Reform Committee will soon begin drafting its recommendations after months of work costing more than $670,000, with a “colossal” level of input up for consideration. However, recent comments from the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have left some members questioning the fate of reform efforts.

Committee members are nonetheless keeping positive about the possibility of reaching a consensus in the committee’s upcoming final report, due to be tabled by Dec. 1.

“In a few hours I will be in a meeting with the electoral reform committee, so I will look at my Liberal colleagues there and say, ‘What are we doing here exactly?’ I’m not sure now,” said NDP MP and committee member Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, Que.) on Oct. 19. “I still look forward to working with them to find solutions, but it was not a good day for the whole process of that committee.”

The Liberals promised during its campaign last year that 2015 would be the last federal election under the current first-past-the-post voting system. Last spring, the government launched a special committee on electoral reform.

Chaired by Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.), the House of Commons’ 12-member Electoral Reform Committee includes four Liberals, three Conservatives, two NDP MPs, with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) and the Bloc Québécois also given seats at the table. The Liberals do not have a majority on the all-party committee.

Since June 21, it’s been studying options to change Canada’s federal voting system, along with considerations for mandatory and online voting, with a total provided budget of $678,560 for its work, including cross-country meetings.

But comments made by Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to Le Devoir last week—combined with no guarantee from the Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) that the committee’s recommendations will necessarily be included in legislation expected next spring—have raised concern among some opposition members whether months of work have all been for naught.

“Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like’. But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling,” Mr. Trudeau told Le Devoir for an article published Oct. 19. “If we are going to change the electoral system, it requires that people be open to that.”

When asked about the PM’s comments in Question Period on Oct. 20, Ms. Monsef said the prime minister “has, and is, honouring his commitment.”

In an emailed response to questions last week, she reiterated that the government “look[s] forward to the committee’s expected report.”

“The committee’s report will of course factor in to our government’s decision-making. We hope to introduce legislation as soon as practicable in 2017,” said Ms. Monsef, adding the government, “will not move forward on reforms without the broad support of Canadians.”

In a media scrum on Oct. 19, Mr. Scarpaleggia said he didn’t take the PM’s comments to mean the committee’s work had been for nothing, but noted, “there are all sorts of degrees of reform,” and ultimately, change “may be minor.”

“The way I interpret his remarks were that he’s going to take input from the committee. He’s going to take input from the minister. He’s going to consider what Canadians want and that will affect the way he approaches this outcome and the speed at which he approaches it,” said Mr. Scarpaleggia in French.

Liberal MP and committee member John Aldag (Cloverdale-Langley City, B.C.) told The Hill Times he had “no concerns about the PM’s comments,” and is confident that Ms. Monsef will “review” the committee’s work and “consider its recommendations.”

But Conservative MP and committee vice-chair Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.) said he was “very surprised” by Mr. Trudeau’s comments, which he thinks need to be made “clearer.” He said for him, it raised questions, including “how much priority is [electoral reform] getting?”

“Are we doing this for nothing? I would like to know the answer to some of those questions,” said Mr. Reid.

Many political pundits have argued that Conservatives have given Trudeau an “out” on reforming Canada’s federal voting system by insisting that a national referendum must be held on the issue, and that the Liberals’ electoral-reform promise helped sway split NDP-Liberal progressive voters in the last election.

‘Colossal’ amount of information to be considered

The committee completed its cross-country tour on Oct. 17, after holding 17 meetings—hitting every province and territory—featuring both expert witness testimony and audience input.

Committee members who spoke with The Hill Times last week all praised the cross-country meetings as a fruitful and important chance to hear views from Canadians, despite some criticism about a lack of diversity among attendees.

Returning to Ottawa last week, committee members began planning out with clerks the upcoming task of analyzing more than 150 submitted briefs, MP town hall reports (which all 338 MPs were asked to provide), 22,247 responses to e-consultations, and testimony from more than 300 witnesses to draft a final report—with a fully translated version due in the House by Dec. 1.

The NDP and Conservatives have also submitted separate caucus reports, in addition to individual MP reports. The NDP caucus’ report didn’t endorse a specific voting system, but noted a majority of respondents to its various outreach efforts supported a “proportional” system that maintained local representation. The report from the Conservative caucus, based on mail-outs sent by 59 of its 96-member caucus asking whether a referendum should be held, found more than 90 per cent of respondents want one.

In three meetings last week, members heard further testimony, including from Forum Research, the Canadian Federation of University Women, Ekos Research, Fair Vote Canada, YWCA Canada, the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, and Carleton University professor William Cross.

The committee will hear from more witnesses on Oct. 25 and hold a three-hour evening meeting in Ottawa on Oct. 26, entirely for “audience remarks.”

Even with all the consultations done, Ms. May said not everyone who wanted to speak has been heard from, “but we also have to get down to brass tax.”

But Mr. Reid noted that work “will begin and end much sooner than we think.”

“A large part of the substance needs to be tied down much earlier than people realize,” he said, adding he feels the committee needs to “clear off more time for the discussions and negotiations.”

While meetings are yet to be scheduled, Mr. Boulerice said he expects the committee to hold likely at least “three to four meetings per week” during report-writing efforts. The House of Commons is not scheduled to sit during the second week of November.

The amount of information up for consideration by committee members is “colossal,” said Mr. Boulerice.

“That’s a lot, but it’s not impossible,” he said. “At the end of the day we have to sit [down] and say, ‘OK, do we agree on some new system now that we have all that.’ Because this is the background, what we need to have [still is] a rational and intelligent, I hope, conversation about the new electoral system.”

Noting the mountain of information attained, Mr. Aldag conceded he “personally will not be able to read every one of those submissions,” but also lauded the “quality” of analysts who will help provide “summaries of what was done” in order for the committee to include “aggregate information from Canadians” in deliberations.

“The real work is about to begin, which is how do we pull together this diverse information,” said Mr. Aldag. “I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to get to consensus [on recommendations]. I think, to me, that is the ultimate goal.”

While the Conservatives have stood fast on calling for a national referendum on any change, Mr. Reid said “the possibility of consensus is open” for the committee, noting no party at the table has ruled out recommending a referendum be held.

“As long as there’s a referendum, with the status quo versus something, you’ve got us on side,” he said.

He said a majority of those who advocated for change backed proportional representation, but without a referendum recommended, “we can’t sign on.”

Ms. May said she believes “there’ll be a consensus report” reached, with all parties having recognized that among those who told the committee they want change, some form of proportional representation is preferred, along with maintaining a link to local representation.

“There’s a whole bunch of systems and hybrids of systems that preserve the local link while giving proportionality,” she said.

From the e-consultations, to taking questions from Twitter, Ms. May said she’s not aware of a “historical precedent” in terms of the outreach undertaken by the electoral reform committee. She also lauded the “extremely hard” work of the parliamentary analysts supporting the committee.

But Ms. May said she has a sense of “profound shock and disappointment” over the lack of national and local media coverage of the committee’s cross-country meetings, with almost no attendance at the majority of meetings and just audio coverage by CPAC.

Already, based on The Hill Times’ discussions with committee members last week, it seems unlikely that adopting either mandatory or online voting in Canada will be recommended. On the latter, testimony from computer scientist Barbara Simons highlighted the potential for hacking and “election-rigging malware.”

“We were all very worried after that testimony. I cannot say the conclusion right now, but I think this is one issue where consensus will be reached very rapidly,” said Mr. Boulerice.

Said Mr. Aldag: “She put the fear of God in me over the idea of online voting.”

In terms of mandatory voting, he said, “what I heard is generally we’re not ready to go there.”

Also of note as the committee delves into its final stage is the upcoming provincial plebiscite on changing P.E.I.’s voting system, taking place Oct. 29 to Nov. 7 by ranked ballot with five options on the table, with preferential ballots and different degrees of first-past-the-post and proportional voting up for consideration. The voting age has also been lowered for the plebiscite and more online voting options introduced.

Relatedly, at its Sept. 29 meeting in Leduc, Alta., the committee heard from Sean Graham, who designed the dual-member proportional system as one of the considerations in P.E.I.

The Hill Times

A summary of the NDP and CPC caucus reports

The NDP’s caucus report noted its MPs heard from more than 37,000 Canadians during their public consultations, including 12,500 people via telephone town halls and online surveys, and more than 3,000 in riding town hall meetings.

Calling the current first-past-the-post system a “19th century two-party voting system,” the report indicated that 84.3 per cent of town hall participants supported proportional voting—that is, that a party’s seat count in the House of Commons should reflect the percentage of votes received—while 81.7 per cent supported having local representation, and 79.1 per cent supported parties working collaboratively to find a new electoral system.

About 66 per cent supported the idea that increasing diversity and gender equality should be a priority in a new system of voting, but only about 34 per cent supported lowering the voting age to 16 years old. It also found respondents were “reluctant to embrace electronic voting” over concerns of potential hacking, vote distortions, or system crashes.

While endorsing a “proportional” system that maintained local representation, no specific new voting system was mentioned in the report.

The Conservative caucus’ report noted not all CPC MPs held town hall meetings as they were seen as an “imperfect” means of obtaining views, including a lack of diversity.

Attendees were typically middle- or upper-middle-class individuals, “disproportionately of European ancestry” and in late middle age or early retirement, who were already engaged in the issue, it said, among other things—calling it a problem of “selective engagement” for both the MP town halls and the main committee meetings.

It said the “mail-back consultation” undertaken by 59 Conservative MPs in their respective ridings—out of the 96-member caucus—was a “more inclusive” method, with 81,000 Canadians responding. Along with an explanation of the committee’s process, “a series of quotations,” polling data, and an option to comment, among other things, each mailing included one question asking whether or not a referendum should be held. In all, more than 90 per cent of respondents, or 73,740 people, indicated they wanted a referendum.

Both caucus reports are available for view on the committee’s website, alongside the town hall reports submitted by individual MPs.

by Laura Ryckewaert.

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