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Feds’ electoral reform in doubt, pollsters say one broken promise won’t sink Liberals, but more could spell trouble

By Laura Ryckewaert      

After six months of work and a $700,000 price tag, Democratic Minister Maryam Monsef said she was ‘disappointed’ in the House Electoral Reform Committee. She later apologized, but also said the will of Canadians is still unclear. Meanwhile, the government sent out more than 13 million postcards asking Canadians to participate in an online survey on electoral reform.

Electoral Reform Committee chair and Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, third from left, Bloc MP Luc Thériault, far left, Conservative MP Scott Reid, and NDP MP Nathan Cullen, right, pictured Dec. 1 at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa presenting the majority committee report on electoral reform. The Hill Times Photograph by Andrew Meade
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PARLIAMENT HILL—There are doubts the government will keep its election campaign promise to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system by 2019, but pollsters say one broken promise on electoral reform alone would unlikely sink the Liberal ship, however, more than one could be trouble down the road.

“If you’re looking at this through the political cost of inaction of breaking this promise, it’s probably one of the few that the government won’t feel too much pain over,” said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, in an interview with The Hill Times.

“This is not a government-killing promise, by itself,” he said, as it’s an outspoken, but “small minority” who think major changes are needed.

The issue of electoral reform is one that’s “very difficult to get Canadians excited” and “passionate” about, he said.

“That being said, where I do see some risk for the government, in my view, is around the narrative that could develop that the government’s not keeping its promises, that this could be one of many to come … it might start a media narrative and a broader discussion about how the government can’t achieve its objectives and that becomes more risky or creates more vulnerability,” he said.

Mr. Coletto said if the government declared its commitment on electoral reform dead, he wouldn’t expect to see poll numbers drop.

Shachi Kurl, executive director at the Angus Reid Institute, said polling suggests that electoral reform is “hardly a top of mind issue” for Canadians.

“There are other issues that could have the potential to hurt this Liberal government much more than not making a change on electoral reform, that isn’t to say it might not hurt them in some circles” she said, but that’s a small subsect of the population.

A poll by Angus Reid published on Nov. 29, conducted online with 1,516 respondents, found that while 75 per cent wanted a referendum on any major changes to be held, about 66 per cent of respondents saw changing Canada’s voting system as a low priority. Asked to choose between first-past-the-post and four alternative voting systems, respondents were largely split. As well, 43 per cent said they strongly or moderately favoured keeping the current system, while 21 per cent said they didn’t care either way and 37 per cent moderately or strongly favoured change.

But Ms. Kurl cautioned ambivalence doesn’t always mean resistance, and it could simply be a situation where Canadians have a lot on their minds, including the economy, jobs, health care and security issues.

“Canadians are very divided on this issue as it stands … [but] there is a recognition of potential benefits of a change,” she said.

It comes down to a question of political calculus for the Liberals, said Ms. Kurl. The government has some “wiggle room” on electoral reform and it’s unlikely it will be “faulted for going slow.” That said, “too many calculations like this, at some point, the math may not add up for the government at the end of four years.”

After six months of work, the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform published its final report on Dec. 1, but with divided opinions.

A 333-page “majority report” was released along with “supplemental” reports, including one from Liberal MPs, which actually came out against major recommendations from the committee, including the recommendation that a national referendum should be held and the suggested method by which the government should design a new system.

The main committee report made 13 recommendations, including that a national referendum on the issue be held with a choice between first-past-the-past and a proportional system designed by the government, which it recommended should achieve a score of five or less on the Gallagher index—a method to measure the proportionality of a system between votes case and seats allocated. It also recommended against implementing online or mandatory voting, among other things.

In Question Period on Dec. 1, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) took the unusual step of criticizing the committee’s work, saying she was “disappointed” that it “did not complete the hard work we had expected it to,” by not recommending a specific voting system to replace first-past-the-post.

“We asked the committee to help answer very difficult questions for us. It did not do that,” she said in QP. “In the coming days we will be taking specific actions to continue this conversation with Canadians.”

Reacting to Ms. Monsef’s comments, NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), a member of the committee, said he didn’t think he’s “ever seen a performance like that in Question Period before,” and said her comments were “incredibly disappointing and certainly insulting.”

On Dec. 2, Ms. Monsef apologized to the committee for her comments in the House, saying she didn’t intend to imply members hadn’t worked hard, and said, “I used words that I deeply regret.”

Mr. Cullen said the committee’s mandate was ”clear,” and that it was mandated to study viable alternative voting systems and examine the question of online and mandatory voting, with principles outlined. He said “a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice” went into the study, which ultimately outlined pros and cons of various systems for the government and recommended proportional voting be pursued. Ms. Monsef is “either lying” or didn’t understand what the committee was doing, he said.

“We’ve done our job. The ball now goes in their court. It’s their opportunity to fulfill their promise to Canadians,” said Mr. Cullen. “Almost 90 per cent of the people who testified to the committee supported proportional representation. If the Liberals would like to make the case that that isn’t near consensus I’ll let them.”

Scrummed by Hill media later in the day on Dec. 1, Ms. Monsef said the government continues to “stay committed to that promise” to replace the first-past-the-post by 2019, made during the 2015 campaign. The government has also committed to introduce legislation by the spring 2017.

But in their separate report, Liberal MPs said the level of public engagement in the electoral reform process was “insufficient to generate a clear mandate” and that more “comprehensive and effective” engagement was needed, which “cannot be effectively completed before 2019.”

However, Liberals on the committee also said they heard no consensus that a referendum on electoral reform was the right path forward and that many flaws in the process were highlighted during testimony. The Liberals gave up their majority status on the 12-member committee.

As well, Liberals criticized the main committee recommendation that a new system be measured by the Gallagher index, calling it a “complex mathematical equation” that would be difficult to explain.

Ms. Monsef has maintained that the government will not pursue major changes to the voting system without the broad support of Canadians, but has repeatedly criticized using a referendum when questioned, and—as highlighted by the opposition—has not defined what she would consider broad support.

After mapping out its course of action last summer, the electoral reform committee undertook an unprecedented level of consultation: from an online survey that garnered more than 22,000 responses, to taking Twitter questions, to a cross-country tour, to reports from MPs on townhall meetings that all 338 were asked to hold with constituents. As well, Ms. Monsef and her parliamentary secretary did a separate cross-country tour on the issue.

But Ms. Monsef has said the will of Canadians is still unclear, and as part of a continued conversation, the government sent out more than 13 million postcards, asking Canadians to participate in an online survey on electoral reform starting this week.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking to have reforms in place by the next election in 2019. The chief electoral officer has indicated that it could take up to two years to adjust to a new electoral system and that clear direction from Parliament would be needed by May 2017 to make it happen.

Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.), a vice-chair of the House Electoral Reform Committee, said a referendum is the only way to ensure Canadians are properly consulted.

“What other means is there, other than a referendum to establish the will of Canadians?” he asked.

While citizen’s assemblies have been mentioned as an option, Mr. Reid said past ones on electoral reform in both British Columbia and Ontario have ultimately led to referendums. He said he was “surprised” by the minister’s response to the committee report on Dec. 1.

“One of the arguments about referendums is they’re too expensive, but evidently mailing out 13 million questionnaires is an allowable or a manageable an expense,” he said.

Almost $9-million has been spent on electoral reform efforts in 2016, including $8-million allocated for the minister under the last federal budget—which in part covered the cost of the minister’s tour—and more than $670,000 for the committee’s study.

Speaking with The Hill Times on Dec. 1, after QP, Liberal MP John Aldag (Cloverdale-Langley City, B.C.), a member of the electoral reform committee, said he wasn’t taking Ms. Monsef’s comments personally. He said a new system, whatever that be, would have a “whole bunch of implications on the greater system,” which the committee didn’t “have time to dig into,” and said he “shares” the minister’s “disappointment.” But overall, he said he’s “really proud” of the committee’s work.

“We had hoped that we could get through a very complex issue with a very tight timeline and frankly we didn’t get there, and I’m OK with that, it just means in my mind, it solidifies the thought that I had that we need to have a greater consultation with many more Canadians than we engaged with this process,” he said.

“I would encourage the minister to take a hard look at timelines and realistically how far can we move the bar on electoral reform in time for 2019.”

Asked why some other means of broader consultation wasn’t pursued months ago once the committee’s path became known, Mr. Aldag said he thinks committee members had hoped for “massive turnout” at the cross-country meetings with open mic sessions, adding less than one per cent of Canadians engaged in the process. He also pointed to a lack of media coverage and engagement during the cross-country tour.

“In my riding … I’d ask them about electoral reform. They’d say look, we want jobs, we want a healthy environment, we want affordable housing, those are the priorities that many of my constituents told me they want me focusing on as their member,” said Mr. Aldag.

While the separate report from Liberal members spoke out against the main recommendations of the committee’s majority report, Mr. Aldag said Liberal members were “signing on to [it] with our additional comments,” and it wasn’t a “dissenting” report. (Ms. Monsef described it as such in QP Dec. 1).

Mr. Reid said he thinks there’s nonetheless still time for the Liberals to act on electoral reform if they want to, as there are 34 months until the next election and that it could take less than two years to implement change if a full redistribution of ridings isn’t needed.

“If you just merge together existing sets of ridings, as you can do under STV [Single-transferable vote] … you can have an expedited process that takes place much faster,” he said.

The Hill Times

Electoral reform efforts: by the numbers

Ultimately, three reports were produced on electoral reform recommendations by the House Electoral Reform Committee: a majority report, a dissenting report from Liberal members, and a supplementary report in support of proportional representation from the NDP and Greens.

Cost of the House Electoral Reform Committee: $678,560

Briefs submitted to the committee: 574

Witnesses heard by the committee: 731

Meetings held by the committee: 57

Months of committee work: 6

Responses to the ERRE committee’s e-consultation: 22,247

MP townhall reports submitted to the committee: 172*

Hours committee members spent in camera drafting a final report: (roughly) 29 hours 25 minutes**

Pages in the final majority report: 333

Recommendations made in the majority report: 13

Money for electoral reform allocated in the 2016 budget: $8-million this year, out of $10.7-million over four years***

* On top of this, the Conservative and NDP caucuses submitted their own, separate, reports on electoral reform.

** This figure includes times when meetings were suspended for breaks

*** This figure includes the cost of Democratic Institution Minister Maryam Monsef’s cross-Canada tour.

—Compiled by Laura Ryckewaert.


Recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee:

Thirteen recommendations on electoral reform were made in the majority report from the committee.

  1. The government should design a new electoral system that achieves a Gallagher index score of five or less.*
  2. Systems of pure party lists should not be considered by the government.
  3. Mandatory voting should not be implemented “at this time.”
  4. Online voting should not be implemented “at this time.”
  5. Elections Canada should explore, with stakeholder groups, the use of technologies to promote greater voting accessibility while ensuring the integrity of the process.
  6. The question of how to improve the accessibility of voting for Canadians with disabilities should be referred to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee.
  7. Any reform should seek to enhance the likelihood of improving voter turnout and increasing the possibility for more underrepresented and disenfranchised groups—including visible minorities, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities—to get elected.
  8. The Canada Elections Act should be amended to create a financial incentive for political parties to run more female candidates and move towards parity in nominations.
  9. The government should work with the provinces and territories to explore ways in which youth under 18 years of age could be registered in the National Register of Electors up to two years in advance of reaching voting age.
  10. Elections Canada be given the mandate and resources to encourage greater voter participation, including through initiatives like Civix’s Student Vote and “better raising awareness” of existing early voting options.
  11. Electoral system reform should be accompanied by a study on the effects of other aspects of Canada’s governance system, including: the relationship between legislative and executive branches of government, the relationship between the House and Senate, the impact on political party operations, and “parliamentary procedure and conventions related to government formation and dismissal.”
  12. A referendum should be held, with the current system on the ballot and a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of five or less, with the government’s design of the alternate system completed before the referendum starts.
  13. Elections Canada should produce and make publicly available materials describing options, including any related maps showing potential riding boundaries and a sample ballot design, before the referendum starts.

A “supplementary” report from Liberal members states that the “majority report” recommendations are “too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged,” and it would be “rushed” and could risk undermining the legitimacy of reform to race “toward a predetermined deadline,” referring to the Liberal government’s commitment to have a new system in place by 2019.

It notes Liberal members disagreed with recommending use of the Gallagher Index, disagree that a referendum should be held, and believe not enough input was attained to determine the will of Canadians.

*A tool developed by Michael Gallagher, who appeared as a witness, “to measure an electoral system’s relative proportionality between votes received and seats allotted,” reads the report. An index of less than five is considered “excellent.”

Compiled by Laura Ryckewaert.

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