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Feds aim to get electoral reform bill tabled by May, despite ‘incredibly cynical’ response to committee report

By Laura Ryckewaert      

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says the Special House Electoral Reform Committee’s report seems to have been pushed to the wayside.

The now-disbanded Special House Committee on Electoral Reform presented a majority report Dec. 1. But with talk now focused on the minister's disparaging comments and the government's much-mocked Mydemocracy.ca online survey, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, second from right, says the committee's work is being ignored. Bloc MP Luc Thériault, left, Conservative MP Scott Reid, Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, NDP MP Nathan Cullen, Ms. May and press gallery moderator Elizabeth Thompson. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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PARLIAMENT HILL—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is still “working towards” tabling legislation to change Canada’s federal voting system by May next year, Liberal MP Mark Holland, parliamentary secretary to the Democratic Institutions minister, told The Hill Times last week.

The government’s online survey on democratic values is set to close at the end of this month, at which point Mr. Holland (Ajax, Ont.) said the “many different pieces of input” gathered so far—including the committee report, MP town hall reports, and input from the minister’s cross-country tour—will be used to draft options and “come back in a relatively short period of time with recommendations.”

“The next step is going to be drafting the legislation and working with the other parties to achieve that,” said Mr. Holland, adding that the previously stated timeline of having legislation before the House within 18 months of forming government, meaning by May 2017, continues to be “the timeline we’re operating under.”

Many political observers have already declared the Trudeau government’s electoral reform promise dead, but Mr. Holland said that’s not the case.

“No, we’re still working towards it,” he said.

But Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) said “it’s disheartening in the extreme” that the “substantial report” and 13 recommendations produced by the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform is being ignored, with discussion and coverage focused on recent criticism from Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) about the committee’s work and the government’s much-criticized online survey on democratic values.

“The failure to connect the postcard campaign [online survey] with the work of the Electoral Reform Committee … is, I think, quite a shocking contempt for the work of 12 MPs from five parties,” said Ms. May, noting she had appealed to the minister to include a link to the committee’s report on the government’s mydemocracy.ca website. That hasn’t been done, which is a “lost opportunity,” she said, and has pushed the committee’s work to the wayside.

“Nobody’s talking about the substance of the report. It’s all about whether the committee members were insulted by the minister or not,” she said. “It’s a waste to ignore the report that we have submitted.”

Despite the committee clearly recommending against both mandatory and online voting, there are nonetheless a number of questions focused on them in the government’s survey, said Ms. May.

In last year’s election campaign, the Liberals promised to replace the current first-past-the-post federal voting system by the next election in 2019.

After six months of work and costing more than $670,000, the all-party committee on Electoral Reform tabled a majority report that had 13 recommendations on reform, including that the government adopt a proportional-representation system that maintains a local connection to representation in Parliament, and that online and mandatory voting not be pursued. As well, the report recommended that a national referendum be held.

“We gave very specific advice. We didn’t pick one system, but our mandate didn’t tell us to pick one system,” said Ms. May. “I don’t see how you get any consensus from the online survey, because not only does it not ask a specific question about electoral reform, none of the values-based questions touch on the core issue … to make sure every vote counts.”

Liberal committee members, however, filed a “supplemental” report suggesting the government reconsider its 2019 timeline, indicating they heard no consensus on holding a referendum during the study.

“We contend that the recommendations posed in the majority report regarding alternative electoral systems are rushed, and are too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged,” reads the report from Liberal members.

Right after its tabling on Dec. 1, Ms. Monsef criticized the report during Question Period, saying she was “disappointed” the committee didn’t recommend a specific system and do the work asked of it. She’s since apologized for her tone, but has repeated that the government had hoped for a unanimous report recommending a specific voting system.

At the start of last week, the Liberals launched an online survey on democratic values, with roughly 15 million postcards sent to Canadians households asking people to take part. It’s set to wrap up Dec. 30, with a final report to follow. Mr. Holland said 68,000 people took part on the first day. The cost of the survey is coming out of the $8-million allocated for electoral reform this year (with $10.7-million allocated over the next four years overall).

But the survey quickly came under heavy criticism, being called a bad BuzzFeed quiz and compared to a Hogwarts sorting test or even a “dating website designed by Fidel Castro,” as Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.), who was vice-chair of the now-disbanded Electoral Reform Committee, put it. And as Ms. May highlighted, there seems no mechanism to prevent people from answering the survey multiple times.

The survey has four parts—values, preferences, priorities, and a profile section—and takes around five minutes to complete, asking respondents to indicate their degree of agreement to a number of “propositions,” which indirectly ask about different voting arrangements rather than specific systems.

In one question, respondents are asked to what extent they agree with the statement: “Voters should be able to express multiple preferences on the ballot, even if this means that it takes longer to count the ballots and announce the election result.”

A screenshot of a question in the government’s mydemocracy.ca survey.

Vox Pop Labs, which is responsible for managing the survey, last week provided its list of advisers, all political science professors, who helped create the survey. They are Richard Johnston from the University of British Columbia, André Blais from the University of Montreal, Peter Loewen from the University of Toronto, Laura Stephenson from Western University, Scott Matthews from Memorial University, Elisabeth Gidengil from McGill University, Melanee Thomas from the University of Calgary, and Jonathan Rose from Queen’s University.

Questions have been raised over how responses of those who opted not to fill out personal profile questions will be used.

Mr. Holland said while he understands responses with and without profile information will be “weighted differently,” they’re not entirely discounted.

“If a person chooses not to submit demographic information, the data cannot be weighted to help draw those inferences [about the Canadian population] but will still be included in the final report,” explained John O’Leary, communications director to Ms. Monsef.

Asked why the survey includes such indirect questions, rather than asking about specific voting systems, Mr. Holland said it’s because “most people, 95 per cent of people, don’t understand systems.” Instead, he said with the way it’s designed, it’s “very accessible” and people “don’t need to do homework or reading beforehand” to complete it.

“To ask questions on systems would not only turn people away from engagement, but it wouldn’t give us anything meaningful,” said Mr. Holland, adding it would have “skewed” results with only from those “already heavily engaged” in the issue answering.

“Once you have a clear view of what people’s values are, the system becomes a logical extension of that,” he said.

Mr. Holland said he was “still working” his way through the 333-page report from the Electoral Reform Committee when asked about it on Dec. 6.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), another vice-chair of the former Electoral Reform Committee, said the government’s response to the committee report was “incredibly cynical” and was “simply because [the majority report] came up with an answer that the Liberals didn’t like.” He said he believes Liberals want a preferential voting system, rather than a proportional one as recommended, and that the new online survey is “incredibly loaded” with a similar bias.

“Either you think Canadians are too stupid to answer a basic question around voting systems, which they’re not, or you don’t want the answer because Canadians like proportional systems,” said Mr. Cullen, adding that both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and Ms. Monsef have indicated in interviews in recent months that they have preferred systems.

The idea that the Liberals are trying to sink electoral reforms efforts because their preferred voting system, preferential ballots, hasn’t emerged as a likely winner—in fact, the opposite—is one that’s been oft repeated. But Mr. Holland said this “certainly is untrue that we have a favourite horse in this race,” and that there’s a “broad diversity” of opinions within caucus.

Mr. Cullen said the opposition has made many concessions to try to find common ground to help the Liberals keep their promise, and “despite them spitting in our face,” he remains committed to working to get a new system in place and “won’t accept” failure.

“If they want to sit at a drafting table and start to put a bill together, I will meet them anywhere, anytime to get to work,” said Mr. Cullen.

He said there’s still time to get reforms in place, even with a referendum, noting Ms. May has sketched out a timeline “that works,” starting with reforming the Referendum Act itself.

“Bring in a bill [to reform it], pass it through Parliament by spring, and then it would give you a year until a referendum question was held [between first-past-the-post and a specific new system]. Elections Canada would begin work on assuming its passage, and if it weren’t to pass, they would refer back to the system we have,” he said.

Not accomplishing reform as promised would hurt “Trudeau’s integrity,” said Mr. Cullen. “Is he all style, no substance, saying anything to get elected, or does he actually believe in any [promises] from pipelines to First Nations to electoral reform?”

Despite having plenty of criticism for the government’s online survey, he said it’s “brought new attention to democratic reform because Canadians are looking at what this fiasco is and then they’re going to other sides and learning.”

Conservative MP Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.) said the government has repeatedly tried to “discourage people” on the question of a referendum, and it’s “all wrong” if it thinks the online survey, which doesn’t even ask about a referendum, is a good way of consulting Canadians.

He said the government is being motivated by its own “political, partisan agenda of preferential vote.”

“We are open to discussion, for sure, but the discussion starts with referendum,” said Mr. Deltell.

Asked about recent criticism that there’s been a “collective failure” by all parties to get beyond partisanship and work on this issue, as columnist Chantal Hébert recently put it, Mr. Deltell disagreed.

When four parties “agree on one issue, referendum, we cannot talk about a collective failure,” he said. “The ball is in the hands of the government.”

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