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Feds to release data from electoral reform town halls: Monsef

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Despite a need for ‘consensus,’ the Liberals haven’t yet quantified public support for any electoral system.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef is the face of the Liberal government's public consultations on electoral reform. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The federal government plans to release to the public data collected from town hall meetings on electoral reform, says Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef.

Ms. Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) and her parliamentary secretary, Liberal MP Mark Holland, (Ajax, Ont.), collected “qualitative and quantitative” data on what participants had to say during a series of meetings on the topic held in cities across Canada, the minister told The Hill Times.

“There’s quite a bit of it, and we will be making it available for the public as soon as we’ve compiled it,” she said.

That will come at some point in the new year, according to her spokesperson, John O’Leary.

However, Ms. Monsef’s office would not say whether the data would include support for any specific alternative voting systems.

Participants in the town hall meetings held by Ms. Monsef and Mr. Holland were asked to complete a voluntary “event evaluation form” that included “quantitative questions about the guiding principles of electoral reform,” said Mr. O’Leary.

Voting system preference ‘first question’

The roughly 1,500 people who attended the town hall meetings were asked to say which electoral system they supported, and why, said Ms. Monsef; in fact, it was the first question to the audience.

However, the government had a different answer to NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), his party’s democratic reform critic, who asked in writing in the House how many participants in the town hall meetings had signalled support for a proportional voting system.

“Participants at events were not asked to indicate which voting system they preferred,” reads the response tabled by the government, signed by Mr. Holland and labelled “reply by the minister of democratic institutions.”

Ms. Monsef said that wasn’t the case.

“Everywhere [Mr. Holland and I] went, we asked the same questions, and the first question provided an opportunity for participants to talk about, ‘What is your preference for an alternative system to first past the post, and what principles or values do you like about this particular system?’” she said.

Participants were also broken into small groups to discuss different topics, including different voting systems, according to a statement from Mr. O’Leary.

Mr. Cullen told The Hill Times he had heard otherwise from those who attended the town hall meetings.

“We talked to many people who attended these town halls, and they were never asked” which voting system they supported, he said.

When asked to explain why the government’s response to Mr. Cullen appeared to contradict Ms. Monsef, Mr. O’Leary responded in an emailed statement that “participants were organized into small groups to discuss various questions, including about voting systems, online voting, and mandatory voting.

“Participants discussed the issues in small groups, and groups verbally shared collective responses with the entire meeting. We asked individual participants to voluntarily complete an Event Evaluation Form which included quantitative questions about the guiding principles of electoral reform.”

‘At some point they actually have to get specific’

Ms. Monsef and Mr. Holland held the town hall meetings between August and October.  Ms. Monsef said both during and after her tour that she had not heard a “consensus” from Canadians on what changes should be made to the electoral system.

The Liberal Party campaigned on a promise to scrap the first-past-the-post voting system currently used in Canada before the 2019 federal election. However, the government has consistently avoided asking the public to endorse any specific system, and has resisted calls from the NDP and Conservatives to hold a referendum on the matter.

Ms. Monsef has not yet made public any report or results from her town hall tour. Her office also said in its response to Mr. Cullen that it could not provide details about the cost of the tour, as those costs had not yet been finalized. The last town hall meeting hosted by Ms. Monsef was held in Calgary on Oct. 29, according to her office.

Conservative MP Scott Reid, (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.), his party’s democratic reform critic, said Canadians should have been polled on their preferred voting system during the government-hosted town hall meetings. Doing so could have found which system to pit against the status quo in a referendum on changing Canada’s voting system, he said, which has been recommended by both the Conservatives and NDP.

“At some point they actually have to get specific,” he said.

Participants in the town hall meetings were not asked for their position on a referendum on electoral reform either, according to the government’s response to Mr. Cullen.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) referred to Ms. Monsef’s town hall tour, as well as a study conducted by the House Special Electoral Reform Committee, as a means for the government to gather input from Canadians on changes to the voting system, during a press conference in Ottawa Monday. He made those remarks when asked why the government’s new online survey on electoral reform didn’t ask voters to endorse a specific electoral system.

That survey, found at MyDemocracy.ca, has been widely criticized for presenting leading questions and failing to provide an option to show support for any specific electoral system. That survey also does not ask participants to weigh in on the possibility of a referendum on the issue, though it asks four questions about the possibility of online voting.

“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,” Green Party MP and leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.), who sat on the Electoral Reform Committee, told The Hill Times last week. She supports a new proportional representation voting system.

Ms. Monsef also rejected several aspects of a report from the Electoral Reform Committee—on which the opposition parties form a majority—earlier this month. The committee’s report called for the government to hold a referendum to see whether voters prefer the current first-past-the-post system or a proportional system based on the Gallagher index, a formula for measuring the gap between a party’s representation in the legislature and the popular vote.

“The only consensus that the committee found was that there is no consensus on electoral reform,” Ms. Monsef told the House after the committee released its report.

The government is planning to table legislation to make some change to the federal electoral system by May, Mr. Holland told The Hill Times last week.

Mr. Holland said the government would work with other parties on the drafting of the legislation.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

—with files from Laura Ryckewaert

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