Everything seemed set for electoral reform in Canada. The Liberals had made a promise to put an end to the First Past the Post system – though they didn’t commit to proportional representation itself. The PM had expressed, in the past, a preference for ranked ballots, but promised to keep an open mind to see what the Parliamentary committee, after suitable public consultation, came up with. At least two opposition parties were strongly committed to the task while the others gave lukewarm support.
So what happened?
When Parliament resumed, the Throne Speech promised action on the file and a Minister was appointed with specific responsibilities for electoral reform and the matter was referred to a committee for study. Whether by intent or oversight, the government used the standard approach to appointing house committees, that is, appoint a majority of government members to the body with proportionate representation from the other ‘official’ parties – which didn’t include the Greens or Bloc, who didn’t have the 12 MPs to qualify. They were given observer status.
The outcry was immediate – with charges of fixing the system or at least not acting in the spirit of an all-party approach. The government conceded and created a special committee with all parties represented and, more importantly, with the opposition in the majority. This was when the first mention of a consensus for change was brought up by the Liberals.
If the Liberals were trying to game the system to favour the PM’s favorite approach, they weren’t the only ones playing games. The Conservatives – who opposed changing the system at all – insisted that any change be approved by referendum, while the NDP and Green Party plunked for a PR based outcome. The Bloc seemed indifferent. Hearings were held with, frankly, a diversity of opinions being expressed. Just as polls showed a divided electorate with respect to a new system, with a significant minority wanting no change at all, witnesses were divided on needed changes and on how to design a new voting method. The government made things worse by doing a somewhat goofy on-line survey which seemed more designed as a educational tool for the public than a decision making tool for government.
One of the key participants in the hearings was the Chief Electoral Officer who said that a referendum could be held in time to make changes to the electoral system provided a clear set of options could be presented this year.
And that’s when it got strange.
The committee dithered but eventually a consensus was reached – or at least a majority opinion. Among a number of other recommendations (which you can read for yourself), the Conservatives, NDP, Bloc, and Green members agreed that a referendum should be put to the people – offering a choice between the status quo and some form of PR.
But what form? The committee didn’t say but suggested the government look at several options and measure them against a fairly complex formula and pick one that scored above a certain mark which would indicate it met certain criteria of fairness… etc. etc
In other words, the committee couldn’t come to an agreement and wanted the government to undertake further analysis before coming up with a referendum question. And would the committee members have been happy with the resulting question? We’ll never know, of course, but I’ll give you three guesses, as the saying goes. It did seem to me like a deal made by the devil – satisfying the Conservatives desire for a referendum they could campaign against and the NDP/Green desire for proportional representation or nothing at all. They all patted each other on the back, saying how collegial they were, while the Liberals sat, fuming, in the corner.
Soon the Minister was ridiculing the ‘arcane algorithm’ in the House and not long after the Prime Minister appointed a new Minister and backed away from electoral reform all together. He suggested he didn’t want to open the door to fringe parties on the far right or left – and managed to insult Kelly Leitch in the process.
But I suspect the real reason was the poison pill of the referendum. Those things have never been anything but trouble in Canada – whether you are talking about ones regarding Quebec independence or trying to change the constitution. The question the government asked is what constitutes a win?
Experience has shown that setting the bar high – say 60% – is sure defeat for reform (given that the status quo always starts with 30%), while setting it lower, say 50% +1, would give comfort to future separatists who would use the precedent to their own advantage.
The Conservatives like populist measures like referenda, while the NDP have already said a single voter could decide sovereignty (assuming all other voters were evenly split) – and they, too, have populist roots.
The Liberals are a lot of things – but populist is not one of them. The majority of the party didn’t want PR in any case and they certainly didn’t want a referendum – not since the near-death experience of 1995. The PM probably did want reform but not any kind and not at any cost. So he decided it was worth paying the price of breaking a big promise.
As for me, I’ve generally been a supporter of PR all my life, but I do recognize the complexity of designing one that would actually work in Canada. It could be done but get it wrong and our Parliament could start to look like the Netherlands with more than a dozen parties – including one whose sole platform plank is to represent the interests of animals.
Maybe we’ll just have to muddle through with what we have, tinkering at the edges to improve participation and ease of voting. Someday we might get another chance, though I suspect not if we leave it to MPs and political parties to decide. In the meantime, there is PEI, which may be the way forward for PR: one province at a time.
And that is way, way more than 10 minutes.