How the Liberals are running out the clock on electoral reform: Scott Reid’s Op-EdMay 18, 2016
Last December, when he was asked about how he’d fulfil his election promise that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” Justin Trudeau responded that his government would engage in what he characterized as “strong consultations.” So far, this has turned out to mean seven months of delay, followed by his bizarre accusation (subsequently withdrawn) that the NDP and Conservatives were to blame for stalling the non-existent consultations among the parties that he claimed were underway.
A week after this odd episode, his Democratic Institutions minister announced that the consultations would actually be a run-of-the-mill parliamentary committee, with the Greens and Bloc Quebecois as non-voting members (a status that the two parties are already accorded on every other committee).
Naturally, the structure of the committee was widely panned. But the real problem has nothing to do with whether or not Elizabeth May gets a vote on committee.
By now it is clear that the purpose of the committee is not to find conclusions, but rather, to run out the clock. The longer the Liberals delay, the narrower the range of options for electoral reform.
First to vanish will be the ability to move to any system that involves riding redistribution. This will remove from the table the electoral systems that were proposed to voters in PEI in 2005, in BC in 2005, and in Ontario in 2007. Only the single-member, preferential ballot system, which Mr Trudeau has indicated to be his favourite all along, will be left as an alternative to the status quo.
Then, with a bit more time, the option of holding a referendum on Mr. Trudeau’s preferred option will also disappear.
Here is the timeline: On April 21, I had the opportunity to question Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand about the practical time constraints that he faces. He stated that for any change to the voting system—other than a change to the voting system that Mr. Trudeau favours—“legislation enacting the reform should be there at least 24 months before the election.” That means no later than October 2017. As for the time needed to prepare and execute a referendum on the government’s chosen system, Mr. Mayrand indicated that “six months is an absolute minimum.”
It goes without saying that the government did not have to structure things as they have been doing since October 19th. Had the Liberals acted quickly following their election victory, they could have set up a politician-free process of determining which new voting system to place before the voters, similar to the “citizen’s assemblies” employed in BC and Ontario a decade ago.
The report which produced Ontario’s Citizen’s Assembly was submitted in November 2005, and the Assembly’s proposal was tabled in April 2007, only 17 months later. A similar timetable, applied federally ten years later, would have left time for a referendum on the resulting proposal in 2017. The electoral system might well have won the support of a majority of voters (as did the electoral system designed by the BC Citizens’ Assembly in that province’s 2005 referendum). And the whole thing could have been implemented in time for Election 2019. But the resulting electoral system might well have been one other than the single member district, preferential ballot model favoured by Mr. Trudeau.
Instead, what we have is this: the voting system that the Liberals will produce some time next year is likely to be so tainted by self-interest that it will never be regarded as legitimate, meaning that it could never win popular support in a referendum, and therefore that it won’t be submitted to the voters for their approval.
The government may still be able to use its majority in the Commons to ram through the change, but only at the cost of betraying the apparent idealism of what will, by then, be universally understood to have been a very cynical election promise.
Scott Reid, Conservative MP for Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, is deputy Opposition House Leader and his party’s critic for Democratic Institutions. He has held six constituency referendums – in which the voters of his riding indicate how they want him to vote on important pieces of legislation – and is currently holding his seventh on C-14, the assisted dying bill.