My blog for October 11, 2016
October 12th, 2016 - 11:58am
This last week I’ve been an official substitute for the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Electoral Reform during its tour of Canada’s Atlantic provinces. As you may recall, this Special Committee was formed after the Liberal government finally agreed to an NDP motion that provided for membership based in relative proportion to votes received instead of seats held in the House of Commons. Instead of the usual ten-member committee formed with six Liberal MPs, three Conservatives, and one New Democrat, this one has five Liberals, three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one Bloc Quebecois, and one Green MP. We in the NDP caucus felt strongly that it was important that a committee formed for the subject of electoral reform should not be based on the electoral system it is seeking to reform and that no one party should have absolute control on the outcome of the recommendation report due later this year.
I started the tour on Tuesday, October 4th in Halifax, followed by St. John’s, Charlottetown, and finally Fredericton. I’ve really appreciated receiving feedback from Canadians on the East coast, both the expert witnesses and the general public. Although electoral reform is not registering highly in the minds of most Canadians, the people coming forward as witnesses have been overwhelmingly passionate about the case for reform of our present first past the post system. Everyone is well aware of the problems with our current system – it tends to produce a false majority of seats based on a minority of votes cast, it exacerbates regional tensions, it gives rise to general apathy and dismay regarding votes actually counting towards electing a Member of Parliament, and it does not produce Parliaments that are truly representative of the diversity that is Canada. At the same time, we have heard from some witnesses who favour staying with first-past-the-post because it is easy to understand, usually produces decisive majority governments with a strong legislative mandate, and has clear regional representation from MPs.
The subject of a referendum has come up numerous times, but I am wary of proceeding with this option for a decision. I have several reasons for this. Referendums can quickly devolve into campaigns of misinformation and fear, which have little to do with what the question on the ballot is. One only need to look at the recent Brexit vote the UK had on remaining in the European Union for an example. With campaigns of misinformation and fear, it is very likely that Canadians would vote to stay with the status quo and ignore reform completely, despite evidence repeatedly saying that it is necessary to make our electoral system more fair. I am also concerned with how much actual public participation there would be in such a referendum; referendums typically draw less public participation than general elections, and Canada already has very low levels of public engagement. Would a vote one way or the other be legitimate with such low participation? Finally, a referendum is not necessary because it is well within Parliament’s right to unilaterally change the way we vote federally – an amendment to the Canada Elections Act. It does not require a Constitutional amendment. To compromise, Canadians should at least have the benefit of trying out a new electoral system a couple of times so that they can then make an informed decision on what system they want to keep.
I have appreciated your feedback on this issue, both from the two town halls I hosted in the riding and your written submissions. The committee has received thousands of these written submissions and has heard directly from Canadians across the land. I look forward to its final report, which will be due on December 1st.