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Critics, experts fear Ottawa is running out of time for electoral reform

Maryam Monsef Minister of Democratic Institutions responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will introduce legislation a year from now to change the way federal governments are elected but the all-party committee he promised to study the options has yet to be created and critics and experts question whether enough time remains to do things right.

Mr. Trudeau mentioned two possibilities for electoral reform in the mandate letter he gave Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, at the time she was appointed to cabinet: preferential ballots and proportional representation. Both would take time to implement, but proportional representation could require the redrawing of riding boundaries, which can be a lengthy process.

In addition, those who advocate that Canada abandon the existing first-past-the-post system say there must be significant consultation with Canadians before the new voting method is decided, and much public education before it is implemented.

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Ms. Monsef has said repeatedly that the job of consultation would be put into the hands of an all-party committee. But six months after the Liberals won power, that committee has not been struck.

"I will be working with the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons to introduce the motion to create this parliamentary committee very soon," Ms. Monsef said in an e-mail. "We hope all parties will help the motion pass quickly so that the committee can begin its important work."

Even now, however, there are those who worry that there is not enough time to do a full study and to make all the preparations required to have the new system in place by the fall of 2019, when the next election is scheduled.

Brian Tanguay, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. who studies electoral reform, says those Canadians who care about the issue fear it is being shunted down the list of Liberal priorities. The 18-month window for bringing in legislation is tight to begin with, Prof. Tanguay said. At this point, he said, there is "barely" enough time to do what is required and "the committee has to be struck, certainly within the next month, or we are going to be in, I think, deep trouble."

The opposition parties are also concerned. "It will be very hard indeed to strike a committee, have it do decent work, submit a report, and have the legislative drafting process [which takes months] start in time for the April 19, 2017 deadline to be met," said Scott Reid, the Conservative critic for democratic institutions.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP critic, said he has no idea what is taking so long. "It is a new government, it's a new minister," he said, "but I am also doing the math and, from our understanding from Elections Canada, the longer you take, the fewer options you have available."

Elections Canada, too, has expressed some anxiety about the time crunch. In its 2016-17 report on plans and priorities, which was published on March 7, the agency says it stands ready to make the necessary adjustments for electoral reform. However, it says, there is a "risk" that there is insufficient time to deliver an election that meets the expectation of Canadians. "Timely enactment and implementation of electoral reform," the agency says, "are key to ensuring that changes are in place for the 2019 general election and that Canadians benefit from a high-quality electoral event that meets their expectations."

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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who very much wants to be a member of the electoral-reform committee, says she is willing to cut the government some slack. "I imagine that what's going on is some kind of internal push and pull around how do you structure the committee," Ms. May said. Still, it's an issue that will generate significant public interest, she said, and "I would hope the minister would want to give as many mechanisms for citizenship engagement as possible."

Mr. Reid, who has been lobbying for a national referendum in advance of any new system being implemented, fears the delay may be intentional.

Mr. Trudeau has said he prefers preferential ballots to proportional representation, which some experts suggest would have given his Liberals an even greater number of seats than the sizable majority they won with just 39.5 per cent of the popular vote.

"This starts to rule out any new electoral system [like proportional representation] that involves redistributing the boundaries of Canada's ridings," Mr. Reid said. "It becomes increasingly hard to believe that the government hasn't already decided which model it wants, and is simply playing with the timetable to start pushing certain options off the table for the 2019 election."

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