The Trudeau government appears poised to break a 2015 campaign promise to overhaul Canada’s voting system after its own MPs said it would be “irresponsible” to go ahead with the plan before the next election.
Liberal MPs on a special committee studying electoral reform released their own report on Thursday which stands in stark contrast to the majority report from the other parties. The five Liberals said the majority’s recommendations to come up with a new proportional voting system and hold a referendum are “rushed” and “too radical” to implement at this time.
“We feel that it would be irresponsible for the government to move ahead in haste just to meet the 2019 deadline,” Liberal MP Matt DeCourcey told reporters on Thursday.
The stunning suggestion from the Liberal members to abandon a key government promise adds credence to a notion that has been building for weeks that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau no longer wants to change the voting system as he had promised Canadians in the 2015 election.
Mr. Trudeau has already said in a newspaper interview that Canadians’ motivation to change the system has waned since Stephen Harper’s Conservatives lost power, although he recently repeated his party’s commitment to replace the first-past-the-post voting system before the next election.
The lead on the file, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef, has in recent weeks said the government will proceed only with broad support from Canadians – but has repeatedly said a referendum is not the way to get it.
On Thursday, Ms. Monsef took the unusual step of criticizing the committee, which spent five months hearing from witnesses and drafting the report.
“The only consensus that the committee found was that there is no consensus on electoral reform,” she told the Commons.
The minister blamed the committee for failing to come up with a specific alternative to the current first-past-the-post system. That promped condemnation from opposition parties who called her remarks “offensive,” “insulting,” and “an absolute disgrace.”
“On the hard choices that we had asked the committee to make, the members of the committee took a pass,” Ms. Monsef said during Question Period. “We asked the committee to help answer very difficult questions for us. It did not do that.”
In fact, the committee’s mandate was to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems – not name just one.
Ms. Monsef mocked the committee’s recommendation that the proportional system be developed using a mathematical tool called the Gallagher index, suggesting it was akin to a referendum on a mathematical equation. The committee had asked for the government to come up with the new voting system before putting the question to Canadians in a referendum.
Ms. Monsef also said the committee “did not complete the hard work we had expected it to.” The husband of Ruby Sahota, one of the Liberal MPs on the committee, tweeted back: “My son saw his mom for total of 6 hours over 3 weeks, while #ERRE [special committee on electoral reform] toured Canada. so, try again Maryam,” Tej Sahota wrote, before deleting the tweet. Ms. Sahota’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been in the House of Commons on Thursday, she might have called for Ms. Monsef’s resignation.
“She insulted the hard work of the committee, and I think that is offensive to all of the members of Parliament,” Ms. Ambrose said.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen, vice-chair of the committee, said the report reflects the hard work of parliamentarians.
“For a minister who hadn’t even read it, to simply throw it in the trash can and say you’ve failed is unprecedented to me,” Mr. Cullen said. “I’m trying to even imagine under a Stephen Harper government a minister being so dismissive of the work of an independent committee of the House of Commons.”
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the committee did its work and delivered what the minister asked of them. “She owes us an apology,” she said.
Mr. Trudeau promised during last year’s federal election campaign that it would be the last one under the first-past-the-post system, which ensures the candidate with the most votes in an electoral district wins, even if he or she doesn’t win a majority.
In their report, the Liberals recommend a further engagement process on the federal voting system that “cannot be effectively completed before 2019.”
“We contend that the recommendations posed in the Majority Report (MR) regarding alternative electoral systems are rushed, and are too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged,” the Liberal report says.
“Our position is that the timeline on electoral reform as proposed in the MR is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline.”
Ms. Monsef said Thursday her government hasn’t given up on electoral reform.
“We are committed to this and will continue to work on this,” she told reporters.
The committee report also says mandatory and online voting should not be implemented at this time, but recommends that any electoral reform enhance voter turnout.
The NDP and the Greens, in their own supplementary report, also cast doubt on a referendum even as they agreed with the majority report.
“While it remains an option, we have serious concerns about holding a referendum on electoral reform,” the NDP/Greens report says. “The evidence for the necessity of change is overwhelming; the evidence for the necessity of holding a referendum is not.”
The two parties said a referendum should include two forms of proportional representation on the ballot, mixed-member proportional and rural-urban proportional, and Canadians aged 16 and up should be allowed to vote.
The committee spent five months studying the issue and heard from 196 witnesses. Ms. Monsef also travelled the country and attended town halls. The government is now mailing out 15 million postcards asking for Canadians to participate in an online survey this month.Report Typo/Error