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Electoral reform: Liberals climb out of self-made swamp

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef leaves after speaking to reporters in the foyer of the house of commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 2, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Retreat! When Justin Trudeau's government gave into opposition demands about the makeup of a committee on electoral reform, it was a way out of the swamp it had been led into by Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef.

Usually, a government doesn't have to worry too much about such pedestrian matters of process, but this time, the process was doing more to discredit Liberal plans for electoral reform than to move them along.

Ms. Monsef was losing the argument. Her points were clanging even in Liberals' ears.

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Now Mr. Trudeau's government has righted that ship. It has fixed this part of the process – the committee – making it credible again. By giving the opposition a majority on the committee, it alleviated suspicions it was a means to steamroll toward Mr. Trudeau's preferred reform, an instant-runoff system using preferential ballots.

None of that, however, guarantees there will be co-operation on electoral reform. There's less chance the Liberals will make good on their campaign promise to change the voting system before 2019. They could still choose to go it alone. For now, they've regrouped.

They had to, in a sense, because Ms. Monsef had steered the file away from a hopeful, reforming notion to a morass of dodgy defences.

The Conservatives, dead set against changing the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, had pressed again and again for a referendum on any electoral reform. Ms. Monsef's counter – that low turnout meant referenda aren't inclusive, and the Liberals would find better ways to consult, such as via social media – verged on the silly.

When she unveiled a majority-Liberal committee to recommend reforms, her defence was weak. To be fair, she was given a weak hand. The opposition clearly saw her vulnerability on the Liberal front bench, and kept scratching at it. If the committee was seen as rigged, then it would be dismissed as sham if it recommended the outcome the Liberals want.

It seemed at first like Ms. Monsef might be an inspired choice to carry the democratic reform file. The 30-year-old MP is young, smiling, earnest and comes with a compelling personal story that fits the idea of democratic transformation: She came to Canada at 11 as a refugee from Afghanistan, and won election last October in Peterborough-Kawartha. But she was inexperienced and on the firing line, and electoral systems are a matter of political life-or-death for opposition parties, so they pushed hard. When Ms. Monsef mouthed weak talking points, and kept repeating them, they pushed harder.

Even Liberals didn't like her defence – this didn't sound like the hopeful pledge to do politics differently, fairly and inclusively.

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With the retreat on Thursday, the Liberals were able to start talking like that again. In the Commons, there was suddenly substantial election-reform debate.

But there's still not much reason to expect parties will find grounds to agree on the substance.

The Conservatives were screaming blue murder that the NDP and the Green Party' Elizabeth May had agreed with the Liberals on the make-up of the committee.

The Tories' real goals are keeping FPTP, and demanding a referendum. And now, the Liberals are teamed up with parties that want change, and don't want a referendum.

That, at least, is a gain for the Liberals. The committee is to determine the appropriate method for consulting Canadians, and it won't be a referendum. And the committee's explicit goal is to replace FPTP with something else. The Liberals have allies on key points.

That doesn't mean there must be cooperation between parties on what kind of reform. The NDP and Greens insist on a mixed-member proportional representation system. But if the Liberals accept that, they're likely to lose their majority in the next election. If they support instant runoff with ranked ballots, the committee won't have a majority outcome. Then the Liberals would be forced to decide whether to go ahead with their preferred system, without allies, or back off reforms.

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But the Liberals have solved an immediate problem. They backed out of a mess of their own making.

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