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jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

The Trudeau government has made so many faulty assertions to explain how and why it needs to change the electoral system that it is hard to know where to begin in questioning them.

Assertion: We have a mandate, because we said in the campaign that the 2015 election would be the last under the existing first-past-the-post system.

Reply: The Liberals won two votes out of every five cast. Is that a mandate? Ironically, only under the current voting system. Moreover, of those who voted Liberal, very few did so with electoral reform uppermost in their minds. The issue was peripheral to the campaign from start to finish.

Assertion: We will create a parliamentary committee that will consult with Canadians. We will encourage MPs to hold town hall meetings in their districts. We will encourage input through social media.

Reply: All of these mechanisms, at best, will elicit responses from a tiny fraction of Canadians, most of whom have preset ideas about what system they want. For the vast majority of Canadians, electoral reform remains far from their concerns. Those who favour the status quo will automatically be ignored, because the Liberals don't want the status quo. How democratic is that?

Moreover, the Liberals will use their majority on the parliamentary committee to get exactly the outcome from the "consultations" the party wants. As such, the consultations will be a sham.

Assertion: We might conceivably authorize a referendum, but there are better ways of consulting Canadians and we will use them.

Reply: Huh? What is more "consultative" than a vote of all the people, or at least those who choose to vote. The electoral system, like the Constitution, is part of the institutional superstructure of our democracy. As such, it belongs to the people, not the political parties, and should not be altered without their consent. If they choose change, fine; if they reject change, fine. The people, not the parties, should decide.

Assertion: The first-past-the-post system is undemocratic and must be changed. To which system, we Liberals will not say (although privately we know what we want: preferential voting that will favour our party).

Reply: Every voting system has its strengths and weaknesses. Democratic countries, including well-run ones, use proportional representation (Germany, New Zealand), preferential voting (Australia, France) or first-past-the-post (Britain, Canada).

It's curious that the first-past-the-post system the Liberals want to change is the one that produced the parliamentary majority they will now use to push through electoral change.

Assertion: We will be proceeding in the most non-partisan way possible, witness to which is our generosity in allowing parties without official party status – the Greens and Bloc Québécois – to name one non-voting MP each to the parliamentary committee. We wish to hear all points of view.

Reply: It took two or three seconds for the partisanship around electoral reform to manifest itself after Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, made her announcement. Non-Liberal MPs complained about the committee membership and mandate, reflecting their innate competitive partisanship and their own parties' different preferences for or against change.

No consensus exists among them, nor will there be consensus. MPs will pursue their parties' interests, so that the entire process will be framed by partisanship. Instead of the people owning the reform process, the parties will.

And this is the nub of the matter. To whom does the electoral system belong?

If it belongs to political parties, then they should frame the debate and eventually make the decision. In doing so, they will inevitably figure out which system, on balance, favours their interests and then they will explain their position on the basis of the broad public interest.

Parties and their supporters will argue that we live in a representative democracy in which we delegate to the elected the task of running the country for four years. We then pass judgment on them at election time.

All true and certainly preferable to having people voting all the time on myriad complicated public issues.

Also true is that the method by which we elect those people belongs to us, to you, and not to politicians. They are the products of the system we think best suits the country and democracy.

It's reasonable to review periodically the electoral system – because times, issues and demography change – as long as we, and not they, make the final decision.