The federal Liberal government is being accused of stacking the electoral deck in its own favour after Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, gave her party a majority of seats on a committee of politicians that will be struck to examine alternatives to Canada's voting system.
The Conservatives say no changes should be made without first putting the proposal to a national referendum – something Ms. Monsef describes as a potential "tool" for citizen engagement, but not one she is committed to using. The fact that Liberals waited seven months after taking office to start their work on electoral reform has left little time to put the question to a national vote and still introduce the legislation by next April, as they have promised.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said during the fall campaign that the 2015 election would be the last conducted under the current system, stood repeatedly during Question Period on Wednesday to defend the process his government has put in place for changing the way Canadians will elect their representatives in the House of Commons.
"Canadians heard loudly and clearly that we made the commitment that this was going to be the last election held under the first-past-the-post system and we are committed to doing that," Mr. Trudeau said, referring to the system that creates a Parliament composed of MPs who have managed to win the most votes in their own riding but is often far out of step with the popular vote.
"We are confident that Canadians are going to be able to work with us and create the right electoral system that will serve this country well in the coming years," Mr. Trudeau said.
But Conservatives and the New Democrats say the Liberals, who have a majority of seats in the Commons despite receiving just 39.5 per cent of the popular vote, have assured their own desired outcome by creating the all-party committee of 10 voting members composed of six Liberals, three Tories and a single NDP MP. A Bloc Québécois MP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will sit as ex-officio members who can participate in hearings but will have no voting rights.
The New Democrats had proposed that the seats on the committee be allocated according to the share of the popular vote each party received in the last election, in order to demonstrate that the Liberals are not giving themselves an advantage.
The government's decision to do otherwise has rendered the process suspect, said Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP who is his party's critic for democratic institutions. "The legitimacy of what the government puts forward will require the support of another major party in the House of Commons," Mr. Cullen said. "Otherwise, this system of stacking the deck and excluding some voices and increasing the power of others is what it is."
Asked why the Liberals opted to give themselves a majority, Ms. Monsef replied: "The proportion of those who will be on the committee reflects the composition that we currently have in the House. We have gone one step further to ensure that all parties are represented as the table."
But Scott Reid, the Conservative critic for democratic institutions, points out that all MPs of all stripes are already ex-officio, non-voting members of all Parliamentary committees. So, other than providing Ms. May and the Bloc MP with some extra travel money, he said, "they announced a plain ordinary standard government-majority committee that is structured in every respect like every other committee in the House of Commons."
The committee, which will hold its first meeting some time this spring, will identify and study viable voting systems, such as proportional representation and preferential ballots, and it will examine electoral options, including mandatory voting and voting online. It must submit its final report by Dec. 1.
The committee is expected to travel the country, hear from a wide variety of witnesses and engage with Canadians. The government is also asking all MPs to host town-hall meetings in their ridings to gauge the views of their constituents.
At the end of the consultation process, Ms. Monsef will review the information that has been gathered and the government will propose electoral-reform legislation before April of next year. Once that has been passed into law, Elections Canada, which has already expressed concern about the limited amount of time it will have to make the necessary changes, will start the work of creating the new system.
Critics have accused Mr. Trudeau of having already decided that the country will move to a ranked ballot, a system which could favour the Liberals and which, at least one survey has suggested, would have given his party an even greater majority after the fall vote than it currently enjoys.
But Ms. Monsef said the process "is not about advancing skewed partisan interests. It is about giving greater and more representative voices to all Canadians."
Ms. May said she was pleased to be part of the committee, but she had hoped to convince Parliament to make her a voting member.
"The important thing is that we start our work to improve the voting system and to ensure that Canadians feel engaged and inspired to participate," said Ms. May, who did not want to talk about whether it seems like the committee has been structured to favour the Liberals. "I think," she said, "that anything that suggests to Canadians that we are walking into a rigged game will work against participation."