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Liberals open-minded on voting reform, Monsef says

“We genuinely want to listen to the people of this country and the all-party parliamentary committee,” Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef says.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The woman appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to spearhead electoral reform in Canada says her party is entering the process with no preconceived notion about what new system will emerge.

Mr. Trudeau promised that the 2015 federal election would be the last fought on a first-past-the-post basis in which the candidate with the most votes in each riding wins the seat. He has said he personally favours moving to preferential ballots which, along with proportional representation, were the two electoral-reform options included in his letter to Maryam Monsef outlining her responsibilities as Minister of Democratic Institutions.

But it is "false" to suggest that the Liberal government has decided the outcome of the work of an all-party committee that will soon be stuck to engage Canadians in a discussion about ways the voting system can be improved, Ms. Monsef said Friday in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail.

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"Even within our own caucus there is a diverse range of ideas and possibilities, much like within Parliament as a whole and in the country," she said. "And no, we have not predetermined the outcome of this process, which is something I have been clear on, as has the Prime Minister. We genuinely want to listen to the people of this country and the all-party parliamentary committee."

The topic of electoral reform is expected to occupy a central role in parliamentary debates when MPs return to Ottawa in the last week of January. Political parties will fight to ensure that the new system does not diminish their own chances of winning seats.

With proportional representation, a party's seat percentage in the House of Commons is roughly equal to its share of the popular vote. In a preferential-ballot system, voters list their preferences for MP in their riding from first to last with the ballots of voters who ranked the least popular candidates first reallocated to their second choice until one candidate has 50 per cent of the support.

Some critics say a preferential-ballot system would favour Mr. Trudeau's party because Liberals tend to be the second choice of both NDP and Conservative voters. And a large poll conducted after the fall election suggested that such a system would have given the Liberals, who won a majority government with just 40 per cent of the popular vote, an even greater number of seats.

But Ms. Monsef said there is no intention to gerrymander the system to give the Liberals an edge.

"Look, if our intentions weren't honourable, why would we commit to changing a system that has guaranteed us a majority government at the moment and in the past?" she asked.

The government will co-operate with other members of Parliament and will listen and engage with Canadians in a meaningful conversation about the best ways to structure elections, said Ms. Monsef. "And we are confident that this process and this approach will lead to a stronger Parliament and a strong Canada."

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The Conservatives have been especially vocal in their criticism of Liberal plans for democratic change. Of particular concern for Tory MPs is the refusal of the government to hold a national referendum to gauge Canadian preferences. When such votes have been held at the provincial level, voters have rejected reforms.

"If politicians are left in charge of designing a new electoral system, they will be unable to resist the temptation to choose a system which will, based on the dynamics of Canadian voter behaviour, have the effect of benefiting the party in power," Scott Reid, the Conservative critic for democratic institutions, has written in advocating for a referendum.

But Ms. Monsef said the conversation cannot be boiled down to a simple yes or no on a ballot. "We would be doing a disservice to the people of this country if we commit to a black-and-white approach to this. We are going to engage in a broad consultation process."

That consultation must start soon. The Liberal commitment is to introduce legislation to change the voting system within the next 16 months, which would allow time for ridings to be redrawn if that becomes necessary.

But it is a complex topic. And polls suggest large numbers of Canadians are uncertain about the merits of moving away from the first-past-the-post.

Ms. Monsef, whose job is to start the conversation about electoral reform, said she believes that is already happening, based on the amount of mail in her in-box and messages she has received through social media.

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"Canadians are intelligent and engaged and my colleagues in Parliament are clearly engaged," said the minister, "and I believe that if we do this for the right reasons, which is reinvigorating and modernizing our democratic institutions, if that's our end goal and if we all agree that that's our end goal, then I believe we can make that happen."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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