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Liberals won’t hold referendum on voting reform

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc says ‘our plan is not to have a national referendum. Our plan is to use Parliament to consult Canadians. That has always been our plan and I don’t have any reason to think that’s been changed.’

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The federal Liberals say they will not hold a referendum to gauge public opinion on voting reform as they fulfill their promise to abandon the first-past-the-post system but will instead leave it up to Parliament – where they hold a majority of seats – to decide how Canadians will elect future governments.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised broad consultation by an all-party committee before legislation is introduced, within 18 months, to reform the existing system and bring in alternatives such as ranked ballots or proportional representation

Critics – and members of other political parties in particular – argue that without putting proposed changes before Canadians in the form of a referendum, the Liberals could use their majority to weight an already skewed system even more heavily in their favour. Rona Ambrose, the interim Leader of the Conservatives, has demanded that a national vote on electoral reform take place before fundamental changes become law.

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But Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal House Leader, told CTV's Question Period on Sunday that "our plan is not to have a national referendum. Our plan is to use Parliament to consult Canadians. That has always been our plan and I don't have any reason to think that's been changed."

Mr. LeBlanc, who has previously said that one party with a majority should not be able to rewrite the rules for everybody else, said the government sees "Parliament taking it responsibility and having a committee travel across the country and then having a debate in Parliament."

It will be important to obtain a number of perspectives during the consultation process, he said, "from the status quo to an extreme, which would be perhaps proportional representation, and anything in between we think is worthy of being looked at."

Later on Sunday, in another interview with CTV, Mr. Trudeau was also asked about the possibility of a referendum on electoral reform. He responded by asking the interviewer whether it is necessary for a government to have a referendum on everything that matters to the future of the country.

"You have to make choices at one point," he said, "and we are committed to holding full, engaged consultations. And we'll see where that takes us."

During the fall election campaign, Mr. Trudeau promised to convene an all-party parliamentary committee to review potential electoral systems. He indicated some time ago that ranked ballots were his preferred option, though his opinion may have changed since then.

A recent poll by Abacus Data suggests a ranked ballot would have given the Liberals – who hold a majority despite receiving only 40 per cent of the popular vote – an even greater number of seats in Parliament. But proportional representation would have reduced them to a minority.

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Ms. Ambrose said in an e-mail late Sunday that, when the fundamental rules of democracy are changed, all Canadians should have a say. "A referendum is the only way to ensure all Canadians get that say," she said. "It is arrogant for the government to suggest they are entitled to make a change of this magnitude without a referendum."

Bill Tieleman, a former NDP strategist who led a group that was against a proposed move to a ranked-balloting system in British Columbia when it was the subject of two referendums in that province, said he is "extremely disappointed" at Mr. LeBlanc's refusal to test public opinion in a vote.

"There have been four votes in three provinces and every one has [been] clearly rejected," Mr. Tieleman said.

It would be "bad enough," if the Liberals changed the federal electoral system, indefinitely, without a referendum, Mr. Tieleman said. But "if they changed it to a system where you have a ranked ballot that would appear to give them dozens and dozens more seats – a system that actually favours the Liberal Party, as well – it would be scandalous."

Some proponents of proportional representation see a referendum as creating just another delay in much needed democratic reform.

Wilfred Day, a lawyer who is a member of the national council of Fair Vote Canada, which promotes electoral reform, says the Liberals won a majority on a promise to make every vote count and that means they already have a mandate to bring in proportional representation.

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Because any form of proportional representation would require changing electoral boundaries, he said, there is not enough time to hold a referendum in which voters have time to digest all of the complicated information and time to redraw constituencies before the next election in 2019.

Abandoning proportional representation and moving instead to a ranked ballot without a referendum is "definitely not" something that Fair Vote Canada would support, Mr. Day said. But he said he is not worried that that is even a possibility.

"I don't think the Liberals would dare pull a bait and switch and bring in the ranked ballot, which does nothing except help the Liberal Party," Mr. Day said. "It doesn't fulfill the promise to make every vote count."

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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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