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Politics There is a plausible reason not to hold a referendum, but this isn’t it

Demoncratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, May 16, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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POLITICS BRIEFING

By Campbell Clark (@camrclark)

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Asking everyone to vote, Maryam Monsef says, leaves a lot of people out. The Minister of Democratic Institutions argues a referendum on electoral reform isn't inclusive because so many people don't vote.

In the few short days since the Liberals government unveiled their plan to consult Canadians about electoral reform, the communications strategy has veered into self-parody.

The Liberals promise they'll change the first-past-the-post voting system by the 2019 election, although they don't want a referendum on what will replace it. But they have made their case with untenable arguments, like Ms. Monsef's earnest insistence that since not everyone votes, it's not inclusive.

"Half the people impacted by past proposed electoral reforms in Ontario and B.C. did not participate," Ms. Monsef told the Commons on Monday. "This is not good enough for me, it is not good enough for our party, and it is not good enough for Canadians."

Sure, it's not good enough. But Ms. Monsef's remedy is town halls, social media, and "additional processes designed to reach every Canadian." All of that, in the end, will be funnelled to a parliamentary committee.

Whatever Ms. Monsef's plan, it won't reach more than half the voters. That takes a lot of tweets and some pretty packed town halls.

But her argument is doubly silly because all of those plans would be more, not less, likely to reach people if they were combined with a high-profile referendum campaign. Plus, someone could actually tally the results. And, as political scientist Paul Fairie pointed out on Twitter, national referenda have had pretty good turnouts: 71 per cent for the plebiscite on conscription in 1942 and 72 per cent for one on the Charlottetown Accord in 1992.

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The Liberals might have found more plausible arguments against a referendum. They could say they ran on reform by 2019, and holding a plebiscite makes that timing impossible. They could insist that these questions be dealt with by the people's representatives in Parliament. They could attack the Conservatives for seeking to prevent electoral reform – an argument which has the benefit of being true.

Instead, the Liberals are turning their own process to farce. Last week, they argued that the electoral system distorts the will of the people, then the party that won 40 per cent of the vote in the last election gave themselves 60 per cent of the votes on the electoral-reform committee. This week, the minister for Democratic Institutions has explained why low turnouts prove voting is undemocratic.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW IN OTTAWA

By Chris Hannay (@channay)

> The International Syria Support Group meets in Vienna today, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion will be there. Canada was invited to join the 17-nation group by the co-chairs, Russia and the United States.

> Saudi Arabia has cancelled the cultural days they had planned to hold on Parliament Hill this week for "logistical reasons." The days were to be part of the country's charm offensive with Canada.

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> The Liberals say their gender-identity bill, to be tabled today, will be very broad to give more protection to transgender Canadians.

> A new three-member panel will be named today to kick off additional environmental screening of the Trans Mountain pipeline, CBC reports.

> Parliament has missed the Supreme Court's deadline to give Mounties the right to collective bargaining. The Liberals almost lost a procedural vote on their Air Canada bill yesterday, also prompted by a court case, and were saved by a tie-breaking vote from House Speaker Geoff Regan in favour of keeping the bill alive. Speakers have only cast about a dozen votes ever in the history of Canada's Parliament.

REGIONAL ROUNDUP

> Alberta: The Fort McMurray wildfire remains out of control, and more facilities and work camps are being evacuated. A new report from the Conference Board of Canada – written before last night's events – suggests the rebuilding effort in Fort McMurray should offset most of the economic loss from less oil production.

> Saskatchewan: The legislative building has a brand new dome.

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> Ontario: The energy and auto industries are expressing a lot of concern about the impacts of the Liberal climate plan. Here's a detailed breakdown of the plan (for subscribers). B.C., meanwhile, has missed its targets for reducing emissions, but hopes to catch up with Ontario.

WHAT EVERYONE'S TALKING ABOUT

Barrie McKenna (Globe and Mail): "We all know Canadians will have to make some significant sacrifices to meet the ambitious emission targets committed to at last December's Paris climate conference. Ontario, for example, is aiming to cut emissions to 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 per cent below by 2050. Unfortunately, decades of bungled energy policy in Ontario have left consumers deeply suspicious of the government's ability to get it right this time." (for subscribers)

Lawrence Martin (Globe and Mail): "Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is fashionable, smart, caring and popular. In her privileged though unpaid position she is working like our other leading ladies on important causes. Like them, she can make a big contribution. All the more so if the spotlight shines on what's important instead of kerfuffles."

Chantal Hébert (Toronto Star): "As Stéphane Dion demonstrated by snatching the Liberal crown from under the noses of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae a decade ago, it is poor form as well as potentially shortsighted to dismiss the possibility of an eleventh-hour leadership upset out of hand."

Anthony Furey (Postmedia): "After a decade in which Canadian conservatism was defined by the firm convictions of Stephen Harper, there's now a massive void that covers everything to the right of Justin Trudeau. This isn't a crisis. It's an opportunity to redefine the centre-right in Canada."

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