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opinion

New Zealanders recently voted, by a majority of 57 per cent to 43 per cent, to retain their current flag. Prime Minister John Key had urged them to support a new flag, a distinctive one such as Canada's, one without the Union Jack in the corner. In the early stages of the debate, it appeared that change would win. In the end, change lost. The Union Jack stays.

In 1993, by contrast, New Zealanders voted 54 per cent to 46 per cent to ditch their first-past-the-post electoral system – the one used by Canada – in favour of a form of proportional representation. The new system, called mixed-member proportional (MMP), was in place for almost two decades when, in 2011, a conservative prime minister held another referendum asking if the people wanted to keep the MMP system or return to first-past-the-post. By a margin of 56 per cent to 51 per cent, New Zealanders preferred the MMP system they had approved in 1993.

One referendum against change, one for change and another to affirm the change. All three votes followed extensive and intense public debate. The people, not the politicians of the day, decided what they wanted for their national symbol and their electoral system. Politicians participated in the debates, but the people decided, as in election campaigns.

In Canada, by contrast, the Trudeau Liberals apparently don't trust the people, as the New Zealand government did. Instead, the Liberals prefer to trust today's crop of politicians to redesign and then vote for a new electoral system for the country.

Oh yes, they will "consult" the people through a parliamentary committee, but in the end, Parliament will decide if the Liberals have their way. And which party controls Parliament these days and for the next three and a half years? A party that got far less than 50 per cent of the vote will change something as fundamental as the electoral system?

Canadians have a system of representative democracy. We choose people to make decisions, and watch them as they do. Every four years, we pass judgment on their performance.

Representative democracy is clearly better than deciding every question by referendum. There are key matters, however, that are central to how we organize the country – one is the Constitution, the other is the electoral system. On these matters, the people should have their say directly.

Otherwise, political actors will bring their own self-interest to bear on decisions. The Liberals will want preferential voting since they are the most popular second-choice party. The New Democratic Party will want proportional representation because it gives them the best chance of being part of a coalition government. The Conservatives will prefer the status quo because, as the Harper government demonstrated, they can bunch votes that amount to far fewer than 50 per cent of the total (as the Trudeau Liberals did last October) and win a majority.

Democracies use all three systems. Each can work. A case can be made for all three. In New Zealand, a long debate winnowed down options for change, then let the people select the electoral system to put against the status quo in a final vote. MMP won, which rebuffs the assumption that, given a choice, the people always prefer first-past-the-post, the devil they know.

Soon after the Oct. 19 election, Liberal ministers talked extensively about their plans. They would change the system. They would establish a parliamentary committee. They would act.

Since then, silence or muffled comments. Somebody pulled down the flags, perhaps because the argument about the people deciding has persuaded the government. More likely it's because the government realized electoral change is not a high priority for most Canadians.

Ask yourself this question: How often at your work, or in gatherings with friends, has the conversation turned to preferential voting or proportional representation? The question is obviously rhetorical.

Changing the system, especially to proportional representation, would require a lot of time. It would likely take two years to put the system in place before the next federal election.

With six months of the mandate already gone, the government would have to hurry up to push changes through Parliament in time for the next election. Much better would be to allow time for debate, give Canadians options, inform them fairly about each and then let the people decide.