When a federal cabinet minister stickhandling an epochal change through Parliament promises that the government "will not move forward without the consent of Canadians," what exactly does that mean?
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef made that vow in Thursday's Question Period. She has the job of keeping her party's campaign promise "that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." She has also repeatedly been made to look foolish in the House of Commons by insisting that "consent" and "consultation" cannot include consulting Canadians by means of a referendum. At times, she's suggested there are more legitimate ways to consult Canadians than through voting. It's a weird argument for someone trying to sell the need for democratic reform.
The Minister now says her government will table legislation after an examination of the issue by an all-party committee – and in a surprise and welcome change of plans, that committee will not have a Liberal majority.
The committee was originally to have had 10 members, including six Liberals. It will now include 12 MPs: five Liberals, three Conservatives, two New Democrats and one member each from the Greens and the Bloc Québécois.
The NDP, which like the Tories complained the government was about to ram through a pro-Liberal change to the voting system, proposed this structure, and the Liberals have accepted it. The idea is for the parties to be roughly represented on the committee in proportion to their share of the popular vote in the last election.
Statistical note for backers of proportional representation: On the electoral reform committee, the Conservatives are most underrepresented relative to their share of the vote; they should really be getting five seats, not four. They're also (coincidence?) the party most opposed to the Liberal plan, and most in favour of keeping the status quo. Meanwhile, the Greens, who only got 3.5 per cent of the vote nationally and have but one seat in Parliament, are the most overrepresented party on the committee. They also just happen to be strongly pro-election-reform.
The result of all this is that the Liberals will have to co-operate with at least one of the opposition parties (hint: it probably won't be the Conservatives).
There are three big issues to consider: Is electoral reform needed? What would be the best proposal to improve Canadian democracy? And should Canadians get to decide, through a referendum?
On the first two questions, Canadians should keep an open mind. Canada's democratic system is not broken, and the Liberal campaign language, treating our existing electoral system as a kind of cancer, was rash. This country is, relatively speaking, extremely well-governed, and our democracy is healthy and successful. First-past-the-post works.
However, just because our democracy is working doesn't mean it couldn't be improved. It isn't written in stone that Canada's elected representatives must forever be chosen by first-past-the-post. There's no reason to reject reform out of hand, before seeing the proposal.
But once a proposal has been crafted, Canadians must be consulted. Fundamentally changing who gets political power, and how, cannot be left up to politicians. It's an inherent conflict of interest. A change going to the roots of our democracy should only be made with the clear approval of the people, through a referendum.
On this issue, however, the Liberal government is openly referendum-averse. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made that plain on Thursday when he complained that referendums are "used to stop things." (Such as, for example, the breakup of the country – twice.) It was an admission he's worried that, if given the chance, Canadians would do like they've done in the past when faced with radical changes they see as unjustified.
Of course, that leaves the government and the committee with the job of crafting an electoral reform proposal that can win over Canadians. If it does, it becomes law. If it doesn't, it disappears.
The government contends that the FPTP system distorts voter intention by giving majorities to parties that, like theirs, win only a minority of the popular vote. But they haven't demonstrated yet that FPTP is so terribly undemocratic that it needs to be abandoned for ranked ballots or proportional representation – other systems that have their own flaws and limitations.
Over the past decade, provincial governments in Ontario and B.C. put forward solid, well-researched electoral reform proposals. And then they put them to the people. They were both shot down in referendums.
But those provincial governments did not wear these defeats. In fact, they were returned to power. Maybe asking voters what they want, and giving it to them, is a winning political strategy?