Nelson Wiseman is director of the Canadian Studies Program and a professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.
If Parliament opts for a referendum on electoral reform, it will prove to be an expensive and unnecessary flop. Past experience indicts such a foray. It will entail amending the Referendum Act and cost well over $300-million.
The Liberals promised that the 2015 election would be the last using the first-past-the-post system, but they have acted as if they prefer the status quo by striking a Commons committee to study alternative systems. A number of provincial governments, citizens' assemblies, academics, the Law Reform Commission and others have already studied the issue, so one wonders what the committee will learn that is new.
To be sure, the current system has produced some egregious distortions: In the 1993 federal election, for example, Progressive Conservative candidates received 2.2 million votes and Liberal candidates received 5.6 million but the Conservatives won only 2 seats, the Liberals 177; thus, the Conservatives won one seat for every 1.1 million votes they received while the Liberals won a seat for every 31,000 votes they received.
Some think a preferential ballot will benefit the Liberals because polls during the last election showed they were the second choice of most NDP and Conservative voters.
Extrapolating from the last election however, is shaky reasoning; many observers reasoned similarly that the last redistribution of Parliament's seats favoured the Conservatives because most of the new seats were in suburbs where the Conservatives had done well in 2011. Those new ridings, it turned out, went overwhelmingly Liberal in 2015.
Conservative MP Scott Reid has dismissed the cost of a referendum: "If we're worried about the cost of democracy, then we should suspend having any future elections, shouldn't we?"
This is a false equation; the international community will barely take note if Parliament changes the electoral system; if elections are suspended however, the reaction will be much different.
Changing the voting system is not like changing agricultural policy, but unless the issue is existential, a referendum is a dreadful way to decide anything. Many vote the way they do because of considerations other than the referendum question – see Brexit and the Charlottetown Accord fiasco.
Debating electoral reform is an elite pleasure industry. The issue goes unmentioned in surveys gauging what the public deems important.
In a poll in July, 65 per cent of respondents said they wanted a referendum on the issue. It is challenging to find a poll on any issue however where respondents say they do not prefer a referendum.
A more proportional system will incentivize a proliferation of parties. It may produce a British Columbia First Party or an Alberta First Party. Neither could form a government, but they could use their weight to hold bigger parties to ransom for special consideration for their provinces.
A referendum will almost certainly fail. In Canada's one experience of a stand-alone referendum on electoral reform, only 35 per cent of Prince Edward Islanders voted. In contrast, Island election turnouts are consistently over 80 per cent.
Only three people raised the issue of electoral reform during Ontario Conservative leader John Tory's campaign in 2007, when a referendum was held in conjunction with an election. A poll found that only 28 per cent of voters were familiar with the issue and many were surprised to be handed a referendum ballot; 138,000 fewer votes were cast in the referendum than in the election.
Most of those appearing at the parliamentary committee meetings will favour change. Of the 986 submissions to Ontario's Citizens' Assembly, 692 favoured change and only 78 (or 8 per cent) opposed it. The Assembly voted 94-8 for a proportional system, but the public overwhelmingly rejected the idea with just 37 per cent of Ontarians in favour.
The committee studying electoral reform may as well recommend no change and save Canadians the cost of an inessential exercise and the trouble of trooping to the polls once again.