Marie Bountrogianni is dean of the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University and a former Ontario cabinet minister
Canadians deserve a referendum on electoral reform – but it needs to be done right. I urge Minister Maryam Monsef to put this issue to the people. I also encourage the Liberal government to allow this process to unfold in a reasonable, judicious amount of time.
As Ontario's former minister responsible for democratic renewal, I have first-hand insight into the delicacy and complexity of this issue. The Ontario government proposed to reform the "first past the post" (FPTP) voting system in a 2007 referendum. I was only appointed to this file in mid-2005, which left me less than two years to help pass legislation that would actually allow us to hold a referendum, in addition to creating a dialogue around the issue. We learned a lot of valuable lessons from the 2007 referendum. There was simply not enough time to do it correctly.
With these lessons in mind, I have three points of unsolicited advice for Minister Monsef.
First, form a Citizens' Assembly. The Ontario government unveiled Ontario's first Citizens' Assembly in June 2006, consisting of 103 randomly selected citizens plus a chair. The Assembly was well-received because it gave citizens the opportunity to consult with one another on various electoral systems without pressure or influence from a political party. Following their deliberations, the Assembly recommended a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. Although this system was not adopted through the referendum, I'm very proud of this initiative, as well as the corresponding Student's Assembly on Electoral Reform. It gave the citizens a clear voice in the process.
Earlier this month, the Liberal government gave Canadians the opportunity to identify their values when they mailed the online democracy survey to 15 million households. While a survey is a good way to gather invaluable information on the populace, MyDemocracy.ca has faced a great deal of criticism for asking skewed questions. Moreover, the fact that respondents are able to complete the survey more than once makes the validity of the results highly questionable. This design flaw is further compounded by the fact that there is no way to measure whether respondents are even within the country.
Secondly, it is critical to take the time to broaden and deepen the public's understanding of the issue and the case for reform. It is up to our government to help Canadians understand the difference between FPTP and the alternative voting systems, and why change is needed to support our democracy. In November, the Angus Reid Institute published a Public Interest Survey showing that while 86 per cent of Canadians understand the FPTP system, the majority were confused by the alternative systems.
Engagement, engagement, and more engagement. The government must host more town halls, meet the press, and leverage Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to reach as many Canadians as possible. Social media has made it much easier to bring political issues into the forefront of public consciousness now than it was in 2005-2007. It has been estimated that more than 20 million Canadians will have a social media account by 2018. In a country with a population of nearly 37 million people, that equals a significant number of citizens who can be reached through online engagement alone.
Finally, this issue absolutely needs to be put to a referendum. The government owes it to Canadians to allow them to exercise their democratic right. I recently joined the board of the Democratic Study Centre in Ukraine, whose mandate is to help Eastern European youth acquire knowledge on democratic processes and policy development skills. I was proud to represent a country where we have a say in the formation of our government and our policies. I encourage Minister Monsef to allow us to exercise this privilege.
Yes, a campaign promise was made to change the electoral process by 2019 – and I know all too well the political consequences of "breaking a promise". However, if we rush this process, we risk creating an unstable system. I advise the Minister to tell Canadians that the issue will be deferred until following the 2019 election with a referendum. Don't make the same missteps I did in 2005 when I was appointed to this file in Ontario. Beginning in the new year, they need to take the time to host a more fulsome conversation with Canadians on this issue. According to a Forum Poll published in July, two-thirds of Canadians believe that electoral reform should be a referendum issue. With respect, I hope the Minister gives the people what they want.