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Electoral reform will not happen in this Parliament

0 Comments 09 January 2017

The toughest political nut to crack is changing the voting system. It is not for the faint of heart, or the novice. Voting changes have been entertained multiple times in Canada. Thus far, none have succeeded.

By SHEILA COPPS

First published in The Hill Times on Monday, December 12, 2016.

OTTAWA—I took the MyDemocracy.ca voting test and discovered what I already knew. According to the online government survey, managed by Vox Pop, I am a pragmatist.

The pragmatist in me says electoral reform is dead.

Its public interment by the minister responsible for democratic reform was not a pretty sight.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef arrived in Parliament with great promise. She is fresh and authentic, two qualities that should have stood her in good stead in a tough portfolio. But what she made up for in enthusiasm, she lacked in experience.

The toughest political nut to crack is that of changing the voting system. It is not for the faint of heart, or the novice.

Voting changes have been entertained multiple times in Canada. Thus far, none have succeeded.

Back in March of 2004, the Law Commission of Canada recommended a change to the mixed member proportional system. That autumn, in the speech from the throne, the government promised to follow through with reform.

Multiple options were subsequently studied by a citizens’ consultation group, and a House of Commons committee, but in the end the current system prevailed.

British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick have all taken a look, and decided against change. In two provinces, voters made the decision directly through a referendum.

In the rest, the politicians took a pass.

Prince Edward Island undertook a look at the issue this year, with a plebiscite last month proposing a new system of mixed proportional. Unfortunately, even with a decision to lower the voting age to 16, less than 40 per cent of islanders voted. It did not seem to excite many people.

But the Liberal dissent tabled last week killed any chance of federal change before the next election.

Other possible modernizations, including internet voting, may end up supplanting electoral reform, as the mainstay of a federal Liberal promise to change voting.

The possibility of online voting would definitely entice more millennial and younger generation citizens to the polls, especially if they don’t have to leave their keyboard or cellphone.

Voter turnout, or lack thereof, is not just a reflection of mistrust in the electoral system. The surprise victory of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau occurred because he appealed to those recalcitrant young people who did not identify with typical politicians.

Trudeau showed a side of himself that definitely appealed to a younger generation. It was the perfect foil to the aging demeanour of both Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair.

Trudeau may regret being so definitive on the issue of electoral reform. His statement that “We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post” left no wiggle room.

His minister was stymied by her lack of political experience.

Bowing to pressure, Monsef’s first mistake was to hand over chairmanship of the committee to the Opposition. That move set the stage for the impasse we witnessed last week between the Liberals and all Opposition parties.

The Conservatives certainly don’t want a change. The committee’s demand for a referendum on any proposed change pretty much guarantees that nothing will happen before the next election.

As for the New Democrats and the Green Party, they stand to gain the most with a proportional voting system.

Monsef was wrong when she accused the committee of not doing its job. The hefty report is thorough if not definitive.

But in playing politics with the outcome, the opposition participants gave each other exactly what they wanted, a guaranteed referendum for the Conservatives, and a party-run list system for the smaller parties.

If implemented, the biggest loser would have been the Liberal Party. So Monsef cut her losses and moved to immediately distance herself and her government from the report.

Electoral reform will not happen in this Parliament.

It may never happen. It is certainly not the top of mind issue that moves voters. If anything, it is a party issue for those who cannot make the breakthrough to government.

Bad electoral change comes with its own set of problems. Instead of encouraging centrist policies that accommodate the greatest number of people, proportional parliaments often hand more power to extremists.

Ideologically based parties may be small, but they are much more committed to organizing their membership and getting their vote out. Fringe groups could easily dominate the national agenda if a system of proportional voting replaced the current first-past-the-post Parliament.

I am a pragmatist. Change for change’s sake is not worth the risk, nor a referendum.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.

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© 2017 Sheila Copps.