Electoral reform needed, so is a new process

A lot of work needs to be done for Trudeau to keep promise

By Mark Crawford

In the federal election last October, the Liberal Party stated, “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

“We will convene an all-party parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.

“This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.”

This date for introducing legislation is now just 13 months away.

The government has a clear mandate and duty to “make every vote count.”

This is especially clear since three parties representing more than two-thirds of the electorate campaigned on that same principle, and a majority of Canadians have endorsed that view in opinion poll after opinion poll.

As a professor of political science who has been following this subject for 30 years, I have become a strong believer in having a mild dose of improved proportionality, as a way of improving voter turnout, improving public policy, better representing diversity, and reducing the exacerbation of regional cleavages by the electoral system.

What is not clear, however, is that the government has a mandate to enact any particular voting system that it wants in accordance with the regular parliamentary process.

That is because of the clear conflict of interest that exists: the danger that the Liberals may try to enact a system that is most favourable to themselves.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes the ranked ballot; it might look like self-dealing if lo and behold the final piece of legislation just happens to accord with Trudeau’s preferences.

This is also a logical point: if our winner- take-all system is so bad because it gives all the marbles to one party that only got 40 per cent of the vote, why should that party be able to use that very same flawed mandate to change the system?

These difficulties largely explain why the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral reform hasn’t been named yet.

The very composition of that Committee (Liberal majority?) and its frame of reference (is legislation to be approved by free vote majority, or a super-majority?) are bones of contention.

But that doesn’t mean the Conservative Party is right to demand a referendum. There is no constitutional nor legal requirement for a referendum, and I for one am glad that there isn’t because a referendum would risk throwing the general mandate baby out with the specific mandate bath water.

But, I do believe that a special process is needed – either two-thirds of a free vote in the House of Commons, or a referendum after two elections, or both.

And it might not be a bad idea to change the usual rules concerning the composition and decision-making process of the Parliamentary Committee, either.

Mark Crawford teaches at Athabasca University He can be reached at markcrawf@gmail.com.

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