The Liberal government should move ahead with developing options for a new electoral system that it will put to the people in a referendum.

Let’s acknowledge that electoral reform is a tough issue, marred with all kinds of obstacles. So, a week after the Commons committee on electoral reform released their report, the question is: Where do we go from here? I am willing to accept at face value the statements by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Democratic Reform that they are still committed to electoral reform (Yes, I am a die-hard optimist!). Is there still ground for compromise. I believe so (Yes, optimist again!).

Let’s start with the issue of the referendum. Four of the five parties are already on board. The Liberals dislike the idea though they do not entirely dismiss it. Their main argument seems to be that there is no wide public consensus around an alternative system and that referenda appear to have a status quo bias. I find these arguments very weak. Electoral systems embody our conception about how democracy should work and it seems to me absolutely essential that citizens are asked to decide what kind of electoral system we should have. Furthermore, the parties are clearly in a conflict of interest on this issue since they are bound to benefit more from some options than from others, and so we should leave the final word to voters. And there is another reason why we should have a referendum. A referendum could allow the governing party to put on the ballot a third option that they may prefer (more on this below).

There is the question of when this referendum should be held. The opposition parties’ position seems to be: as soon as possible. Here I must say that I side with the Liberals: let’s not rush things. Let’s take the time to better specify the options to be put on the ballot, let’s make the necessary adjustments to the referendum legislation, let’s take the time to adequately inform the public. With all these constraints in mind, all the parties could agree that the best timeline is to have the referendum in 2019, at the same time as the next election.

Now the content. Clearly, the reform proponents want some form of proportional representation. They now have to come up with a specific proposal, which means making hard choices. Do they want strong or only modest proportionality? They have to accept the fact that there is a trade-off between local representation and proportionality. They can’t have their cake and eat it too. The Minister unfairly criticized the committee for not making a specific proposal but now is the time to come up with a detailed option. Clearly, the Liberals will not accept ‘strong’ proportionality, whether they might accept ‘modest’ proportionality is an open question. This is what the next stage of discussions should be about.

If the Liberals cannot agree with the opposition parties on a common proposition, then it would be perfectly legitimate for the governing party to put on the table a third alternative. That third alternative could be the alternative vote (ranked ballot), or it could be another weaker type of proportional system. By the way, it is possible to have ranked ballots and (modest) proportionality. This is the case for the single transferable vote (STV) that exists in Ireland and was proposed by the BC Citizens’ Assembly. It is also the case for the P3 system proposed by Stéphane Dion. My students also recommended a mixed regional compensation system in which voters would rank order the candidates for the local vote.

This is thus a plea to get over the ugly debate that we had last week and to move on to new compromises. In that spirit, here is my suggestion:

  1. The government should announce that Canadians will have the final say on electoral reform and that the referendum will take place at the time of the next election.
  2. The next step should be to specify what options will be on the referendum ballot. Clearly the existing first past the post system would be the first option. The second option would be some form of proportional representation to be specified in detail. The government should announce that they may put a third option on the ballot if they fail to reach an agreement with the opposition parties. If there are three options, the referendum would be held using a ranked ballot (or alternative vote), as used in the recent PEI plebiscite.

Photo:  Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

This article is part of the Electoral Reform special feature.


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