The Globe reports that the Liberals have finally made it clear they won’t hold a referendum on promised electoral reform.

This isn’t, strictly speaking, the breaking of a promise – the party’s platform only pledged that the 2015 election would be the last under the first past the post system (FPTP), and that a parliamentary committee would review a “wide range” of reform options in the government’s first 18 months – but it is fair to question the decision in light of Justin Trudeau’s promise of a “national engagement process” and “strong, open consultations” on the issue.

I’m ambivalent on the need for a referendum generally, but I’d be much more comfortable with the government claiming a clear mandate on reform if they had had the fortitude to name the specific electoral system they would be implementing in their platform. At that point, if Canadians were strongly opposed to the change, they could simply refuse to vote Liberal. [For the record – and in spite of the case I’m about to develop in favour of a referendum below – I’d be happy to see a preferential ballot system implemented].

Instead, the Liberals (likely intentionally) muddled their mandate: there is an inherent tension in promising that this was the last FPTP election but also promising to consult the public on the matter. It seems like a strategy designed to circumvent a (very possible) situation where public consultations might reveal a majority of Canadians actually prefer the status quo over a particular reform option. And given the well-known criticisms of how FPTP “skews” popular vote shares, surely it would be a sad irony to bring in a new electoral system when a majority of Canadians might have rejected it in a popular vote on the matter!

And indeed, the most common criticism I’ve heard of holding a referendum is something along the lines of “opponents of electoral reform (especially Conservatives) want a referendum because they know Canadians will vote ‘No’,” which is kind of a remarkable objection when you stop and think about it for a minute. My answer to this basically amounts to “and your point is?”

As I stated above, I’m not necessarily making a wholesale argument in favour of a referendum. I certainly would not want referenda to become common place for any sort of major policy change, but I think there is at least a legitimate argument for one in the context of a change to the voting system itself (Jen Gerson makes a decent case here, for example).

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On the other side of the issue, critics of reform complain the Liberals are trying to implement reform to their electoral advantage (i.e. they’ll bring in preferential balloting because it will increase their chances). But this is hardly clear. For one thing, this claim assumes that there would be no concordant change in the party system or in party behaviour. In fact, this is why electoral reform is such a big deal, it’s not necessarily just a change to how we vote (fundamental as that is), it’s a potential change to the selection and composition of the parties and party system themselves.

That said, there are some serious questions/arguments about whether or not to hold a referendum. The first is why on this issue and not others? (I’ve touched on this above – I think electoral reform is considerably more fundamental than ordinary policy decisions, at least in a constitutional sense, but probably also in a “this should be decided by the most democratic means possible” sense, in constrast with many technical policy questions).

Further, surely the public could be consulted in a more nuanced manner (citizens’ assemblies, for one) than a simple ‘yes or no’ vote on this complex issue? I think other forms of public consultation – including the work of the parliamentary committee – will be crucial for examining the various options and selecting a potential, specific reform.

But once that process is complete, I can’t think of a good reason why Canadian voters should not be consulted on whether they favour the proposed new system over the status quo – unless that reason amounts to “I’m worried Canadians will support the status quo.” Which in my mind is an argument that favours holding a referendum, lest we risk replacing something as fundamental as an electoral system against the wishes of a majority of Canadians.


Emmett Macfarlane
Emmett Macfarlane is an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on the intersection of governance, rights and public policy, with a particular emphasis on the policy impact of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Supreme Court of Canada.

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