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On Electoral Reform, Liberals Working In Their Own Interest, Opposition MPs Say

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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is fixing the rules to ensure only a new electoral system that benefits the Liberal party will be chosen, opposition MPs say.

On Tuesday, Trudeau suggested he will not hold a referendum on changing the voting method because he believes Canadians would likely choose the status quo.

“Many of the people...who propose that absolutely we need a referendum, well, they know that the fact is that referendum are a pretty good way of not getting any electoral reform,” he told students at University of Ottawa.

justin trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at an event at a university in Ottawa, Tuesday, April 19, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

The prime minister said his party had put forward “a very clear platform” pledging that the Oct. 19 election would be the last under the current first-past-the-post system and Canadians responded “positively and massively” to it and to other parties who wanted change.

“So I think we can see that there is a fairly clear desire out there to improve our electoral system.”

The current system worked “pretty good for me this time,” Trudeau told the students, and it could be tempting to claim it is too complicated to change it now, but, he told them it remains “a priority to me.”

“Quite frankly, political parties shouldn’t be able to appeal to narrow constituencies and suddenly wield enough power to run the entire country,” he said.

Canadians should have an electoral system that values their voices, that creates good governments, that ensures people feel involved in the political process, and that they don’t have to make “impossible choices” between options they don’t like, he said.

The Conservatives say the Liberals have a mandate to propose change but not one to dictate it. They fear the Grits will propose a system that naturally gives them the biggest partisan advantage, democratic institutions critic Scott Reid said.

“This is a blatantly, nakedly opportunistic attempt to change the rules in a way that will help them to win election 2019 or do better at it by systematically disenfranchising certain Canadians,” he told The Huffington Post Canada.

“The Canadian people must get the last word on this,” he added.

scott reid
Conservative MP Scott Reid rises in the House of Commons Thursday February 18, 2016 in Ottawa. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

“A government which says that first-past-the-post produces artificial mandates can hardly argue that 39 per cent in an election is a mandate for electoral reform.”

The Liberals won 39.5 per cent of the popular vote last fall.

For the past several months, the Conservatives have argued Trudeau should put any new electoral system to Canadians in a referendum.

In 2005, a majority of British Columbians, 57.7 per cent, voted in favour of adopting a new system suggested by the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. But the measure failed because the referendum required 60 per cent approval.

Those results mirror other referendums held in Ontario in 2007 and Prince Edward Island in 2005 where two thirds of voters rejected the proposed mixed-member proportional systems.

"A government which says that first-past-the-post produces artificial mandates can hardly argue that 39 per cent in an election is a mandate for electoral reform."
— Scott Reid

Nathan Cullen, the NDP’s democratic reform critic, told HuffPost he believes Trudeau is showing a “worrying lack of faith” in Canadians by refusing to put a proposed new voting system to the public.

But, Cullen said, his personal opinion is the government should adopt a new system and then take it out for a “test drive.” Give the new selection process at least two election cycles, and then ask Canadians in a referendum whether they like the new method or would prefer going back to first-past-the-post.

“That way people would be voting with a clear knowledge of what it means,” he said.

At the moment, though, Cullen said he is primarily concerned that the Liberals are stacking the deck in their favour and inexplicably delaying the process.

During the campaign, the Liberals pledged to “make every vote count.” They promised to convene an all-party parliamentary committee to review various reform options, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting, and to table legislation within 18 months of forming government.

nathan cullen
Nathan Cullen speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

More than five months into their mandate, the clock is ticking, and no committee has been formed. The Liberals rejected Cullen’s proposal that they give up their majority on the committee and that seats be allocated in proportion to each party’s share of the popular vote in the last election.

“The Liberals could simply pass anything that they want,” Cullen told Huffpost. “And the idea that the Prime Minister’s Office would remain utterly neutral, after the prime minister has made his intentions known, is naive and, perhaps, even cynical.”

Trudeau has already made it clear he prefers a preferential ballot.

He told the Ottawa U students that while the Liberals are open to “all sorts of different options,” his own preference is that parties should be rewarded for reaching out to broad communities and finding common ground with people of different ideologies and perspectives, rather than highlighting differences and distinctions between them.

“This is the kind of conversation we should be having about the kind of voting future we want,” he said. “It shouldn’t be ‘Oh this model is best because it will help this party, or that model is best because it will help that party.’ Who knows what a changed model will actually have in terms of help or none help?”

"The idea that the Prime Minister’s Office would remain utterly neutral, after the prime minister has made his intentions known, is naive and, perhaps, even cynical."
— Nathan Cullen

Many experts believe a preferential ballot, or as it is also known, a ranked ballot, would benefit the Liberals as they tend to be the second choice of other parties’ supporters. An analysis by CBC’s Eric Grenier suggest the Liberals would have won 224 seats under a preferential ballot, but only 134 seats under a proportional system. They won 184 seats.

Trudeau, however, dismisses the criticism.

“Canadians are pretty smart, and when they want a better government , they’ll vote for a better government. When they want to change the government, they’ll make whatever system they have in front of them work,” he suggested Tuesday. “A good political party that has the right kind of platform or program for Canadians should be able to make any system work.”

PR not too radical, Cullen says

While the Conservatives are, for now, advocating for no particular voting system, the NDP is a staunch supporter of proportional representation, also known as PR, and campaigned on a promise to bring in some form of mixed-member proportional representation to make every vote “truly count.”

The Green Party also called for a new proportional voting system. But the Liberals have not included any mention of proportionality or fairness in any of their discussions surrounding the new voting system, Cullen noted.

But the Liberals have not included any mention of proportionality or fairness in any of their discussions surrounding the new voting system, Cullen noted.

“One of the hallmarks of voting around the world is that there is an element of proportionality, some connection between the votes cast and the result,” he told HuffPost. “I don’t think that’s too radical a notion.”

Last week, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef announced, without public consultations, eight principles that will guide the selection of the new electoral system:
  1. Canadians must perceive the outcomes as legitimate and feel their intentions are translated fairly into the results;
  2. Canadians must feel that they can influence politics and voting makes a difference;
  3. The voting system must encourage inclusive politics, meaning it must contribute to increasing civility in politics, restoring public trust in government, and strengthening representation by ensuring greater diversity in both the House of Commons and the political process more broadly.
  4. The voting system should not be overly complex or onerous;
  5. The voting system should be more user-friendly and accessible.
  6. The voting system should take into consideration the relationship – and accountability – between citizens and their local MPs.
  7. The new system must be objective and verifiable and protect election results from cyber or physical tampering and ensures that the secrecy of their votes is protected.
  8. The new system must inspires Canadians to find common ground, pursues consensus and encourage governments to cast a broad tent that seeks to include all Canadians regardless of their partisan disposition.

All eight principles would support the choice of a preferential or ranked ballot. They would less likely apply to various proportional systems, which are complicated, might be seen to create division and could weaken constituents connection with their local MP.

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