OTTAWA — The Liberal government waved a white flag Thursday, changing course on its democratic reform plans and handing the opposition a majority on a committee that will recommended changes to the electoral system.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that he took to heart complaints that his government was behaving in a way that resembled the "previous government's" approach rather than the tone the Liberals had promised during the election campaign.
"We saw clearly that the approach was raising questions in the minds of many Canadians and indeed opposition parties about how genuine our will is to work with opposition parties," Trudeau said of the Liberals' initial plan to stack the committee with a majority of Grit MPs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a reporters question following an announcement at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Thursday, June 2, 2016 in Ottawa. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
The Liberals were elected on a platform of "collaboration, openness, working together and building consensus," he said, and that remains the focus.
It's clear, Canadians hold his government to "a high standard,” Trudeau added. He was "happy to demonstrate" — by backing an NDP motion giving the opposition MPs the balance of power — that the government is serious about respecting all members of Parliament and working collaboratively on issues.
The prime minister stopped short, however, of committing to hold a referendum.
"We've seen often that referenda are often a way to prevent change from happening," Trudeau said, noting that the Liberals were committed to fulfilling an electoral promise that the 2015 election would be the last under the current first-past-the-post system.
'Arrogant and elitist': Ambrose
Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose said Trudeau's explanation for refusing a referendum was one of the "most arrogant and elitist things" she had ever heard.
“The only thing that he is stopping is the right for Canadians to have a say in what their vote means,” she said during question period.
The process "used to be a sham" and now the government was arguing it was "less of a sham" because a "secret" "backroom" deal had been hatched with the NDP, she said.
Tory critic warns of 'trap'
Conservative democratic institutions critic Scott Reid was livid Thursday morning when he found out about the changes. The Grits and the NDP cooked up this plan behind the Tories' back and now the New Democrats can't see they have fallen into a "Liberal trap," he said.
Reid said he still believes the "fix is in" and that the Liberals are trying to change the way MPs are elected because they know they can't win next time under the current rules.
"They are trying to steal the next election," he said.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef answers a question in the House of Commons this week. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef — who has been berated in the national media for her treatment of the electoral reform file so far — seemed genuinely relieved to be announcing a change of course.
"We were elected on a promise to do politics differently. That means co-operating, that means recognizing that good ideas can come from all parties," she said in the Commons.
The Liberal government promises to engage Canadians, to recommend changes in the House and to allow all members to debate and vote, Monsef said. "We will not move forward on changes without the consent of Canadians."
Monsef said the government would support the NDP motion which transfers power on the committee from a majority of Liberal MPs to a majority of opposition members by giving the NDP a Liberal seat and making the Bloc Québécois and the Greens full voting members.
"We were elected on a promise to do politics differently. That means co-operating, that means recognizing that good ideas can come from all parties."
— Maryam Monsef
"Who has the committee majority has never been my key priority," Monsef told MPs.
The changes mean the government gives up control over the process. It's a complete 180-degree turn after being widely panned for appearing ready to change the electoral map unilaterally.
The government always intended for the voices of Bloc and the Greens be included in the consultation process, Monsef said. But she had recently been "persuaded" that an additional way to show the government's commitment to inclusivity was to "break with tradition."
"Hopefully this will assure members that the government comes to this process with an open mind," she said.
Monsef also tabled a friendly amendment asking the committee to recommend "the best method of ensuring that any proposal has the full or broad support of Canadians."
That leaves the door open for the Tories and the Bloc on the committee to recommend a referendum, the NDP and the Greens to argue one isn't needed, and, perhaps, the Liberals to say there is no agreement between the parties.
Monsef: 'Co-operation in this place is possible'
The committee studying electoral reform will now be composed of five Liberals MPs, three Conservatives, two NDP members, one Bloc Québécois MP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
The Liberals had initially suggested they be given six seats, the Tories three seats and one seat to the NDP. The Bloc and the Greens would have been allowed to participate in the debate but not vote.
Monsef said she wants to see the committee get going.
"The purpose of coming together with the parties across the aisle today was to demonstrate that co-operation in this place is possible," she later told reporters.
A government source said the Liberals backtracked because the minister felt electoral reform was stuck in an "unproductive partisan debate" about the process.
'Let's rock and roll'
NDP democratic institutions critic Nathan Cullen, who had introduced the original motion, praised the Liberals for their course reversal and for negotiating in "good faith."
"I feel that this is a good day," he told reporters.
Cullen had previously argued the government had stacked the deck in its favour. He argued changing the committee’s make-up would ensure its recommendations had "more legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians."
NDP MP's Nathan Cullen and Alexandre Boulerice hold a press conference to comment on the government's announcement on electoral reform at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
"Credibility is at the heart of this whole conversation," he said Thursday.
If the committee was able to work collaboratively and collegially, Cullen said, he didn't think a referendum was required. But, he noted, there was language in the amended motion that allows for that consultative process to take place.
"Let's rock and roll," Cullen said, after the minister's announcement.
The Conservatives had previously agreed with the NDP's suggestion that the committee make-up should change, the party noted.
In a fundraising note Thursday evening, the NDP said it had won an "important victory" but now it needs money to help fight for a proportional voting system.
May, whose party also supports a proportional system, praised the Liberals' decision of putting "Canada ahead of partisanship" by removing its majority on the electoral reform committee.
"I am gratified that the government has accepted parliamentary tradition that it is not unusual for members of smaller parties to be full members on committees," she said, in a statement.
Bloc spokeswoman Julie Groleau said their party was pleased to have new voting rights on the committee but also believes a referendum is necessary.
"The right to vote belongs to citizens so it's up to them to decide what they prefer in terms of an electoral system," she said.
The NDP motion will be voted on early next week. It calls for the committee to begin its work within 10 sitting days, possibly in late June.
Trudeau speaks to reporters in Ottawa about the change of heart on the electoral reform committee:
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