Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef walks in the foyer of the House of Commons on June 2, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)Canadians, Monsef said, want a system that is more inclusive of those who've historically been on the sidelines during elections.
Her cross-country consultation tourFor the past two weeks, Monsef has been on a cross-country consultation tour that's taken her to the northern territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. She's held 15 townhalls so far with more to come as she heads east.
Nathan Cullen speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons in 2015. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)In contrast to Monsef's finding of no consensus, Cullen said the results of NDP townhalls so far show "overwhelming" support — in the range of 90 to 95 per cent — for some form of proportional representation (PR). New Democrats have also found a positive response to the notion of making voting mandatory but real concern about online voting, which people fear could be hacked or manipulated, he said in an interview. While general invitations have been issued to all the townhalls, Cullen acknowledged that those who've turned out tend to be those who are already strong advocates of PR. And therein lies a problem for Monsef and the committee. An Ipsos Public Affairs polls last month concluded that an elite group of just three per cent of Canadians are engaged in the electoral reform debate.
Most Tories refuse to hold town hallsThat dismal number has bolstered the Conservatives' demand for a referendum on any change to the voting system. "If (Monsef) had twice as many or three times as many (townhalls) and the groups she was meeting with were 10 times as big, it still wouldn't be adequate as a replacement for a referendum," said Conservative democratic reform critic Scott Reid. Only three Conservative MPs have held townhalls so far. Reid himself has no intention of holding one because he doesn't want to validate what he considers an inadequate consultation process. Monsef remains unconvinced that a referendum is the way to go, although she isn't categorically ruling it out. She cites the cost and potential divisiveness of a national vote on the issue. Cullen argues that referendum campaigns can distort issues, prey on fears of the unknown or even become proxy votes for some other issue entirely — like the government of the day. Referendums killed previous attempts to change the voting system in three provinces — Ontario, B.C. and Prince Edward Island.
NDP wants a sunset clauseThe NDP is proposing a compromise: a sunset clause written into the legislation setting up a new voting system. The clause would specify that after giving the new system a trial run in one or two federal elections, a referendum must be held to determine if Canadians want to keep it. If a referendum was not held, the country would automatically revert to first-past-the-post. But whether a majority on the committee, where each party has its own partisan interests to protect, will be able to agree on a new voting model remains an open question. "How do you reach consensus on a file like this? First, recognizing that no one group is going to be able to get everything they want on every aspect of any reform," said Monsef. "Second, by not allowing the pursuit of perfect, which does not exist, to get in the way of what is possible."
The compressed, electoral reform timetable:
— Sept. 19 to Oct. 7: all-party committee that's been exploring alternative voting systems conducts cross-country consultation tour.
— Sept. 16 to Oct. 1: Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef completes her own cross-country listening tour.
— Oct. 14: deadline for MPs to report back on the findings from their own townhalls on electoral reform.
— Dec. 1: committee issues a final report, with recommendations.
— October 2017: The government must have legislation authorizing a new voting system in place by next fall, passed by both the House of Commons and Senate. Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has warned that Elections Canada needs at least two years to implement a new system in time for the next election, scheduled for October 2019.
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