Maryam Monsef Hears 'Consistent Messages' On Electoral Reform, But Consensus Elusive

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OTTAWA — Canadians may not agree on the kind of voting system they want but Maryam Monsef says they do agree on some common principles they want to see in any electoral reform.

The democratic institutions minister says her consultations thus far have revealed no consensus on the precise voting model that should replace Canada's current first-past-the-post voting system.

That said, she's also heard some "consistent messages."

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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.

They want election results to better reflect the way they vote.

And they want a specific MP to represent them and be accountable to them.

"What is really clear is that there is a select few who like to engage in the highly technical aspects of the different systems," Monsef said in an interview.

"But we're finding that people want to talk about these values that are so important to them."

Her cross-country consultation tour

For 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.

Her listening tour is in addition to the hundreds of townhalls that have been held over the summer by MPs from all parties.

MPs have until Oct. 14 to report back to the all-party committee exploring electoral reform options, which spent the summer hearing from experts and will hit the road next week on its own cross-country consultation tour. The committee is to issue its final report by Dec. 1.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP's democratic reform critic, has attended 10 townhalls, including four in his own B.C. riding. He and other New Democrat MPs have been circulating questionnaires at all their townhalls, asking participants specific questions about the type of voting system they'd prefer.

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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 halls

That 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 clause

The 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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