OTTAWA — The minister in charge of finding Canada a better electoral system apologized Friday to the MPs tasked with exploring her options after she misrepresented their work and accused them of shirking their duties on the floor of the House of Commons.
One day after a raucous question period in which she took the non-Liberal committee members to task, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef issued an abject apology as the government sought to smooth matters over.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef speaks with reporters in Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2016. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)
Monsef — who was on her feet for much of question period Friday — said she used words that she "deeply regrets" and in no way meant to imply committee members hadn't worked hard or focused on the task at hand.
"I'd like to sincerely apologize to the members of this House, to Canadians and to the members of the special all-party committee on electoral reform," she said.
"In no way did I intend to imply that they didn't work hard, that they didn't put in the long hours, that they didn't focus on the task at hand. I thank them for their work."
Opposition MPs were apoplectic Thursday after Monsef's dismissive and hostile response to the committee's majority report, which recommended a new proportional voting system along with a national referendum to gauge public support for it.
"In no way did I intend to imply that they didn't work hard, that they didn't put in the long hours, that they didn't focus on the task at hand."
Monsef accused the committee of failing to present a specific replacement option, even though its mandate was to "identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system."
During the 2015 campaign, Trudeau was emphatic: the October election would be the last in Canada to take place under the oft-maligned "first-past-the-post" system, which critics have long said doesn't properly reflect the popular will of voters.
Liberals on the committee dissented with the majority finding and issued their own minority report, essentially urging Trudeau to abandon his promise.
During an event Friday in Toronto, he appeared to be in the early stages of doing exactly that.
PM abandoning promise?
"Electoral reform is an issue that is important to me, it's important to a whole bunch of Canadians across the country, (but) it's one that not every Canadian is involved and aware of, or passionate about," Trudeau said.
Most Canadians are more seized with pocketbook issues, he said: their personal finances, their jobs, their retirement, the economy at large and the environment.
The town halls, consultations and committee work, he explained, was all aimed at figuring out whether there is a general consensus among parties on a way to move forward on electoral reform.
"There doesn't seem to be," Trudeau said.
"There seems to be a consensus around maybe a referendum from some parties, but that doesn't get us forward on what kind of system might actually suit the majority of Canadians because there wasn't agreement on that."
Letters from the general public, sent to Trudeau shortly after the Commons committee was formed, suggest otherwise.
In nearly 200 pages of messages that date back to May, some staunch Liberal supporters threaten to abandon the party over electoral reform without a national referendum on the question of changing the voting system.
Most of the writers support replacing first-past-the-post with proportional representation, and urge Trudeau to heed the heed the recommendations of the committee.
Voters pushed PM for referendum, letters show
The messages were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"Without a referendum, the Liberal party will be hanging a dagger over Confederation that it will never be able to remove," one letter reads.
"I have been a great supporter of yours and the Liberal party, but that would change permanently without a referendum. Even the fact that you would consider such an action has caused me to seriously reflect on what I thought Liberal ideals were."
Another writer from Quebec said they wanted to "personally decide on the value of my vote" through a referendum: "I do not wish to have politicians decide that value. It is, after all, MY vote."
Members of the House of Commons special committee on electoral reform (from left to right) Luc Therault of Bloc Quebecois, Scott Reid of Conservative Party, Francis Scarpaleggia of Liberal Party, Nathan Cullen of NDP, and Elizabeth May of Green Party hold a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)
Monsef said Thursday she still hopes to introduce legislation in the spring.
One writer familiar with Europe's various electoral systems warned no one system would be perfect for Canada.
"It does not matter what your committee chooses, there will always be a debate over whether or not it truly fixes all of Canada's electoral system's problems," the email reads.
"All I ask is that you allow Canadians to decide whether or not to change the rules of their democracy by using the most democratic method — a referendum."
Only a handful of writers opposed holding a referendum, with one citing a "fear factor" as the reason not to proceed with a national plebiscite.