Something remarkable happened Thursday.
The opposition parties -- the Conservatives, the New Democrats, the Bloc Québécois, the Green -- stood together and offered the Liberal government a road map to achieve their promise of making the 2015 election the last held under the first-past-the-post voting system.
The Liberals who served on the special committee on electoral reform, however, told the government to pump the brakes. They urged more consultations and said the 2019 timeline shouldn't be met.
The opposition, which held a majority of seats on the committee, appeared to put a bit of water in their wine. They took the government's advice and tried to achieve consensus. They recommended that the Liberals propose a system of proportional representation and asked that voters be consulted in a referendum.
Instead of thanking them for their report and taking time to review it, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef told the House of Commons the committee had failed to achieve consensus and had "not completed the hard work we had expected it to."
Her answer infuriated the opposition, many of whom spent weeks on the road consulting Canadians and hearing from experts to meet the government's crunched timeline.
NDP democratic institutions critic Nathan Cullen said he didn't think he'd ever seen "a minister of the Crown insult members of Parliament so broadly."
Even the husband of Ruby Sahota, one of the Liberal MPs on the committee, tweeted: "My son saw his mom for total of 6 hours over 3 weeks, while #ERRE committee toured Canada. So, try again Maryam." (The post has been deleted.)
Monsef, however, stood firm. The committee hadn't done its homework, she maintained.
"Our prime minister asked that we bring together a special committee to study the options available to us and to recommend a specific system as an alternative to first-past-the-post," she said during question period, while the prime minister ducked the heated session.
"We asked the committee to help answer very difficult questions for us. It did not do that."
But neither Monsef nor the government ever asked the committee to propose a specific system.
The special committee's mandate, as voted by the Commons, states that it was being "appointed to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system" -- which it did. Nowhere does it call on the committee to recommend a system, although it does ask the committee to "advise on additional methods for obtaining the views of Canadians."
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef speaks during question period on Thursday. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who described never having worked so hard in her life, couldn't imagine why Monsef had chosen to insult the committee and mislead Canadians.
"She misspoke. She didn't mean to say what she said," May told HuffPost, giving the minister the benefit of the doubt.
Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose told reporters she might have called for Monsef's resignation had the prime minister been in the House. "Minister Monsef and [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau are trying to find a way out of this because they don't like the answer they got," she said.
Maryam Monsef responds to the electoral reform committee report #ERRE
Posted by The Huffington Post Canada Politics on Thursday, December 1, 2016
The answer the opposition gave the government was not to recommend a ranked ballot -- a system Trudeau previously said he preferred and one that the chair of the committee, Francis Scarpaleggia, suggested was at the heart of the Liberals' pledge.
"Yes, the prime minister made that commitment [to change the voting system for the 2019 election], but a lot of people thought he was talking about ranked ballots," Scarpaleggia told reporters.
"You could do ranked ballots, like that," he said of the timeline, snapping his fingers. "Nobody wants ranked ballots. So, where does that leave us?"
The committee heard testimony that ranked ballots squeeze out smaller parties and favour big-tent parties, such as the Liberals. So instead, the opposition gave Trudeau a long leash to propose a system that better reflects the popular will of the electorate in the seat count of the House of Commons.
The opposition offered only two qualifiers. First, they recommended the use of a mathematical equation known as the Gallagher index as a guide to help develop a system that limits distortions. Second, they rejected a proportional system based on pure party lists -- where political parties would decide which individuals sat in the Commons -- saying that would destroy the connection between voters and their MPs.
The 312-page majority report also recommended that, when the government proposes a new voting system, it include a comprehensive study on how the changes would affect different parts of the political system, such as the formation of governments and the impact on political parties.
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 Dec. 1, 2016. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)
May noted how she'd compromised by agreeing to a referendum so the committee could get behind proportional representation. The Conservatives, who wouldn't say whether they actually prefer the status quo, said they backed PR so they could achieve their most pressing goal of ensuring that any reform was put to the public through a referendum. The five Grit MPs on the committee, however, showed little willingness to concede.
In what they called their "supplemental report" -- described by Monsef as their "dissenting"report -- the Liberals called the committee's recommendations regarding alternative voting systems "rushed" and "too radical to impose at this time."
The timeline proposed in the majority report "is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimately of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline," the minority Grits wrote.
Pleaded for more time
Never mind that this is the timeline Trudeau promised during last year's election, pledged in the throne speech, and repeated as late as Wednesday's question period.
Never mind that the Liberal government waited seven months before striking the all-party committee to study electoral reform.
Never mind that the government still hasn't moved to update the referendum law -- despite being warned in May by Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand that the act is outdated and has no spending limits.
Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia speaks in the House of Commons in 2011. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Political party platforms aren't promises, Scarpaleggia offered in the party's defence.
"An election platform is an attempt to engage voters -- that is what it is for," he told reporters. "Canadians, as a whole, are not enough engaged on the issue of electoral reform" to "propose some very complex solutions," he said.
Less than one per cent of Canadians had participated in the committee's hearings, attended an MP's townhalls, or engaged in the process, Sahota said.
While the opposition suggested nearly 90 per cent of those who showed up wanted some form of proportional representation, Scarpaleggia suggested that those people, while vocal, might not represent a broad base of Canadians.
So the Liberals pleaded for more time.
Math is hard, they suggested. Canadians won't understand the Gallagher index and it hasn't been sufficiently studied, they said. In the Commons, Monsef held up a picture of the mathematical equation, dismissively and inaccurately suggesting that this is what voters would be asked to contemplate.
The drawbacks of proportional representation systems need to be studied further, the Grits said.
Canadians need to be educated and consulted on reforms before any changes are made, they said. But not through a referendum, the Liberals argued in the next page of their report.
A referendum is "premature," they wrote. It has not been adequately studied. It might result in the status quo. It might result in a change because of popular support for PR in large urban areas, but hide the fact that voters in more remote regions might prefer the status quo. It is not reflective of the majority of the evidence the committee heard, the Liberals said. It is "inconsistent with ... the will of Canadians."
What the government should do, the Grits on the committee said, is "undertake a period of comprehensive and effective citizen engagement before proposing specific changes to the current federal voting system."
"We believe this engagement process cannot be effectively completed before 2019," they added.Monsef speaks in November about her position on referenda:
Even without two more years of consultations, the timelines to meet Trudeau's pledge are extremely tight.
The chief electoral officer told MPs that legislation should be in place by June 2017. Elections Canada would need two years to plan for a new voting system with new riding boundaries. It also would need six months to plan for a referendum.
Even if the agency could plan for both at the same time, because the opposition wants any riding boundary changes drafted and shared with Canadians before a referendum, the government has only a few months to propose a new system.
Cullen suggested legislation could be done in the next three to four months, leaving less than a year to educate people and hold a referendum. Conservative democratic institutions critic Scott Reid suggested that if the government doesn't tweak the ridings too much that would buy a few months. "It's absolutely possible," he said of holding a referendum and meeting the 2019 election timeline.
Members of the special committee on electoral reform (from left to right) Luc Therault of Bloc Quebecois, Tory Scott Reid, Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia, Nathan Cullen of the NDP, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May hold a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2016. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
Monsef seems unfazed. She showed no desire Thursday to hold a referendum, blaming the committee for not achieving consensus on the issue.
She is moving ahead with the next phase of her outreach, she said, announcing the launch of a new consultation process -- in the middle of the holiday season. The federal government is sending postcards to 15 million households urging Canadians to go to mydemocracy.ca, a website that is not yet available, to respond to values-based questions on electoral reform -- and which the opposition believes will offer little indication of what voting system is actually preferred.
Monsef told reporters she hopes to introduce legislation this spring so Elections Canada has time to implement the changes.
"For electoral reform to take place, we need to take a collaborative and co-operative approach," she told reporters with no hint of irony. "When we make a recommendation to the House, it's not about us. It's about the voices of as many Canadians as possible."
It's getting more difficult to believe her.
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