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Liberals' Electoral Reform Debate Denies Canadians Their Say

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The term "gerrymandering" is rooted in the 1812 state elections in Massachusetts when Governor Elbridge Gerry tried to manipulate the outcome by redrawing electoral district boundaries to give his party an unfair advantage.

The new borders were not drawn using any discernible logic based on counties, population or geography, and no debate was permitted. They were drawn for the sole purpose of excluding unhelpful voters and maximizing helpful voters. Lines were so contorted that political observers of the day said they resembled a salamander. "Gerry-mander" became the pejorative term used to call out attempts to manipulate the democratic process.

Historically, Canada was not immune from this troubling practice, but fortunately Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson showed great leadership when he handed responsibility for designing the electoral map to Elections Canada in 1964. Unfortunately, the style and form of the electoral reform debate in Ottawa today resembles a modern gerrymandering exercise.

Rather than changing riding borders, the current exercise seeks to replace the entire system, which at present allows for a party to be replaced by another with relative certainty and clarity. The prime minister's mandate letter instructed that only proportional representation or preferential balloting be considered for reform.

Debate... is geared toward selecting one of two new systems that Liberals know will benefit them.

The Plurality or First Past The Post (FPTP) system we use now is not even permitted to be part of a debate that is geared toward selecting one of two new systems that Liberals know will benefit them. Preferential balloting would likely provide for a weakened opposition and better results for the Liberals. Proportional representation would allow the Liberals to manage power by dominating smaller parties through ever-shifting coalitions on the left.

In its 2007 electoral reform process, the Ontario government created an independent Citizen Assembly to consider electoral reform. The assembly was a representative group of citizens from all ridings in the province and they were charged with reviewing all options and recommending changes to the electoral system.

The Citizen Assembly was given expert support to help them explore alternatives to FPTP, but very importantly, they were also asked to consider the pros and cons of FPTP as well. Citizen Assembly members knew their recommendations would be put before all Ontarians for a vote on whether to change the system or not.

The McGuinty government passed two bills to facilitate a comprehensive debate, a public education campaign and, ultimately, a referendum on electoral reform. Who did Premier Dalton McGuinty have lead this exercise for Ontario in 2007? The deputy minister leading the electoral reform process was Matthew Mendelsohn.

During the Christmas period following the 2015 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Mr. Mendelsohn as deputy secretary to cabinet, the second highest role in the civil service.

Premier McGuinty's principal secretary at the time was Gerry Butts. Mr. Butts now has the same role, principal secretary, to prime minister Trudeau. The same two advisers who ran the electoral reform process in Ontario are now running it for Canada.

So, what are Mendelsohn and Butts doing differently this time around? Well, to begin with, there is no Citizen Assembly process at all. There is no independent representative body, nor is there an expert-driven process allowing for an open debate. There is no public education campaign. And most importantly, there is no vote by the people in a referendum.

Many, if not most, observers consider the electoral reform debate currently underway to be a sham.

This time, the debate is cursory and entirely political. It consists of a Liberal-dominated committee in Ottawa and a few stacked partisan town halls held by Liberal MPs in the dead of summer. Debate is being severely limited, and the existing FPTP system specifically excluded. The prime minister continues to resist all calls for a referendum vote even though Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island all held votes on the issue.

For these reasons many, if not most, observers consider the electoral reform debate currently underway to be a sham.

The Ontario Citizen Assembly process and referendum of 2007 was widely hailed as one of the most open and innovative discussions on electoral reform in the world. The McGuinty government considered a referendum to be critical to the legitimacy of their process. During debate on the issue, this view was best expressed by Minister Chris Bentley when he said "[i]t is ultimately the people of the province who decide how they are governed and going to be governed... The result should be in the hands of the people."

That begs the question: what has changed since Mendelsohn and Butts helped lead the electoral reform process in Ontario? Why would they now stifle debate and not allow the ultimate decision to be "in the hands of the people" like it was for Ontario?

Simply put, the Liberals want a different result this time around. Ontario voted down a change to the electoral system (as did British Columbia and PEI), and the Liberals do not want to give Canadians the chance to say no again.

Canadians deserve to hear from Mendelsohn and Butts in this debate. They need to explain why they are not adhering to the same open and fulsome process they created for Ontario. They need to explain why they gave Ontarians a vote in 2007, but are not giving Canadians a vote today.

If they remain silent, their motives can be assumed and their electoral reform process will remain illegitimate. Two centuries after the gerrymandering of Governor Gerry, we need Principal Secretary Gerry to do the right thing and treat Canadians with the same respect on electoral reform that he showed to Ontarians.

After all, it is 2016.

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