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Are The Liberals Preparing To Stack The Deck In Their Favour?

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Chris Wattie / Reuters

There's a great deal of controversy surrounding the Liberals and their newly announced all party committee on electoral reform. This has been a hot topic in the past several years for Canadian politics. Between the type of electoral system that we have, and in the case of the Senate whether we should have an institution focused on sober second thought at all or what reforms could be made to make it more effective, a lot of attention has been paid to this area.

Supreme Court decisions have ruled any changes to the Senate would require opening of the Constitution. The requirement for seven total provinces representing more than 50 per cent of the population consenting in order to change selection processes -- and unanimous support to abolish the Senate has been laid out. As a result, Senate reform was effectively neutered as no party is willing to attempt to reopen the Constitution for fear of further acrimony and conflict that previous attempts have brought about.

With Stephen Harper no longer in a position to be trying to asphyxiate the Senate through attrition, and Justin Trudeau at the helm as prime minister, the attention has turned to our official election process for the Members of Parliament.

Impressively, Prime Minister Trudeau and his Minister of Democratic Reforms, Maryam Monsef, are actually taking quick steps towards creating a more representative election process that will truly reflect the will of the Canadian electorate.

Our First Past the Post (FPTP) system is severely outdated and in a system with a plurality of parties and representatives, it doesn't make sense that a candidate who receives support of less than 30 per cent of the electors should find themselves representing 70 per cent or more of constituents who didn't support them. In spite of all the past rhetoric, no party who has won in a FPTP system has demonstrated an appetite once in power to proceed with any sort of reform. Why would you kill the goose that laid the golden egg that put you in power?

While it is apparent that Prime Minister Trudeau may not be completely altruistic in his efforts to reform the electoral system, the fact that he is proceeding full steam ahead after being elected is respectable. That his preferred method of elections, a ranked ballot system where you would indicate your first and second preferences down to last preference would effectively put the Conservative Party of Canada on the path to irrelevance is of concern.

The irony in the ranked preference system is that a party like the CPC, the current standard bearer for all right wing leaning voters in Canada, is actually punished as they will tend to be the last choice for progressive/left wing voters. The unity that led to a decade of Conservative rule could become its undoing under this system.

When pushed as to whether or not the Liberals would be willing to put any final decision to a national referendum, Minister Monsef has refused to commit.

My belief is that the all party committee that is examining and will make recommendations on reform should deeply consider a form of mixed proportional representation similar to New Zealand. In simplified terms, with this system you have two ballots. The first ballot will be for your local representative that is elected using a first past the post system and a plurality of candidates. The second ballot, is a party vote ballot that determines the overall proportion of the candidates that will make up the final tally of representatives in the Parliament.

Based upon the results of the party ballot, parties will appoint members from a pre-determined party list of candidates to "top up" members in the parliament to the point of their overall popular vote nationally. This ensures that smaller parties with enough popular vote nationally are still represented in the national Parliament and that regional parties with high levels of support regionally are not over represented in spite of having a small national popular vote.

This approach would prevent a regional party such as the Bloc from having undue influence over national matters, and would also have limited the extent of the "Orange Crush" in the 2011 election. It would also mean more representation for parties such as the Green Party who are upstarts that have built a small base of national support, but have yet to make a significant enough growth in support to overcome the FPTP system of elections.

Effectively in this system every vote would truly count.

When pushed as to whether or not the Liberals would be willing to put any final decision to a national referendum, Minister Monsef has refused to commit. I understand why not, with previous provincial electoral reform referendums not having succeeded as an uneasy electorate scared of change has rejected previous proposals for modification in favour of the status quo. With the Liberals having a majority mandate, it will be easy to push electoral reform through the Commons -- though it may receive some pushback from the Senate which is currently dominated by Conservative appointees.

I have mixed feelings on a referendum, as it is an expensive exercise with low chances of making meaningful change. And yet there is little disagreement that FPTP has passed its effective shelf life as a democratic system. Part of me says that in light of the clear communication of this as a priority in the Liberal platform and the significant majority handed to the party, they have more than an adequate mandate to impose changes. Another part of me says that if you truly want your democracy to reflect the wishes of the electorate, should they not have the final say in any proposed system changes? And yet, what if the new method of elections is a mere tactical decision to attempt to decimate the CPC in future elections?

As someone who considers himself a socially progressive but fiscally conservative, the thought of permanently limiting the CPC from keeping Liberals who have a track record of scandal accountable concerns me. I believe in order for democracy to be healthy there needs to be periodic turnover of power.

At the end of the day, the real prospect of meaningful change to better reflect all of our voters in national results is enticing. Let's just hope that the Liberals, who have stacked the committee deck in their favour choose to do what's right for the country instead of just what's politically convenient.

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