OTTAWA — If every political party in the House Commons agrees on a new electoral system, it still won’t have the necessary support without a referendum, a Tory MP says.
Conservative democratic institutions critic Scott Reid told The Huffington Post Canada this week that even if the Liberals, the NDP, the Greens, the Bloc Québécois, and the Conservatives happen to reach a consensus on how to replace the first-past-the-post system, it won’t have the legitimacy needed.
“I don’t think the support of all the other parties is sufficient when it comes to this,” he told HuffPost. “There was a referendum where every party agreed that we should have a certain system, and that was the Charlottetown Accord.”
The 1992 Charlottetown Accord was a failed attempt by Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and all 10 provincial premiers to amend the Constitution in order to obtain Quebec’s signature. The accord recognized Quebec as a distinct society, addressed aboriginal self-governance and handed over federal jurisdiction to the provinces on several key issues.
Scott Reid during question period in the House of Commons, June 2. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
In Parliament, Reid noted, the major parties – the PCs, the Liberals and the NDP — all supported the agreement. (The lone Reform Party MP, Deborah Grey, and the Bloc opposed).
But when Canadians voted on Oct. 26, it was rejected by a majority of the people, in a majority of the provinces — including Quebec.
“I don’t think there was a single dissenting senator, every single premier agreed on this, and the people of Canada voted it down,” Reid said. “So that is not sufficient.”
Liberals won't commit to referendum
For 17 days in a row now, Conservative MPs have stood up in the Commons demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef commit to holding a referendum.
Reid said he believes the people should be consulted on a quasi-constitutional change — although he did acknowledge that some political self-interest is also at stake.
Getting rid of first-past-the-post wouldn’t signal the end of the Conservative party but it could affect its immediate prospects at the next election in 2019, he said.
“It’s not an existential issue but … losing is different than ceasing to exist.”
“We are politicians. The people don’t have a horse in this race, and the parties do.”
— Scott Reid
Despite his and his party’s insistence that a referendum is necessary, Reid said he doesn’t know if consensus among the parties is possible but that even if it is, it will be difficult.
“Maybe we’ll find some way of not acting as people who represent their parties’ interests,” he said. “We are politicians. The people don’t have a horse in this race, and the parties do.”
The Conservative MP for Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston said thinks the Tories and the Liberals may be more likely to agree than the Grits, the NDP and the Greens.
“I just can’t imagine a scenario under which you could get a system that has the effect of benefitting all three of them — of giving them all more seats with the same number of votes. That’s very hard to see.”
Reid is convinced that the Liberals are cooking up a plan to rig the electoral process with an eye on the 2019 election, by running out the clock and limiting options for making changes.
“I believe this is all about lining up things to have the one system that benefits them more than the current system,” he told HuffPost.
Committee on electoral system not needed: Reid
Earlier this week, the Conservatives voted against an NDP motion, supported by the government, that would allow for all parties to be represented on a special committee charged with recommending a new electoral system.
Reid voted against the motion, he said, because its purpose “is to burn up time.”
The Tory MP would have preferred a citizens’ assembly, as was struck in British Columbia and Ontario, or for the government to skip the pre-study phase and table legislation proposing a new system for the Commons to study thoroughly, he said.
“That’s not my preferred option, but I think it’s better than what is happening here, which is a make-believe consultation process after a six-month spin-your-wheels period which, as far as I can see, appears directed at one outcome.”
The government is following the pattern used for C-14, the medical assistance in dying bill, by striking a pre-study committee that will be ignored, Reid said.
“Burn up a bunch of time with a pre-study. Ignore what they decide and then use closure to push through their [changes],” he said.
“Would it harm us more or the NDP more? Or the Bloc or Greens more? I think that depends on how you structure your preferential ballot."
— Scott Reid
Reid suspects the prime minister will point to the committee’s recommendation, likely note that there is no consensus, and then propose a system he wanted all along: a preferential ballot with single-member districts. That way of electing members of Parliament will benefit a party seen as being in the centre on the issues that matter the most to Canadians, the Conservative said.
“Would it harm us more or the NDP more? Or the Bloc or Greens more? I think that depends on how you structure your preferential ballot,” Reid said.
If the Liberals opt for a mandatory preferential ballot, in which a ballot doesn’t count unless the voter ranks all the candidates, Reid believes the Conservatives would “definitely” be the biggest losers.
“There is no question about that, and that is because more Conservatives don’t have a second preference,” he said, referring to a Nanos public opinion survey during the 2015 campaign that suggested that 46 per cent of Tory voters had no second choice.
Even if Elections Canada engages in a widespread public education campaign to inform people about the risk of inadvertently spoiling their ballots, Reid assumes at least one in 10 Canadians won’t get the information and that some Conservative candidates won’t win because votes for them won’t be counted.
Scott Reid during question period in the House of Commons, May 16. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
“That’s just what the dynamics tell us.”
In the long run, Reid said, he believes every political party will adjust its positions and strategies to reflect the new electoral system but that opposition parties won’t have time to readjust to new dynamics in time for the 2019 election.
During the 2015 campaign, the Liberals promised that the election would be the last under the first-past-the-post system. Trudeau promised legislation within 18 months of coming into office. The new committee is expected to be struck in the next two weeks and could begin its meetings before Parliament's summer break. It has until Dec. 1 to issue its report.
Monsef didn’t rule out a referendum Thursday. She told HuffPost, as she has frequently for the past two weeks, that the government “will not proceed with any changes to our voting system unless we have the broad support of Canadians.” She noted that the Grits had asked the committee to consider additional ways to consult Canadians.
“I intend to work with the opposition in a collaborative manner in order to move away from an unproductive partisan debate about process and to begin a discussion about the substance of electoral reform,” she said in a statement. “I hope the Conservative Party will approach its contribution to the committee’s work in the same spirit.”
Maryam Monsef during question period in the House of Commons, June 6, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Monsef also noted that she had “yet to hear an actual proposal on how we can modernize the way Canadians vote from the Conservative Party.”
Again on Thursday, Reid and fellow Tory MPs Alain Rayes and Blake Richards only pressed the government on whether it will hold a referendum.
A longtime champion of referendums, Reid frequently solicits feedback from his constituents on sensitive matters to determine how he should vote. He sought their advice on how to vote on Bill C-14. In his first plebiscite in 2001, he asked voters what he – as a Canadian Alliance MP – should do with a $20,000 raise MPs had given themselves. They told him to donate the money. Nearly two decades later, he said, he has donated approximately $300,000 to an organization that has placed defibrillators in hockey rinks and in every police car in his ridings.
So will Reid consult his constituents on what the new electoral system will look like?
He won’t say.
“I don’t know. That’s a really interesting question, I’ll have to think about that” he responded. “Hopefully, what will happen is they will be voting on it in an actual referendum, that is my goal.”
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