A formal reckoning for Canadian democracy — a national and parliamentary debate on electoral reform — may be at hand, initiated by the Liberal vow that last October's election would be the last federal vote conducted under first-past-the-post rules.

But for now there is a debate about how precisely to approach that reckoning.

In the fall, the Liberal government was first challenged by the Conservatives with a philosophical question: Could Parliament change the way Canadians elect MPs without putting the final decision directly to votes via a national referendum?

To this, Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, deferred to the process her government had committed to, the all-party committee that would consult widely on the various options for reform. She has since suggested that a referendum has not been ruled out.

But now even that much is being challenged by the New Democrats with another existential quandary: On what basis should the membership of that committee be divided among the parties? And the NDP answer is an implicit invitation to debate the fairness of the first-past-the-post system.

As outlined by NDP critic Nathan Cullen on Thursday, the committee should comprise 12 MPs, with party membership divided approximately proportional to October's popular vote: five Liberals (including the committee chair, who does not vote), three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one Bloc Québécois MP and one Green MP.

"In May, the prime minister said we need to know that when we cast a ballot it counts, that when we go to vote it matters. I agree. What we've put forward today is a reflection of that spirit. It puts those words into action," Cullen ventured in announcing his proposal. "This is what Canadians voted for. This is the process that we recommend the government undertake to allow us to come to a result that Canadians can have confidence in."

Going beyond party interest

All other parliamentary committees are divided according to the seat count in the House; that is, in the current situation, with the Liberals occupying six of 10 spots. 

But under the NDP proposal, as Cullen noted, "no one party can direct the outcome." 

"Worst case scenario for the Liberals is they end up standing alone with a new voting system because Canadians will be rightly suspicious that it's one that favours Liberals," he later explained in an interview. "So this is a clear opportunity for them to be able to say we worked with parliamentarians to get this done for the betterment of all." 

NDP wants to reform electoral reform committee6:11

Of the possible alternatives to first-past-the-post, it has already been noted that preferential balloting would tend to favour the Liberals, potentially complicating the Liberal Party's potential positions. But the potential for accusations of self-interest loom over this entire debate.

Presented with the NDP proposal in question period, Monsef did not specifically respond. "Mr. Speaker, allow me to make something perfectly clear: the reforms we choose must be designed to address the needs of all Canadians and go far beyond addressing the interests of the parties we represent," she said.

According to Monsef's office, a motion will be tabled in the House to establish the special committee's mandate, powers and membership. "When that motion comes forward we invite [Cullen] to raise his views in that debate," a spokeswoman explained in a statement.

What about a referendum?

Elizabeth May, the lone Green MP in the House, said that she appreciates Cullen's support and hopes "it is clear that the committee should include all parties." But she made no move to support the NDP proposal.

"I take no position on Cullen's view that, in order to include the Bloc and Greens, the Liberals surrender their majority," she said via email. "I would hope the committee would operate by consensus."

Conservative MP Scott Reid sees the NDP positioning itself to influence a deal with the Liberals — "this is just party politics under a somewhat different guise here" — though Cullen notes that the NDP wouldn't necessarily hold the balance of power. Regardless, Reid says that the Conservatives remain adamant about a referendum.

"In the end, whether it's one party, two parties, three parties, all the parties [agreeing] doesn't change the fact that the people who ought to have the final say are actually the voters. No committee process you can design is a substitute to taking this matter to the people in the form of a referendum," Reid said.

The Liberals could conceivably court another party's support even if they held a majority on the committee, but Cullen argues his proposal would helpfully compel collaboration (and could relieve pressure on the Liberals to hold a referendum). 

"There is going to be a lot of pressure on all the people who sit at this committee, from their parties, from their voters, from all sorts of sectors, from the lobbyists around this place," he said. "So why not put into the very DNA of what we're doing the ability of every member of Parliament to say, look, I can't just say yes and deliver you what you want, I've got to work with another party."

All of this, of course, is still mere prelude. The real debate has not even really yet begun.