Opinion

Canada's electoral reform file has reached tire fire status: Robyn Urback

Here’s what you need to know about the committee report on electoral reform: nothing makes sense, no one knows what’s going on and there’s not really a consensus on anything.

The idea of changing Canada's voting system seems just as far off as it's ever been

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef lambasted the electoral reform committee in the House of Commons Thursday following the release of its recommendations. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Here's what you need to know about the House of Commons committee report on electoral reform: nothing makes sense, no one knows what's going on and there's not really a consensus on anything. 

The all-party committee recommended holding a referendum on changing Canada's electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation in time for the next election. That part is clear. Except, according to a supplementary report from Liberal committee members, the "recommendation to proceed with a national referendum is inconsistent with both the evidence received and the will of Canadians."

What?

In their supplementary report, the Liberals also called the recommendation "radical" and "rushed," despite the fact the Liberals have been the ones leading the charge to overhaul Canada's electoral system in time for the next election. 

"Our position is that the timeline on electoral reform … is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline."

What? It was the Liberals who set the deadline in the first place. 

Election promise

This "what the hell is happening?" tenor has generally been the theme of everything electoral reform for the past year, ever since the Liberals made their ill-fated promise that 2015 would be the last federal election under first-past-the-post.

It was a pledge with basically no plan of execution, other than a vague commitment to "consult with Canadians." But since the Liberals also vowed to introduce legislation to enact electoral reform within 18 months of forming government — ostensibly regardless of whatever those consultations would reveal — the exercise of hearing what Canadians had to say would be more of a symbolic ritual than an actual prerequisite for moving forward.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen says the Electoral Reform Committee found ways to compromise to help the Liberals keep a promise they may now not be interested in keeping. 1:40

The most obvious way of gauging public support for changing the electoral system — a referendum — was dismissed by Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef as not "inclusive" enough, since, according to Monsef, some people don't vote in referendums. (Fact check: true. Some people also don't vote in general elections. We should probably look at cancelling those, too.) The Liberals doubled down, arguing they had the mandate to change Canada's voting system because Canadians handed them a majority last fall … based on a method of voting the party has deemed illegitimate. Everyone following so far?

Talking to Canadians

That kicked off the government's talking-to-Canadians summer tour, where people who actually enjoy talking about things like proportional representation in their spare time participated in town hall discussions about electoral reform. These discussions, which we were to take as more "inclusive" than a poll of the entire electorate, seemed to reveal a preference for proportional representation, which, for the Liberals, is a system that is far less likely to guarantee them successive majority control over the House of Commons than, say, a ranked ballot system. 

Monsef nevertheless claimed there was no indication people were leaning toward one system or another, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested his government might be stepping off the gas on the electoral reform file altogether because Canadians are now less enthusiastic about changing the way we vote after getting rid of Stephen Harper.

To cap it all off, Monsef went rogue in the House of Commons Thursday following the release of the committee's recommendations. She lambasted the committee for not fulfilling the mandate assigned to it (in fact, it fulfilled its mandate exactly), for using an "incomprehensible" formula to propose a referendum (which is false) and for not completing "the hard work we expected them to do."

That is a fitting end — for now — to the tire fire that is the electoral reform file. The idea of changing Canada's voting system seems just as far off as it's ever been, with a minister all but throwing out the recommendations of her committee. Why, if we didn't know any better, it would appear this might have been nothing but a lofty campaign promise all along.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section,  please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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