The Pollcast: Do the Liberals need to hold a referendum on electoral reform?

The Liberals have promised that the 2015 federal election was the last to use the first-past-the-post-system. But many have argued a referendum must be held on the proposed changes to give them legitimacy. Éric Grenier discusses the issue with Emmett Macfarlane in this week's podcast.

Host Éric Grenier is joined by the University of Waterloo's Emmett Macfarlane

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef is the Liberal government's point person on electoral reform. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The CBC Pollcast, hosted by CBC poll analyst and ThreeHundredEight.com founder Éric Grenier, explores the world of electoral politics, political polls and the trends they reveal.

The Liberals campaigned on electoral reform, promising to do away with the first-past-the-post system before the next election is held in 2019.

Some form of proportional representation or a preferential ballot is on the table, but the Liberals have suggested that whatever changes the government settles upon should not be subject to a national referendum for approval. 

Joining Éric Grenier on today's podcast to discuss the issue is Emmett Macfarlane, assistant professor in the University of Waterloo's political science department.

Polls have shown that Canadians have mixed views on electoral reform, and that a consensus might be difficult for the Liberals to achieve. But while a referendum may not be needed to make any proposed reform to the electoral system legally binding, Macfarlane argues that it would be needed to give the change political legitimacy.

"There's no requirement here for a referendum and there's no requirement for constitutional wrangling," says Macfarlane, "but the debate really is about the political legitimacy side of things."

A few obstacles could stand in the way of the Liberals if they decide to go ahead without a referendum. For instance, some Conservative senators have pledged to block any electoral reform legislation that comes their way if a referendum is not held.

According to Macfarlane, this would "amount to a partisan objection to a government seeking to fulfil a campaign promise...That would only further erode whatever is left of the Senate's legitimacy at this point and would be deeply problematic."

A court challenge unlikely to be successful

Another avenue for opponents of reform could be the courts. But Macfarlane, who studies constitutional law, is doubtful that any constitutional challenge would get very far.

"A referendum is certainly not a legal requirement, so even if someone were to challenge that this is somehow an undemocratic reform they would probably not fare well in the courts."

We discuss the Liberal promise to change the electoral system with Emmett MacFarlane, assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Waterloo. 24:13

Listen to the full discussion — or subscribe to The CBC Pollcast and listen to past episodes here.

You can also follow Emmett Macfarlane on Twitter.


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