The Pollcast: Conservatives open to electoral reform, but only with referendum

On the electoral reform debate, the Conservatives have one focus: that any changes be put to Canadians in a referendum. But if one is held, what side will the party take? In the third of a series of interviews on the electoral reform issue, host Eric Grenier is joined by two Conservative MPs, Scott Reid and Gerard Deltell.

Host Éric Grenier is joined by Conservative MPs Scott Reid and Gérard Deltell

Conservative MPs Gérard Deltell and Scott Reid are members of the electoral reform committee. (The Canadian Press)

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

On the electoral reform debate, the Conservatives have spoken with one voice: they want a referendum on whatever changes are proposed. But if the government agrees to hold a referendum, would the Conservatives campaign for the status quo?

Not necessarily, say two Conservative MPs who sit on the special committee for electoral reform.

"If we need a change, then we are not closed to that," says Gérard Deltell, MP for Louis-Saint-Laurent and one of the Conservatives sitting on the electoral reform committee. "We are open to having a discussion on that issue. But what we deeply stand for is to call a referendum."

Deltell joined fellow committee member and Conservative MP for Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston Scott Reid on this week's episode of the Pollcast podcast. Host Éric Grenier was previously joined by Liberal and NDP MPs to discuss electoral reform.

We ask two Conservative MPs - Scott Reid and Gerard Deltell - what they think about electoral reform. 19:48

Critics have argued that the Conservatives support holding a referendum on any change on how Canadians vote because other referendums on the issue — in British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island — have failed. That means the current first-past-the-post system would remain in place, a system that might be more beneficial to the Conservatives than any of the potential alternatives.

Reid disagrees.

"From my point of view as a Conservative, first-past-the-post has not been ideal for my party over the past century or so," he says. "It has been a very good system for the Liberal Party."

Reid says the flaws of the system include whole regions of the country being "frozen out of power," and that it can "lead to parties campaigning in a more confrontational way."

So if the Conservatives succeed in convincing the government to hold a referendum, what would the proposed system need to have in order for Conservatives to support a change?

Reid says there are two criteria that need to be met:

"You don't want to increase the power of party bosses over the individual Member of Parliament and sever that relationship with the constituents... [and] you don't want to have ridings made unmanageably large in geography or population."

"But once you take those out of the way, there are a number of options that are potentially attractive," says Reid.

Time running out

The primary focus of the Conservative members on the committee, however, has been on the need to hold a referendum — rather than on the details of a new electoral system. But Deltell argues that the onus is on the Liberals.

"If we have a clear indication from this government that it is open to a referendum, okay, now we're talking," he says. "If not, we cannot move on because if they decide by themselves, then at the end of the day the decision belongs to only one person, the prime minister."

Another issue of concern that has been highlighted by both the Conservatives and the New Democrats is time. Other countries, such as New Zealand, Deltell says, took many years to settle the issue. The Liberals promise to have a new system in place for the 2019 federal election, leaving little time for Elections Canada to prepare for the changes, let alone parliamentarians to come up with a new model.

So does Deltell believe that, referendum or not, there is enough time to get it done by 2019?

"To tell you the truth, no."

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

Follow Éric Grenier on Twitter.

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