Maryam Monsef's earnest guide to electoral reform for cynics

Is it possible for politicians to conduct themselves uncynically? This is now one of the subplots to the great(ish) electoral reform debate of 2016.

Is it possible for politicians to have an uncynical debate about electoral reform?

Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee meeting on July 6. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The party that dismissed cynicism and vowed to conduct itself properly is now a government committed to addressing the ultimate question of process and the public good: the bedeviling question of how to remake our electoral system.

And it is to do this rather soon: in time to ensure that the 2015 election was the last conducted under first-past-the-post.

Is there any chance this does not end badly?

It was near the end of the first day of hearings this week by the special House committee on electoral reform that Liberal MP David McGuinty took a moment to commend Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions, on the nobility of her efforts.

"Minister, I want to thank you for your thoughtfulness and sincerity on this file, in this face of so much cynicism and adversity," he said. "It's not easy bringing change to an existing order."

Indeed, the churlish cynic would probably even roll his eyes at this.

"You were right in your observation that I don't share the cynicism that may exist out there around this particular issue," Monsef later said. "I don't share that cynicism because I, and all of you in this room, are a reminder of what is possible in this country."

How to 'dialogue' about reform

Appearing as the committee's first witness, Monsef, an unfailingly enthusiastic rookie MP in her early 30s, had presented an official government of Canada booklet entitled, "Your guide to hosting a successful dialogue on Canadian federal Electoral Reform."

Included therein is a chart on "potential dialogue models," guidance on planning and facilitating your meeting, a sample PowerPoint presentation, tips on using a hashtag to promote your event via Twitter ("good hashtags are short, unique and memorable") and a supply checklist (if you choose to provide refreshments, for instance, remember that it might be necessary to provide "serving instruments").

It is perhaps most charitably understood as a staggering exhibit of the earnestness that is still somehow possible in this fallen world.

"I know this appetite is out there for this conversation," Monsef said as her response to McGuinty continued.

 'A place of compromise'

"I know we have the tools available to us in 2016 to do this in a responsible and inclusive way. And I know that it's possible for ... all of you around this table to come to a place of compromise."

Indeed, she dared suggest it was "possible ... for this group of elected parliamentarians to come to a thoughtful conclusion."

This might all seem laughably preposterous to anyone who has paid even a little attention to democratic politics. 

Even still, a committee of the people's representatives committed to the pursuit of thoughtful consensus and a public engaged in hundreds of "dialogues" about electoral reform is one notion of the good democracy that should be involved in crafting an acceptably just and righteous democratic system.

But, perhaps befitting a democracy, it is not a notion that is universally accepted without quibble.

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Can we do without a referendum?

At regular intervals during her hour and a half before the committee, Monsef was pursued by Conservatives who are eager to hear the minister take a definitive position on holding a referendum before implementing any new electoral system. 

Though assuredly uncynical about the pursuit of democratic reform, the minister has her doubts about the utility of a referendum. But she is not yet willing to categorically rule out the possibility of holding one.

In theory, a referendum is the properly democratic way to determine the rules of democracy. And it is exceedingly hard to argue against a referendum without sounding anti-democratic, even while recent British experiences suggest such votes are not always wholly uncynical and enlightened.

But it has also been argued that referendums are a useful safeguard against the cynical self-interest of politicians (if you dare believe that politicians might ever be so motivated).

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The possibility of a self-interested politician

"If politicians are left in charge of designing a new electoral system," Conservative MP Scott Reid wrote in an op-ed in January, "they will be unable to resist the temptation to choose a system which will, based on the dynamics of Canadian voter behaviour, have the effect of benefiting the party in power."

The alternative vote (using a ranked ballot to elect one MP per riding), for instance, is a system that would allegedly benefit the Liberal Party. And that much will surely be screamed about if the government tries to implement AV. 

But, by the same token, it is possibly fair to wonder whether other partisans could be similarly motivated. Indeed, it might even be fair to wonder whether some amount of the Conservative support for a referendum is based on hoping to prevent change.

Mind you, the presence of cynical self-interest should not necessarily be a disqualifying offence. If it was, we might not let MPs decide any matter of public policy. 

Fulfilling a promise or explaining failure

So how might this all resolve itself, the campaign commitment surrounded by the potential for cynicism and division?

The process of the next several months will surely matter, particularly for those giving any thought to convincing columnists and editorial boards that a referendum isn't necessary.

If the committee room is the scene of thoughtful consideration and the nation's living rooms are witness to hundreds of "dialogues" (each with a sufficient supply of "serving instruments"), and if there emerges something like consensus amongst MPs and the public, it might be possible for reform to be implemented by next spring and for most of the country to feel okay about that.

The cynic might suggest that is unlikely. An optimist might suggest that a noble effort could even bring the public along.

But without noble effort and positive public sentiment it will be treacherous to proceed with reform. 

And, particularly for the party that has a promise to keep, a seemingly earnest attempt at achieving reform would at least make failure to achieve it easier to explain.

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Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.