The electoral reform fight has only just begun: Aaron Wherry

It was on Dec. 8 that the minister for democratic institutions vowed she would "not prejudice the outcome" of the consultation process on electoral reform by "committing to a referendum." A good number of afternoons since have been punctuated by howling and fuming from the Opposition.

Commons Sketch | Liberals and Conservatives continue to argue about need for a referendum

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef responds during question period in the House of Commons on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

​The Conservatives were already fairly certain the Liberal government is preparing to rig the electoral system, but now they are absolutely certain.

The reason for their clarity was the hiring of an individual in the Privy Council Office who previously advocated for the use of a ranked ballot for elections in the city of Guelph, Ont. — the ranked ballot being a system that, it's assumed, would stand to benefit the Liberal Party.

"Canadians are not buying it. They know that this Liberal process is a complete sham," interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said. "When will the prime minister admit that he cannot change something as fundamental as the way we vote without a referendum?"

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood and quipped, not for the first time, that it was "mildly humorous" that the Conservatives, they of the widely scorned Fair Elections Act, would be demanding a government consult with Canadians before changing the nation's electoral laws. 

The Conservatives grumbled at the comparison.

The government and the Official Opposition have been going at this point for nearly six months now.

It was on Dec. 8 that the Minister for Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef told the House that she would "not prejudice the outcome of that consultation process by committing to a referendum." And with that explanation — either a basically innocuous comment about not prejudging the electoral reform committee's recommendations or a deeply troubling dismissal of referenda — a point of dispute became a furor that has persisted.

A good number of afternoons since have been punctuated by the howling and fuming directed at Monsef from indignant members of the Opposition. 

The Conservatives and Liberals persist

The Conservatives, apparently convinced they have a winning argument, persist in demanding the government call a referendum. The Liberals, tied to an absolute promise of electoral reform and having not yet launched the actual process for studying alternatives, persist in not wanting to commit to such a thing.

"The conversation we are having about a possible end game, that of a referendum, is taking away from the important conversation we need to have here and now about ways to engage Canadians in the process," the minister said Tuesday afternoon, "so that we can arrive at an outcome that is appealing and responsive to their needs."

The Conservatives groaned. 

"I understand that the members opposite have a hard time with the concept of listening," she said a bit later, "but my job as minister is to listen and to reflect on the voices of those I have heard."

The Conservatives groaned again. Denis Lebel, seated in the Opposition front row and appearing displeased with the minister's suggestion, proceeded to lecture across the aisle, wagging his finger in Monsef's direction.

(A response from Monsef some weeks ago drove mild-mannered Michael Chong to shout at her from his seat, an outburst that earned a rebuke from the Speaker.)

Some of Monsef's answers during question period have provoked dramatic reactions from across the aisle. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The minister, a 30-year-old rookie, has a particular manner of speaking that can seem just a bit too polished or earnest (vaguely reminiscent of Justin Trudeau's speaking style before he learned to dial it back a bit). She has also tried to carry shaky arguments against the notion of a referendum (a bit like arguing against the very notion of popular democracy), and high-minded appeals to cross-partisan collaboration.

Most of the arguments against the government remain hypothetical: they might be preparing to rig the system, they might be willing to act unilaterally, they might not bother with a referendum. (Accusations of self-interest might stalk all sides of this debate.) And these charges could conceivably be disproved by action. 

But for now Liberals must deal with accusations about their intent. And the committee they intend to have study the issue has still not yet been convened.

Admitting the possibility of failure?

It is on the design of the committee that New Democrats enter the fray, arguing the Liberals would give themselves a majority instead of allotting the seats proportionally according to the popular vote.

Over the weekend, Monsef allowed that her government would "not proceed with any changes without the broad buy-in of the people of this country." On Monday, the Conservatives took this as a new reason to demand a referendum, while NDP critic Nathan Cullen protested on Tuesday that the Liberals were "openly talking about failure when it comes to democratic reform." (The New Democrats are not particularly eager to have a referendum.)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's approach to electoral reform has been met with passionate opposition in the House of Commons. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Cullen proposes the government work with the other parties, perhaps by adopting his proposal for dividing up committee seats, a design that would at least require the Liberals to work with the New Democrats. And the minister seemed almost to open the door to such a possibility on Tuesday with a passing suggestion that the motion to create the committee would be up for debate.

The Liberals could look magnanimous by giving up their majority on the reform committee or they could try to find common cause with another party regardless and then hope that bipartisan support undercuts the case for a referendum.

But that all still seems a long way off. And in the meantime, the minister has to face and potentially wear whatever criticism and insinuation can be mustered.

The Liberals have a laugh

On Tuesday, her Conservative critic, Scott Reid, was perhaps too eager on the attack.

Asked about the aforementioned official hired in the Privy Council Office, Monsef testified he was now a member of "Canada's non-partisan public service."

The Conservatives laughed.

Reid was unconvinced.

"Mr. Speaker, I am surrounded by former cabinet ministers," he said, "so I will ask one of them if there has ever been a hiring that took place that was not based on something other than non-partisan considerations."

This insinuation was met with howls. But, for a change, the laughter came from the Liberal side. 


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.


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