Welcome to the summer of electoral reform: No sunscreen required for dozen lucky MPs

The electoral reform committee meets for the first time on Tuesday. And so the summer of electoral reform might thus be upon us (possibly rivalling 2010's summer of the long-form census for whimsy and spectacle).

Members of the electoral reform committee meet in Ottawa for the first time

Jason Kenney is the most prominent Conservative on the House committee that will study electoral reform. (The Canadian Press)

​"Does he care at all that Canada is now the only complex multiparty democracy in the developed world which still relies on a 15th century voting system designed for medieval England?" young Canadian Alliance MP Jason Kenney asked a Liberal MP one afternoon in February 2001, the former aggrieved by the latter's "partisan rant."

"Does he care at all that 60% of Canadians in the last election voted against his government's program and yet the government holds 100% of the political power?"

A few months earlier, the Liberal Party had indeed won 57 per cent of the seats with 41 per cent of the popular vote.

"Does he," Kenney continued, "have the capacity for one moment to transcend partisanship and his government's defence of the status quo to suggest that yes, perhaps this place, the voice of the people, the place where we speak, Parliament, should consider an electoral system which allows the plurality and diversity of political views to be properly reflected in this, the people's House?"

Up for consideration that day was an NDP motion calling for a special committee to study electoral reform.

Fifteen years later, when the minister of democratic institutions noted for the House's benefit last month that Canada was one of only three countries in the OECD to still use first-past-the-post, Kenney reminded her "that those three OECD countries" — the United States, Britain and Canada — "are also the oldest and most stable continuing democracies in the world."

But at least a committee now exists to consider all relevant questions and context; it will meet for the first time on Tuesday. Its members, including Jason Kenney, could spend the next six months seriously sorting through the profound questions inherent in any meaningful consideration of putting democratic ideals into electoral practice.

Summer of electoral reform

Joining Kenney are two other Conservatives: Scott Reid and Gérard Deltell. The Liberals have assigned four rookies (John Aldag, Matt DeCourcey, Sherry Romanado and Ruby Sahota) and one veteran (Francis Scarpaleggia). The NDP is offering prominent lieutenants Nathan Cullen and Alexandre Boulerice, while the Bloc Québecois will be represented by Luc Thériault and the Greens by the party's leader and lone MP, Elizabeth May.

The committee will elect its chair on Tuesday and is expected to hold hearings through the summer. The next few months will also include what is being described as "a series of national outreach engagements" with the minister of democratic institutions, Maryam Monsef, and her parliamentary secretary, Mark Holland. 

The summer of electoral reform might thus be upon us (possibly rivaling 2010's summer of the long-form census for whimsy and spectacle).

Liberals give up majority on electoral reform committee

7 years ago
Duration 8:17
Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef discusses the decision to support the NDP proposed structure for the electoral reform committee.

At the very least, the discussion might now expand beyond the question of whether a referendum is necessary before implementing reform — a question the Conservatives are insistent upon and that will hang over this debate — to get to a debate about the actual merits of various electoral systems.

Choices to replace 'medieval' system

The Canadian Alliance position in 2001 seems to have been that the first-past-the-post system was broken, but Conservative insistence on a referendum is not new. As a Canadian Alliance MP, Scott Reid actually argued for two referendums during a debate in 2001 and a supplementary opinion added by Conservative MPs to a House committee report in 2005 included a commitment that a Conservative government would not implement substantial electoral reform without a national vote.

But that opinion also specified that Conservatives "would be unwilling to make any changes to the electoral system that would weaken the link between MPs and their constituents, that would create unmanageably large ridings, or that would strengthen the control of party machinery over individual members of Parliament."

At the Liberal government's behest, the new electoral reform committee is to bear in mind another set of principles. The optimal reform will reduce "distortion" and strengthen "the link between voter intention and the election of representatives." It will "foster greater civility and collaboration in politics," but also "avoid undue complexity in the voting process."

And it will "recognize the value that Canadians attach ... to members of Parliament understanding local conditions and advancing local needs at the national level."

The trick is merely agreeing on a system that somehow satisfies those ideals.

The shortcomings of our current first-past-the-post system are well documented. Popular vote across the country does not always equate to seats in the House. Parties with something less than 50 per cent support regularly win governing majorities.

But it is also nicely straightforward. The candidate with the most votes in each riding wins and the legislature is comprised of 338 equally elected representatives. 

What's the Liberals' election reform plan?

7 years ago
Duration 2:39
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised 2015 was the last election to be fought on first-past-the-post. What shape could electoral reform take?

The ranked ballot can increase the disparities of first-past-the-post.

The multiple-member proportional (MMP) system, which has voters cast two votes, would produce two classes of MPs: local representatives and compensatory MPs added to create a proportional result.

The single-transferable vote (STV), which uses a ranked ballot to elect multiple representatives per district, requires larger ridings.

(The Conservative objections could be used to rule out STV and MMP proposals.)

All such proportional systems are more likely to produce coalition governments, which are either worthy tools of compromise and consensus or messy little arrangements that can unduly empower smaller parties.

Like most general elections, the reform debate offers a choice of rather imperfect options. All of which will now be submitted to a committee of 12 MPs.

Poisoned by self-interest?

Only the New Democrats, with their expressed support for MMP, are particularly aligned with a given system.

The Liberals committed last year to abandon first-past-the-post, but without specifying an alternative. While Justin Trudeau has mused of supporting a ranked ballot, the small Liberal caucus of the last Parliament split in half when the NDP asked MPs to vote on adopting "some form" of MMP in 2014. (Francis Scarpaleggia was among those who voted no.)

Elizabeth May supported that motion, but the Green Party platform in 2015 promised merely to pursue proportional representation and May says she has no preferred option.

Conservatives might conceivably find they like a particular alternative or emerge as hearty defenders of the status quo.

In 2011, Scott Reid suggested that any attempt by MPs to choose a new system would be inherently poisoned by self-interest:  "If we try as a group to select a system in advance, I can guarantee that the system will be reviewed and analyzed by each person and each party with one question foremost in mind: how will this help me or how will this hurt me?"

That might yet prove to be the case.  A lack of consensus could necessitate a referendum.

But the possibility of underlying cynicism hasn't prevented MPs from debating any number of other topics. And even if they struggle to transcend partisanship, they might at least give our medieval system and its possible alternatives a decent airing.

Electoral reform lessons from New Zealand

7 years ago
Duration 9:31
Therese Arseneau discusses New Zealand's process of electoral reform and what Canada can learn from that country


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.