Referendum on electoral reform would be fraught with complications

As Canada prepares for a debate about electoral reform, the Conservative Opposition is calling for a referendum. That sounds like a simple, democratic system, but referendums rarely work out that way.

A direct vote on the democratic system seems self-evidently wise, but the Liberals are reluctant

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says 'referendum campaigns are tremendously exciting in terms of selling newspapers,' but cast doubt on whether they lead to better outcomes for Canadians. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Britain's referendum five years ago on electoral reform was, in the words of one learned observer, "rich on demagoguery and unsubstantiated claims with no empirical foundation." Another called it "disgraceful."

Opponents of adopting the alternative vote (AV) method proposed for Britain claimed the new system would cost more and thus leave less money for things like health care: "She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system," was the tagline of an advertisement that featured the picture of a newborn infant.

An ad by the Yes side suggested the current system made MPs lazy. And after a Conservative critic suggested AV would force governments to negotiate with extremist fringe parties, a Liberal-Democrat proponent accused the No side of participating in a "Goebbels-like campaign."

Turnout for the referendum, which the No side won convincingly, was 42 per cent, more than 20 points lower than in the United Kingdom's general elections in 2010 and 2015.

"Neither the politicians nor the press have distinguished themselves during an affair that's been distinguished by the mendacity of almost all the protagonists, the hysteria of partisans on both sides and the sheer quantity of lumpen stupidity on display," wrote Alex Massie in the Spectator, concluding that referendums were a "hopeless way of deciding these matters."

Which is not to say that referendums are inherently awful. At least no more so than any other exercise in democracy.

Do referendums lead to better outcomes?

"You know, referendum campaigns are tremendously exciting in terms of selling newspapers," Justin Trudeau remarked to the Toronto Star last week. "But do they directly lead to better outcomes for Canadians in their electoral system? I think there's a strong argument to be made that, not necessarily."

Conservative MPs, incessant in their pursuit of the point, have uttered the word "referendum" more than 200 times in the House of Commons in the current Parliament and the official opposition is presently on a streak of 18 consecutive sitting days with at least one reference.

But the Liberals have refused to commit to calling a referendum before implementing any kind of electoral reform.

Of course, we do not submit other serious matters of state — war, for instance — to public votes. But there remains an obvious appeal to the idea that, in a democracy, the public should directly decide how its votes will be counted.

As Conservatives have been happy to point out this week, Stéphane Dion once wrote that, "Precedent makes holding a referendum necessary in Canada: changing the voting system would require popular support." 

Matthew Mendelsohn, now a top adviser to the Trudeau government, also once co-wrote a paper on electoral reform in which the three authors took it "as a given that no serious change can be made to the electoral system without its being approved by referendum."

(Mendelsohn and his co-writers actually suggested two referendums might be optimal: one to ask whether voters want to change the system, a second, if necessary, to pick a new system.) 

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

How would a referendum go?

But it is also not quite enough to simply say that we should have a referendum. 

Would a simple majority be enough to change the electoral system or would a higher threshold be necessary? Would a minimum turnout be required? What if, as others have wondered, a majority of voters nationwide support the change, but voters in some provinces do not? 

Previous efforts would suggest that a referendum might not even "sell newspapers," as Trudeau suggested. Many generate little public awareness of the issues at stake.

A week ahead of the 2005 referendum in British Columbia, 65 per cent of respondents to an Ipsos Reid survey admitted knowing "very little" or "nothing" about the single transferable vote system that was proposed. Two weeks out from the follow-up vote in 2009, just 63 per cent of those surveyed were aware the referendum was happening (compared to 96 per cent who were aware of the general election that was taking place concurrently).

And days before the 2007 referendum in Ontario on adopting a mixed-member proportional system, 55 per cent of respondents to a Strategic Counsel poll said they knew "a little" or "nothing" about the proposal.

A lack of interest might suggest a certain willingness to accept the status quo. And a well-funded, stand-alone campaign including the active participation of the federal parties and leaders — in British Columbia and Ontario the referendums occurred simultaneously with general elections and the major party leaders were not particularly active — would presumably increase awareness.

But whenever politicians are involved in a competitive public campaign, the potential for silliness is high. The relative complication of the proposed system will likely act as a deterrent. Partisan feelings and positions could heavily influence the outcome. The organization and strategy of the campaigns for and against could be pivotal. 

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

Shouldn't people know how their votes will be counted?

So we might at least gird ourselves for the possibility of something less than a calmly conducted and fully informed deliberation on the present and future of our electoral system.

But if it is easy to be cynical about the democratic process, it is difficult to argue against democracy.

"How is it you fix democracy by denying people a vote?" asks Bill Tieleman, a B.C. New Democrat who led the campaigns against the single transferable vote system in 2005 and 2009. (There is also an argument that politicians have too much self-interest to make the decision themselves.)

In demanding a referendum, Conservatives have regularly invoked an Ipsos poll from May in which 73 per cent of respondents agreed that a referendum was necessary before changing the voting system. 

Ekos has found less demand for a referendum when Canadians are presented with the option of "a rigorous program of public engagement and Parliamentary review." (To that point: Queen's University professor Jonathan Rose has suggested a process involving a citizens' assembly could render a referendum unnecessary.)

But perhaps the former provides a standard by which to measure any suggestion a referendum isn't necessary. If, a year from now, after some process of consultation and deliberation, and with perhaps the New Democrats and Greens on side, support for a chosen alternative is at or near 73 per cent, perhaps the Liberals will be able to claim that a referendum is unnecessary.

Of course, it might still be asked, if the public is so enthusiastic or willing, why not let them formally confirm as much in a vote?

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

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.