Let this be the last time Parliament debates electoral reform (at least for a while)

Canadian society has progressed in myriad ways in the last 95 years, but the electoral reform debate seems basically the same. The newest special committee is scheduled to spend 16 hours in closed-door meetings this week as it prepares to deliver recommendations to the House of Commons.

Canadian MPs considered this issue in 1909, 1921 and 1936. It may still be unsolvable

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef says she hasn't heard a consensus about the way forward on electoral reform. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"I think we all have a very good idea about the evils of the present system," ventured Ronald H. Hooper, honorary secretary of the Proportional Representation Society, testifying on an April morning before the special committee established by the House of Commons to study the prospect of federal electoral reform.

"Admitting for the moment that the evils of the present system of single member constituency elections are serious, I claim the remedy is well within our reach."

It is easy to imagine this testimony having been given at any of the 43 hearings the current committee on electoral reform has convened over the last six months.

But the above quote is actually taken from the proceedings of a special House committee in 1921.

In his presentation, Hooper argued for the adoption of the single-transferrable vote (STV), a system that uses a ranked ballot in multi-member ridings to elect MPs in proportion to the popular vote. The result, he believed, would be a Parliament that more accurately reflected the population.

Three weeks later, John R. MacNicol of the British Representation League told the committee that proportional representation was overly complicated, antithetical to responsible government and would invite instability and deal-making. What's more, MacNicol argued, the Canadian people were not interested in the topic.

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Canadian society has progressed in myriad ways in the intervening years, but this debate seems basically the same.

The newest special committee is scheduled to spend 16 hours in closed-door meetings this week as it prepares to deliver a final report and recommendations to the House of Commons.

Regardless of whether reform or the status quo is the result, the best case scenario could be a definitive end to this debate, or another 95 years before another group of MPs is saddled with the subject. 

The ghosts of special committees past

The 1921 committee seems to have ended up recommending the use of the ranked ballot. But two years later, by a vote of 90-72, the House rejected a motion that would have endorsed that recommendation and called for at least some experimentation with the single-transferrable vote system.

That special committee in 1921 was not even the first time MPs had taken up the issue.

A special committee was first struck in 1909, though it seems to have only met once. A third special committee was launched in 1936. That committee concluded that, in the absence of "conclusive evidence" about the superiority of an alternative system, Parliament should not proceed with reform. 

That makes the current special committee the fourth special committee on electoral reform in the span of 107 years. All for a subject in which the public remains only vaguely interested.

A woman enters Maple High School in Vaughan, Ont., to cast her vote in the Canadian federal election on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

(In 2004, the standing committee on procedure and House affairs took up a preliminary study of how electoral reform might be properly considered. And that committee recommended that a special committee be struck. The Liberal government of the day didn't get around to proceeding.)

The current special committee on electoral reform has visited all 10 provinces and three territories and heard testimony from 179 witnesses. It is in possession of 166 reports detailing the public consultations that MPs undertook and 569 briefs from the public (including witnesses and other interested Canadians).

It is tempting to believe that all might amount to something.

Is all-party consensus possible now?

In late October, Conservative MP Scott Reid, his party's lead on democratic reform, wrote to his fellow members of the committee to encourage all-party consensus. Even taking into account each party's stated preferences and demands, Reid argued that agreement was possible.

It might be possible to design a system that produces a result proportional to the popular vote (as the New Democrats and Greens desire) and that is relatively simple (as the Liberals desire). And it might be possible to avoid unmanageably large ridings (a Conservative concern), maintain the geographic link between MPs and voters (a Liberal and Conservative concern) and avoid giving more power to political parties (another Conservative concern).

A ranked ballot might be part of the solution, to address the prime minister's previously stated concern that the system should not encourage fragmentation or the proliferation of niche parties.

But five-party agreement would also require a referendum, as the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois demand. And the Liberals have been decidedly reluctant to entertain the notion of a referendum: Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions, fretted at a recent public appearance about how divisive such single-issue votes can be.

Conservative MP Scott Reid argues that all-party consensus is possible. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But the conceivable alternatives are dicey.

The Liberals, NDP and Greens might agree on a system and then hope, with the Conservatives no doubt howling in outrage, to somehow rally the necessary public support to implement it without a referendum.

Or the committee might fail entirely to find consensus.

In that event, the Liberal government could be tempted to abandon the cause, but that would be the least satisfactory conclusion, surely only condemning some future Parliament to hearing from the disciples of proportional representation.

The government could, instead, refer the matter to a citizens assembly for consideration. That would likely endanger the promise of implementing reform in time for the 2019 election, but, as with the government's commitment to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees, there is often something to be said for abandoning arbitrary deadlines.

And something would still have to be done with whatever the assembly decided.

What about a referendum?

At some point, a referendum, for all the energy it would require and the conflict it would invite, might start to look like a useful option. Reid seems to think one could be conducted in time for 2019, but it might be just as well to attach a referendum to the 2019 general election.

A threshold for change would have to be set — say, majority approval by voters in seven of 10 provinces, representing 50 per cent of the population, as the Supreme Court set for implementing Senate elections — but a public vote would, one way or the other, effectively end the discussion (at least for a while).

If the Liberals accomplish nothing else with this adventure, they should at least ensure that it's another century before the next special committee on electoral reform is convened.


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.