Analysis

Liberal government launches online survey meant to spur electoral reform conversation

Canadians will soon begin receiving a postcard from the federal government, inviting them to participate in an interactive survey that asks participants a series of questions about their values, preferences and priorities for a political system.

'This hasn't been done before around a conversation on democracy,' Monsef says

Minister of Democratic Institutions Mayam Monsef stands in the House of Commons during question period in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Maryam Monsef says when she had an opportunity to reflect after question period on Thursday — when she dismissed and criticized the final report of the special House of Commons electoral reform committee — she regretted what she'd said. 

"My tone was out of character for me," she said in an interview on Sunday. "I was raised to say sorry when it was the right thing to do and that's what I did on Friday."

If there is a conceivable upside for the minister it might be that the drama of the boisterous kerfuffle and her apology should have increased awareness of the mere fact that changing the federal electoral system is up for discussion.

That might be news to some people.

A survey released in August by Ipsos found that just 19 per cent of respondents were aware the Liberal government had begun consulting on the question of reform.

In October, 49 per cent of respondents to a Forum poll at least claimed to be aware a special House committee was looking into the matter.

In the coming days, the possibility of electoral reform will become harder to ignore.

Starting on Monday, Canadians will begin receiving a postcard from the federal government, inviting them to participate in an interactive survey at MyDemocracy.ca.

Designed in collaboration with Vox Pop Labs, the company that created the Vote Compass tool used by CBC.ca for several recent elections, it asks participants a series of questions about their values, preferences and priorities for a political system, then groups respondents into one of five categories and allows them to compare their responses to those given by other Canadians.

"We're about to send 15 million postcards to every household in the country," Monsef said. "This hasn't been done before around a conversation on democracy."

Should there be more parties?

Canadians will be asked whether they agree or disagree that "there should be more parties in Parliament that represent the views of all Canadians, even if some are radical or extreme" or "it is better for several parties to have to govern together than for one party to make all the decisions in government, even if it takes longer for government to get things done."

The website will include information on the current political system and some alternatives. Participants will also be asked about online voting, mandatory voting, lowering the voting age and making election day a holiday.

The survey closes on Dec. 30 and the total cost of the initiative won't be known until the new year.

They will not be asked to respond to specific electoral systems or descriptions of those systems.

Based on earlier reports that hinted at the survey's design, opposition MPs have already complained the questions are too vague.

Monsef said that, based on the experience in other countries, the belief is that the reform debate should first be about values. The hope now is to have "an open conversation about the values [Canadians] want at the heart of their democracy."

An example of the postcard that will be sent to 15 million Canadian households as part of the Liberal government's consultations on electoral reform.

The initiative is in keeping with a government that is constantly, and proudly, consulting. But in its design and extent — an online interactive promoted to every household in the country — this seems novel. One way or another, it might be remembered as a precedent.

Insofar as only 40 per cent of respondents to that Forum survey were able to identify first-past-the-post as our current electoral system, it might make some sense to avoid hitting the public with the particulars of various options. But it remains to be seen how engaged the general public will be unless or until there is something specific on the table.

What the special committee recommended

The special committee's majority report proposed that the current system be pitted against a proportional representation option, though the New Democrats and Greens suggested a referendum might not be necessary and no agreement was reached on a specific proposal for a new system.

Though Monsef has expressed misgivings about referendums, she is still not ruling one out. Mind you, she's also not expressing any particular interest in one.

During question period in the House of Commons Thursday. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef accuses the Opposition of not doing its job on the electoral reform committee. 2:31

She also doesn't seem interested in speaking to any particular options for reform.

"Let's hear from as many Canadians as possible before we limit our options," she said. "And before we get to that technical conversation about system design, let's allow every Canadian who wants to an opportunity to have a conversation about their values."

This will be the fourth avenue of outreach attempted at so far, following town halls conducted by dozens of MPs, the special committee — which held hearings across the country and conducted its own online survey — and Monsef's own national tour. 

It has been argued that the Liberal government could have launched the special committee sooner. If somehow a new electoral system is not implemented, it will surely be argued that the Liberals could have done something more. 

But the Liberals are at least putting themselves in a position to say they tried. 

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef has apologized to MPs she suggested were shirking their duties on electoral reform 2:14

Can they implement a new system for 2019?

In their own supplementary report, the Liberal committee members argued that further public engagement is necessary, but that in undertaking such an effort, the government should abandon its goal of implementing reform in time for 2019.

Fulfilling the government's commitment of making the 2015 campaign the last election decided by first-past-the-post would require having a new system approved, by referendum or otherwise, by next fall.

Monsef insists that a new system for 2019 remains the goal, with legislation this spring if broad support is found.

"We're working on ensuring that we meet that timeline," she said. "We know it's ambitious. But, as you know, that is a characteristic of our prime minister and so far he's been able to dream big and achieve good things and we're working towards that with this file too."

Will online survey give feds an accurate window into what Canadians want in a voting system? 14:59

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.