Maryam Monsef tells Commons committee first-past-the-post voting system is 'antiquated'

Maryam Monsef told a Commons committee that the current first-past-the-post electoral system is "antiquated" and questioned whether a referendum is necessary before adopting a different voting model.

Special House committee begins its study of alternatives to first-past-the-post

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday July 6, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions, described the current first-past-the-post electoral system as "antiquated" and questioned whether a referendum must precede reform during an appearance before the special House committee studying electoral reform on Wednesday.

In hopes of facilitating public discussion of the issue, the minister also released a guide to hosting discussions on electoral reform, which interested citizens can use if they wish to organize such a forum.

The minister said she will soon be releasing further details of the outreach she and her parliamentary secretary will pursue through the summer and fall.

The special committee was established to study possible alternatives to the current first-past-the-post electoral system, part of the Liberal campaign commitment that the next election will be conducted under a different system.

Comprised of five Liberal MPs, three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one member of the Bloc Quebecois and Green MP Elizabeth May, the committee is expected to meet through the summer. It must report to the House of Commons with its recommendations by December.

The argument against first-past-the-post

"First-past-the-post is an antiquated system, designed to meet the realities of 19th century Canada, and not designed to operate within our multi-party democracy," Monsef told the committee. "We require an electoral system that provides a stronger link between the democratic will of Canadians and election results."

Monsef noted that, "since 1960, we've had 10 elections that resulted in majority governments but in only one case, in 1984, did the winning party receive more than 50 per cent of the vote."

She later said that the Liberal government does not have a preferred alternative to first-past-the-post, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's previously stated interest in the alternative vote ranked ballot.

On Monday, Canada saw its highest voter turnout in a federal election since 1993, according to preliminary results from Elections Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (The Canadian Press)

The referendum question

While Conservative MPs have been adamant that no new system should be implemented unless the public directly approves of the change through a referendum, Monsef argued that referendums were imperfect instruments.

"As I have said in the past, although I recognize that a referendum is one way of seeking clarity from Canadians, I remain to be convinced that it is the best way," she said.

"Referenda do not easily lend themselves to effectively deciding complex issues. They can and often have led to deep divisions within Canadian and other societies, divisions which have not been easily overcome."

Furthermore, she added, "although everyone has the ability to vote in a referendum, almost half of eligible voters have not done so in the recent referenda on electoral reform. I believe we can do better."

Monsef did not categorically rule out a referendum, but, under questioning, she also did not commit to calling a referendum if the committee ultimately recommends doing so. But she also said it would be incumbent on the government to take such a recommendation "seriously" and that she was looking forward to those recommendations.

Nonetheless, Monsef said the Liberal government "is not prepared to proceed without the broad support of Canadians" and she stressed the need to hear from citizens on this issue.

The minister also encouraged committee members to study online voting and mandatory voting.