Maryam Monsef escapes the Liberal adventure in electoral reform

Setting aside the question of whether she was demoted, it is unquestionably the case that Maryam Monsef is no longer responsible for fronting the Liberal commitment to electoral reform. She might be thankful for that.

Minister's move follows string of missteps - but suggests she isn't seen as a lost cause

Maryam Monsef, third from the left, sits with her colleagues after being sworn in as the minister of status of women during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Appearing before reporters after Tuesday's cabinet shuffle in Ottawa, Maryam Monsef was asked whether she had been "demoted."

"I will leave that for you to decide," demurred the former minister of democratic institutions and the new minister for the status of women.

Setting aside the question of which portfolio technically ranks higher in the pecking order — the general welfare of women has been a rather prominent concern of this government — it is unquestionably the case that Maryam Monsef is no longer responsible for fronting the Liberal commitment to electoral reform.

Of course, a decision to change things does not typically reflect well on the previous situation. The change also lines up neatly with a general sense that electoral reform has been a mess for Monsef and this government.

A year into the Liberal adventure on electoral reform, a change may also be seen as best for everyone involved.

The trouble with electoral reform

Electoral reform is inherently fraught: esoteric and philosophical in its details, but fundamental to the nature of a democracy, even while the general public is only vaguely interested in the topic.

The particular value of any given option is difficult to objectively quantify. And any discussion of the topic is subject to the impassioned arguments of advocates, as well as the real or perceived self-interest of the partisans involved.

The specific promise Monsef was tasked with carrying was then challenging in its own right: the implementation of an unspecified new system, after multi-party study, in time for the 2019 election.

And to that the Liberals added a further degree of difficulty when they decided to quibble, indecisively, with the suggestion of holding a referendum before a new system is enacted. There are real reasons to be cautious about proceeding with a referendum, but it is difficult to question a public vote without seeming to question the public's ability to make a decent decision.

Monsef's attempt to navigate that reluctance inspired the first furor of the new Parliament in December 2015, and the Conservatives thereafter made a cause of demanding a referendum.

There followed a tempest over the allotment of seats on the committee that would study reform, which bolstered allegations that the Liberals were aiming to rig the federal system. 

After the Liberals compromised on the committee's membership, it came back with a majority report that opted to not endorse a particular alternative and awkwardly tried to recommend a referendum — the New Democrats and Greens simultaneously endorse a referendum and questioned the need for one. 

Meanwhile, in a dissenting report, the Liberal members recommended that the government abandon the promise of reform in time for 2019.

Monsef responded by criticizing the committee's efforts, an attack for which she apologized a day later.

Shortly thereafter, the government unveiled a new survey that asked participants about their values and then grouped them under several amorphous personality groups ( "co-operators," "guardians," "challengers," "innovators" or "pragmatists"). The opposition responded with gleeful mockery ("a dating website designed by Fidel Castro").

And, on that note, Monsef was dispatched to the status of women.

What now for Monsef and electoral reform?

With the exception of her attack on the committee, it is difficult to say how much Monsef was individually directing the Liberal approach, but it stands to reason that she was not merely left to her own devices and there is an acknowledgment, from all sides, that she was put in a difficult position.

Sending her to the backbench might have only confirmed every criticism of the past year, but keeping her in cabinet also suggests she is not considered a lost cause.

Maryam Monsef is embraced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being sworn in as Minister of Status of Women during a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Her earnest, sunny tone might not have worked to her benefit at times, but any number of new MPs have no doubt needed time to work on their public approach (see Trudeau, Justin) and outside the House of Commons, in forums on electoral reform, she has displayed an ability to preside over an audience. The new portfolio offers a chance to redefine herself outside the crucible of the last year.

It is possible to imagine how the reform debate might otherwise be further along by now. 

A "values-based" survey might have made more sense if it was launched last spring as the start of a conversation. The special committee on electoral reform could have been struck earlier than last June. And instead of avoiding any serious talk of alternative electoral systems, the government could have more firmly seized the issue and put options on the table for discussion — dozens of town halls have been convened and postcards have been mailed to millions of households, but without something to focus the debate.

So the current situation is perhaps not simply a matter of electoral reform being hard. And that things aren't further along and that a new minister has been given the file could seem to bode poorly for the Liberal promise.

But the prime minister didn't obviously back away when he was asked about that commitment on Tuesday. In the past, he has seemed genuinely interested in the subject.

At last report, the Liberals were promising something in the spring, but an indication of intent could conceivably come sooner. If the government is going to come forward with a proposal or if it's going to push the process past 2019 or if it's going to abandon the idea, it might be nice to have that clarified sooner rather than later.

Regardless, Karina Gould can be thankful that she's only getting to this file now. And Maryam Monsef can be thankful that it's no longer her concern.