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No easy task on electoral reform

Posted on September 22, 2016 by Vauxhall Advance

Work is proceeding on one of Justin Trudeau’s election promises – electoral reform.

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform was in Toronto yesterday as part of the committee’s cross-Canada tour launched this week to hear the views of Canadians regarding the electoral system. One of the prime objectives of the consultation process is to identify viable alternatives to the present first-past-the-post voting system.

The Trudeau government has pledged that last October’s federal election would be the last one conducted under that system.

In early June, the Liberals put the wheels in motion for change by establishing the Special Committee’s mandate, and by Sept. 2, the committee had held 23 meetings and heard from nearly 60 witnesses. That’s not counting the 2,800 Canadians who have participated in online consultation that was launched Aug. 19. (To take part, go to http://www.parl.gc.ca/Committees/en/ERRE and click on “PARTICIPATE in the study.”)

In May, before the committee was established, Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef told reporters, “In a multi-party democracy like Canada, first-past-the-post distorts the will of the electorate. It’s part of why so many Canadians don’t engage in or care about politics. While there’s no such thing as a perfect electoral system, we can do better.”

Former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent raised the shortcomings of the first-past-the-post system when he testified before the all-party committee Aug. 29. He pointed out that in the 1980 election, the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau won only two seats in Western Canada in spite of winning 25 per cent of the vote in the four western provinces, and went on to impose the National Energy Program, which earned the West’s longstanding enmity, particularly in Alberta.

“… if you do not have in the cabinet people from different regions that are going to be making crucial policy affecting those regions, you can make serious mistakes,” Broadbent told the committee.

“The first-past-the-post system distorts the electoral system in Canada and the 1980 election is a perfect example of that … The first-past-the-post (system) can have a negative effect on our national unity politics.”

Broadbent also pointed out that the FPTP system over-represents parties concentrated in particular regions, like the separatist Bloc Quebecois, and under-represents small parties which receive more votes but whose support is spread across the country. In the 1997 election, for example, the Bloc won twice as many seats as the NDP despite winning fewer votes, and none from outside Quebec.

Some have proposed proportional representation as a better alternative, but that system has its critics, too. Back in February, Serge Joyal, an independent Liberal senator, warned that a move to some form of proportional representation could reduce the likelihood of majority governments and would require two or more parties to join forces to form less stable minority or coalition governments.

Minority governments certainly call for more co-operation among parties and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Many Canadians have expressed frustration with partisan politics, and having parties forced to work together to govern the country could be a remedy for that problem.

Whatever alternative (or alternatives) the Special Committee comes up with before reporting to the House of Commons on Dec. 1 must be carefully considered. Changing the country’s voting system isn’t a task to be taken lightly or rushed into. It’s better to take the time to do it right and to ensure the majority of Canadians on board with any proposed change.

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