Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Electoral Reform at Risk

During the election Justin Trudeau (LPC - Papineau, QC) repeatedly stated that 2015 would be the last First Past the Post election in Canada. If the aftermath of the Liberal victory this is one of the few things I hung my hat on and had some hope for, as a person who strongly dislikes the Liberals and their current leader. I'm an electoral reform nerd. I've read all the articles about different forms of government, looked a possible models Canada could adopt and read up on what other countries do. I have been waiting for a serious push for electoral reform at the federal level for about 10 years now. However, the Liberals have put that all in jeopardy.

Changes to election laws are often very contentious and for very good reason. Fears about changes can broadly be broken into two groups, threats to democracy and tipping the partisan scales. These are connected but ultimately different problems. Occasionally a story will emerge where an autocratic president or prime minister changes election laws (or perhaps the constitution) to better secure their own power and curb democracy. Changes to term length, ending term limits, altering finance laws, or freedom of speech, or who can vote can erode the central democracy in a political culture. If the changes goes to far the system may collapse into despotism altogether. Then there are changes the preference one political party over the others, and usually it is the party in power. This might mean redistricting in such a way that benefits strongholds of one party over another or changing fundraising laws that benefits the ruling party.

Due to the risks inherent in tinkering with the electoral system of a given country it is often wise to ensure that broad consensus is reached on any reforms. Take for example the so-called Fair Elections Act. Massive public outcry on the provisions of that act forced the Conservatives to amend it into something more palatable. Making changes along party lines raises the possibilities that someone might tamper with the deck.

Earlier this month Minister Maryam Monsef (LPC - Peterborough-Kawartha, ON) announced the government's structure for the committee that will make recommendations about electoral reform. The Liberals have decided to give themselves a majority on the committee. Six of the ten seats are occupied by Liberals, three were meted out to the Conservatives and one to the NDP. The Bloc and Green Party will be permitted a seat, but they will not be allowed to vote.

Public reaction to this was decidedly negative. This is the sort of committee with which you ram something through, not arrive at consensus. This ploy by the Liberal government might jeopardize any chance reform has for legitimacy. It also sets a terrible precedent that any majority government can make major changes to the electoral system on their own.

It didn't, and doesn't, have to be that way. The Liberal reformers have allies in the progressive opposition parties. Both the NDP and Greens are hungry for electoral reform. The Conservatives are likely bad faith partners in this exercise. Their current electoral calculus means that any reform will likely cause them to lose seats and make it more difficult for them to form government. Likewise the Bloc is threatened by something like proportional representation as a regional party.

While the NDP and Greens would gladly sign on to a package for proportional representation it is not clear that the Liberals are willing to accept any form of PR. Trudeau has publicly expressed a preference for the ranked ballot option. It is widely assumed that this option would be a tremendous benefit to Liberals. A ranked or preferential ballot could be implemented without widespread changes to the rest of electoral system and so perhaps this is where the Liberals have been leading all along.

The way the committee will function is still uncertain. Monsef said the committee will evaluate systems based on five principles: effectiveness and legitimacy, engagement, accessibility and inclusiveness, integrity and local representation. Those aren't the five I would have chosen, but there you have it.

The risk of failure here is very high. The public and opposition parties could be easily alienated and any reforms seem an underhanded way to secure power for the Liberals. As a person who wants to see electoral reform I fear the Liberals have gotten off to such a ham-fisted start that it might already be too late to save.


Simon Rasmussen said...

Are they not just constituting a Commons committee with typical party representation, plus Greens and Bloc non voting? I don't see how this can be viewed as illegitimate or rigged given that every other piece of House business is transacted in the same way. I'm right there with you on wanting to see a reform, but I struggle with how else to compose a committee without it either being ad hoc and outside of the standing orders of the House, or based on PR a la Nathan Cullen (which presumes a certain outcome that may not gel with getting broad consensus on a change).

SJL said...

Thanks Simon, Kady O'Malley offered a take on how this could be done here: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/kady-can-this-special-committee-on-electoral-reform-be-saved-spoiler-alert-maybe-but-maybe-not

I am not familiar enough with standing orders, but as a advisory committee I would think its composition is more flexible than a standard parliamentary committee.

S.A.Andrews said...

I believe the point Steven was trying to make was that unlike most of the business the House transacts on a daily basis, electoral reform has the potential to alter the fundamental underpinnings of the Canadian political system. Allowing any party to conduct such a weighty project solely by the rules of majoritarian democracy threatens to create a dangerous precedent whereby any government with sufficient support can change the rules to suit their needs. If reform is to have any hope of being seen as legitimate, as broad a consensus as possible must be the goal. The mechanisms of elections in Canada effect every party equally, and any dissent or accusation of corruption may poison the well far for future reform and for the political system itself.