Ottawa may open debate on electoral reforms

Published November 15th 2004 in The Globe and Mail
 federal plan is being developed that could lead to the launch of a sweeping review of the electoral system by opening up a national debate on everything from the first-past-the-post system to voter malaise.

Sources have told The Globe and Mail that Liberal deputy House leader Mauril Belanger is preparing a blueprint that would provide the public with a forum where it could express its views about the system, including the first-past-the-post structure under which the House of Commons is elected. Crucial issues like declining voter participation, youth engagement, fixed-date elections and political finance reform would also be open to discussion.

The minister has yet, however, to have his idea approved by Prime Minister Paul Martin, who has not seen Mr. Belanger's proposal. Approving the plan is fraught with risks for Mr. Martin, because, once he starts the process he would be bound to seriously consider its recommendations, which may not play to the Liberals' political advantage.

If it goes ahead, Ottawa would be following in the footsteps of several Canadian provinces, which are deep into their own deliberations over how to change their systems.

Sources said one notion being considered by the minister is for a series of five or so regional town-hall meetings, where citizens, academics and other groups would be asked to provide their views and suggest changes.

"It's an idea to take the pulse of the nation," said a source, who asked not be identified.

"The curve has been set by the provinces. We're simply following it."

A citizens assembly in British Columbia, for example, has already suggested that the province's traditional voting structure, which sees members elected in riding-by-riding competitions, be replaced by the single transferable ballot, a system that allows for multiple members to be elected from much larger geographical constituencies.

Residents will vote on the idea in a provincial referendum next spring.

Sources said the deliberations could be fashioned along the lines of those featured during the recent commission on health care, led by former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow. Mr. Romanow held public meetings as well as a massive focus group exercise, which presented participants with specific choices on what they wanted to see in a reformed health system.

The results of the work would be simply presented as information to Mr. Martin, and could conceivably become part of the government's platform for the next election.

The NDP — which would be warm to the idea of a review — has been in the forefront of the discussion on electoral reform and supports introducing proportional representation to the system. PR, as it is known, is a system under which the number of seats a party wins is fixed by the percentage of popular vote it garners. In other words, a party receiving 15 per cent of the votes would receive 15 per cent of the seats to the House of Commons.

PR would help smaller parties like the NDP, while reducing the seats of parties like the Liberals. The government, for example, earned 45 per cent of the votes in Ontario in the previous election, and came away with 75 per cent of the seats.

Mr. Belanger was given his mandate to look into reform issues when appointed by Mr. Martin in the summer. Sources said the fact that the PM has kept up a running interest in the issue could make it difficult for him to reject some sort of a public process. Mr. Martin also could have done away with the portfolio in the summer cabinet shuffle.

The Prime Minister also gave democratic transformation a boost in the recent Throne Speech when he bound his government to examine "the need and options for reform of our democratic institutions, including electoral reform."

The House of Commons standing committee on procedure and house affairs has also been asked to develop a process to study the issue.

If Mr. Belanger gets the nod, he could kick off the process as early as January.

Later this week, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is expected to announce the formation of a citizens assembly to look into the issue. Other provinces dealing with the issue include New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec.