Electoral reforms delayed
Government to miss deadline set by MPs, putting Liberal-NDP relations at some risk

By Bill Curry
Published September 21st 2005 in Globe and Mail
OTTAWA -- Democratic Reform Minister Mauril Bélanger told The Globe and Mail yesterday the government will not meet a timeline recommended by MPs for proposing changes to Canada's voting system, a move that threatens to damage relations between the Liberals and the NDP on the eve of the minority Parliament's return.

The Commons procedure committee issued an all-party report in June that called on the government to strike two committees no later than Oct. 1 to study voting reform and make recommendations by Feb. 28, 2006.

One of the committees would be made up of MPs, while a subordinate committee would be made up of citizens. The original timeline would likely have produced clear proposals before the next federal election, should the government survive as long as the Liberals envision.

But Mr. Bélanger said the government wants to take the time to get the issue right and will propose a timeline that goes beyond the next election. Cabinet has yet to make a decision on the issue, but will do so by Oct. 20, he said.

"These responses require the approval of Cabinet, and we're in the throes of processing a response," he said. "At this point, I can pretty well confirm we are not going to meet the timelines that the committee suggested for a number of reasons. We are going to take whatever time is required to do this properly and not jump to conclusions."

The process adopted by the Commons committee was based on a proposal from NDP MP Ed Broadbent, who has made voting reform his top priority. The veteran MP declined to comment yesterday because he was in the process of drafting a "harshly worded" letter that he intends to release today.

The NDP has long advocated the replacement of Canada's first-past-the post voting system with one based on proportional representation, in which the percentage of the popular vote received by each party would determine the number of seats won in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Paul Martin has promised to call a federal election within 30 days of the publication of the final report of the public inquiry into the sponsorship program, which is expected Feb. 1, 2006.

Witnesses before the inquiry have said the federal government bypassed contracting rules to reward Liberal-friendly advertising agencies.

Mr. Bélanger said the creation of a citizens committee would involve a significant expense and the government intends to follow all the rules when it issues contracts to provide services for the committee.

"There are such things as procurement regulations and necessities that cannot be avoided," he said. Some Treasury Board guidelines require as many as 70 days to receive competing bids, he said.

Proportional representation is widely seen as a system that would favour smaller parties, such as the NDP and Green Party, while diminishing the number of seats for larger parties, such as the Liberals and the Conservatives.

Mr. Bélanger said he was keeping a close eye on recent elections in Germany and New Zealand, where voting systems based on proportional representation led to fighting among the political parties as to which one won the election.