The fix is in on electoral reform

By Aaron Freeman
Published June 20th 2005 in The Hill Times
Last week's report on electoral reform released by the House Affairs Committee illustrates not only how remote the prospects are for addressing the failures of the federal first-past-the-post electoral system. It also shows how much disdain MPs have for ordinary Canadians.

Last week's report on electoral reform released byadure and House Affairs Committee illustrates not only how remote the prospects are for addressing the failures of the federal first-past-the-post electoral system but it also shows how much disdain MPs have for ordinary Canadians.

The feds are playing catch-up on electoral reform. In B.C., the government gave the job of coming up with a new electoral system directly to voters. One hundred and sixty citizens were selected at random to form a Citizens Assembly. The assembly comprehensively examined alternatives to the current voting system and recommended the province switch to a form of proportional representation (PR) known as single transferable voting (STV).

Under this system, ridings would elect between two and seven members, depending on their population. On the ballot, voters would rank their preferences among the various candidates. If a voter's first choice is not elected, his or her subsequent choices would be counted. This recalculation ensures that virtually every vote "counts," unlike the current system, in which votes are commonly distributed among many candidates, resulting in candidates winning without a majority of votes.

The B.C. electorate was asked to approve of the STV system in the provincial election last month. Although it won 57 per cent of the popular vote, this was three points below the level it needed in order for the system to be adopted by the province.

Ontario has created its own citizens' assembly that will recommend electoral system changes for that province. While New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec did not go as far as B.C. and Ontario in setting up citizens' assemblies to examine electoral reform, each of these three provinces established independent commissions to do so. (P.E.I.'s was chaired by the former chief justice of the province's Supreme Court.) The commissions each recommended that their respective provinces adopt a common PR system known as mixed-member proportional, in which some members of the legislature continue to be elected from geographic districts on a first-past-the-post basis, while other members are elected from a party list.

The House committee report shuns any independent process for changing the federal electoral system, opting instead for MPs to maintain tight control. In a representative democracy, Parliamentarians generally have the final say on policy. But the design of our electoral system has a direct and personal impact on every single MP, leaving each of them in a conflict of interest when deciding how to undertake electoral reform.

The committee report ignores this conflict. While it recommends a "citizen's consultation group" be formed, this group would merely report to another committee made up of MPs, who would make the final recommendations next Feb. 28, unless of course this is pre-empted by a federal election, which appears likely.

Once these recommendations are made, there is no process set out for how or when they will be adopted. Unlike the B.C. and Ontario initiatives, there is no provision for voters to have a direct say on whether a new electoral system will be put in place. It is all left to those who have the most to lose from changes to the system.

The committee was clear that its job was not to recommend a new electoral system. Rather, it was tasked solely with recommending a process for determining a new system. Nonetheless, when it comes to electoral reform, process can easily determine outcome.

A committee of elected members, for example, would likely not have chosen the STV system for B.C. Because STV ridings elect several members each, the role of political parties would be greatly reduced. Voters would pay more attention to individual candidates rather than their parties, because there would usually be more than one candidate from each major party, and voters would be able to pick and choose rather than restricting their vote to one party's candidate.

Much of the cynicism associated with politics in B.C. and elsewhere is aimed at parties, and the B.C. Assembly opted for STV, in part, as a way to reduce party influence and encourage elected representatives to focus more on their constituents. Surely if parties were directly involved in the Citizens' Assembly, they would not have signed off on a system that would be so detrimental to their interests.

The NDP initially advocated the Citizens' Assembly model be applied federally, but once they saw what the B.C. Assembly produced, the party circled the wagons and agreed to the committee's more tightly controlled process.

Only the Conservatives, in their dissenting opinion, provided firm support for using the Citizens' Assembly model. In a paragraph of the Conservatives' report reflecting the best elements of the old Reform-Alliance populism, it notes that the strength of the B.C. model "is that it had been designed by a representative, randomly-selected group which nobody could accuse of being motivated by partisanship, a desire to protect any specific interest or group of special interests, or by pressure to achieve elite accommodation at the expense of the general mood."

The process for deciding how MPs are hired and fired by the electorate should not be under the exclusive control of MPs. The committee should have given citizens a chance.

Aaron Freeman is an independent public policy consultant and co-author, with Craig Forcese, of the forthcoming book, The Laws of Government: The Legal Foundations of Canadian Democracy, published by Irwin Law.