by Alex Boutilier

PM’s campaign pledge to end first-past-the-post system likely to get more complicated

The Liberals will abandon their plans to overhaul Canada’s electoral system if they don’t have widespread public support, Minister Maryam Monsef says.

But Monsef said it’s up for debate how exactly the Liberals will gauge public support on whatever new system they propose.

“Frankly, that’s the debate. And we will not proceed with any changes without the broad buy-in of the people of this country,” Monsef told the Star at her party’s policy convention in Winnipeg Saturday.

“It means that there needs to be a conversation in the House of Commons including all parties. It’s an opportunity for us to engage in debate about how to move forward in the 21st century.”

“So Canadians can rest assured that unless we have their broad buy-in, we’re not moving forward with any changes,” Monsef later added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged that 2015 would be Canada’s last election under first-past-the-post, a system that has governed Canadian elections since the country was formed.

Critics of the so-called winner-take-all system say it skews the will of voters, allowing majority governments to be formed without a majority of the popular vote. It could also lead to strategic voting, where voters sacrifice their personal preference to try and defeat a government.

The Liberals have faced criticism for failing to move quicker on the file, since Elections Canada needs years to prepare for a new voting system in 2019. Seven months after the Liberals formed government, a committee still has not been struck.

Monsef faced further criticism for proposing a committee where the Liberals would have the final say on any proposed system. When asked if she needs the support of at least one other party for the new system to have legitimacy, Monsef said the Liberals will continue to listen to Canadians.

“Did you hear what the prime minister said today at convention? That we were elected to listen to Canadians?” Monsef said. “And we’ll continue to do that. As far as any changes around democratic reform, we’re not going to proceed with any changes unless we have broad support.”

Speaking to reporters earlier on Saturday, Trudeau was asked if the Liberals will need the support of at least one other party for their new electoral system to be legitimate in the eyes of Canadians.

“We’ve been working very, very hard to demonstrate that our approach is to listen to Canadians, to consult with Canadians, as we talk about the values that underpin our electoral process and ultimately our system of government,” Trudeau told reporters. “So how we make sure that we’re including questions and concerns people may have about various options is integral to be being successful in improving our electoral system.”

Monsef told the Star that there are people within the Liberal party, both elected and not, who would prefer to see the first-past-the-post system maintained.

After all, the Liberals won a large majority government in 2015 with just under 40 per cent of the popular vote, as the Conservatives did in 2011.

“We’re a diverse party. You saw in (the convention) – we have people from all walks of life, representing the diversity of this country,” said Monsef. “So it’s natural to have, within this group, a wide range of opinion. And I think that’s what makes our party strong.”

The New Democrats’ democratic reform critic, Nathan Cullen, said the lingering confusion about how the Liberals are handling the file are contributing to fears a new system would disproportionately benefit government.

“Until we have a concrete understanding of how this is going to work, and how (Monsef) can calm the fears that the Liberals will simply force through a system that favours Liberals, until we have something real, then that suspicion will remain,” Cullen said.

“The words are nice, but the numbers (on the committee) don’t lie.”

Conservative critic Scott Reid could not immediately be reached. The Conservatives appear to support the status quo, but have demanded that any fundamental change to Canada’s voting system requires a national referendum. The Liberals have resisted that call, saying referendums aren’t the only way to test the will of Canadians, but have not explicitly ruled out a national vote.

The New Democrats have long called for a form of proportional representation, which they argue would better reflect the will of voters. But Cullen has recently said that any improvement on the current system would be welcome.

Cullen also proposed a committee structure that would require at least one other party to support the Liberals’ proposal, an approach ultimately rejected by the Liberals, who say the committee has to reflect the current membership elected under first-past-the-post, despite wanting to ultimately change the system.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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