National Column: Electoral reform could heat up

by Chantal Hebert

Justin Trudeau’s government will not lack for hard choices to make between now and the summer adjournment of Parliament. In most cases, though, the road from platform promise to actual legislation will be if not free of bumps at least pretty straightforward.

A government that holds a majority in the House of Commons needs not fear being toppled by the opposition over a red-ink budget. A ruling party that has the power to take control of the Senate out of opposition hands will have only itself to blame if it cannot make the upper house function to its legislative advantage.

While the Liberal capacity to secure provincial co-operation on health care, pension reform, climate change and medically assisted suicide will be tested, Trudeau does not lack for allies at the first ministers’ table.

Even on the divisive pipeline file, there is a regulatory process in place that will, in the short term, provide the government with some breathing room.

By comparison, electoral reform is an outlier. Trudeau has promised to deliver a different voting system in time for the 2019 election, so speed is presumably of the essence. But there is no ready-made process to deliver as major an electoral reform in a manner that inspires confidence in its legitimacy.

The only consensus so far is that a governing party supported by a minority of voters should not use its parliamentary majority to unilaterally change the way MPs are elected. In its post-election statements the government has implied that it sees the need to look beyond its own ranks for support for an alternative to the first-past-the-post system.

That still leaves a vocal chorus led by but not exclusively made up of Conservatives to argue that nothing short of a referendum would suffice to legitimize the introduction of a different voting system.

In support of their case, the pro-referendum advocates point to the provinces that undertook similar reforms. Their plans were contingent on securing the approval of a substantial majority of the electorate.

There are good reasons to think twice before going down the road to a national referendum but the fact that no province managed to earn enough popular support to achieve electoral reform is not one of them.

A more serious argument lies in the history of national referendums in Canada. It is short but anything but sweet.

The last time the federal government held a full-fledged referendum goes back to the Second World War. It dealt with whether military service should be made mandatory. A majority in the rest of Canada voted yes while a majority in Quebec voted no. The subsequent imposition of conscription did lasting damage to the Quebec-Canada relationship.

It was to avoid reopening those old wounds that the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional accord was conducted by the federal government in the rest of Canada and separately, under the auspices of the Quebec government, in that province.

Had the accord passed in the other provinces and not in Quebec rather than be rejected across the board, Canada would have had an acute unity crisis on its hands. The notion that one region could impose its will on another will almost inevitably resurface in the context of a future federal referendum.

At first glance, electoral reform is hardly as divisive an issue as conscription or constitutional change.

Indeed, a poll recently conducted by Abacus found that a full third of Canadians have no strong feelings about it.

But if a poll had been taken on the terms of constitutional reconciliation with Quebec early on in the Meech process it would probably have come up with a similar mix of benign indifference and passive acceptance.

As opposed to voters in general, most members of Canada’s political class tend to care passionately about any reform liable to affect their election prospects. Canadians got a token of that when a Conservative move to take away the parties’ per-vote subsidy acted as an accelerant for the parliamentary crisis that almost cost Stephen Harper his second minority government in 2008.

The only certainty about the electoral reform debate over the Liberal electoral promise is that its temperature will rise steadily over time, especially if it is brought to the front burner of a national referendum.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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