National Column: Electoral reform appears destined to fail

Chantal Hébert

Among Justin Trudeau’s commitments, few are as time-sensitive as his promise to have a new voting system in place for the 2019 federal election.

And so, as the weeks turned into months and eventually into more than half a year without any action from the new government, questions arose as to how committed the Liberals were to a promise they had made when they were twice-removed from power.

Elections Canada needs about two years to get a new voting system up and running for the 2019 campaign.

Presuming that the Liberals promised electoral reform in good faith, only the search for a way to invest as much legitimacy as possible in the process could justify the delay.

Instead, on Wednesday, the mountain gave birth to a mouse in the shape of a parliamentary committee that is special only in name. Its make-up replicates the very distortions that the Liberals claim to want to redress through electoral reform.

Like every other committee on Parliament Hill, it will feature a Liberal majority made up, in this case, of six government MPs, with three Conservatives and one New Democrat rounding up the lot. The Bloc
Quebecois and the Green Party have been each assigned a seat, albeit at the equivalent of the children’s table. Their respective representative will have no voting rights.

The latter is generous only by the standard of the parliamentary rule that denies official status and de facto committee spots to parties that fail to elect at least 12 MPs.

But in the larger picture, the condescending Liberal approach to the place of the smaller parties in the electoral reform debate amounts to treating the 1.5 million Canadians who supported the Bloc and the
Green Party last fall as second-tier voters. Surely on a matter that affects the way Canada’s electoral life is governed, voters should be able to expect that MPs be allowed to weigh in on an equal basis, regardless of partisan affiliation.

As if Liberal control of the committee was not enough, there is no commitment on the part of the government that it would use its majority to introduce a new voting system unilaterally and no pledge to submit the result to a plebiscite before implementing it.

If only based on the calendar, there is no time to both bring a new voting system to a referendum and put it in place for the next federal election. A committee set up on the eve of the dead political season that is the Canadian summer will already have to take more than a few shortcuts if it is going to a) consult widely and b) come up with a recommendation in time for a Dec. 1 deadline.

Mind you, based on the recent experience of the MPs and senators who toiled diligently on the medically assisted death file, only to see the thrust of their report ignored by the government, this committee could amount to little more than a make-work project designed to allow the Liberals to check an item off their bucket list.

There has for a long time been an implicit convention that in matters that pertain to the elections law, governments should strive to secure a consensus that extends beyond their own ranks.

Yes, the Conservatives broke that convention when they last overhauled the election law. But the Liberals promised to do better. Their actions on the electoral reform front so far fall short of that commitment.

Where legitimacy should have been striven for, opposition suspicions that the Liberals want to use this process to either give their party a permanent electoral edge or more simply to sabotage it have instead been reinforced.

It is an open secret that more than a few Liberals would not be unhappy to see the entire electoral plan founder – as long as they could blame someone else for it.

Looking at how Trudeau has stacked the electoral reform deck, a cynic could conclude that his bid to move to a different voting system is programmed to fail if not in the Liberal-controlled House of Commons, then in a Senate conveniently once-removed from the government.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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