National Column: Coffee, tea or electoral reform?

by Paul Wells

“Congratulations! You have decided to host a dialogue on Canadian federal electoral reform,” I read in the federal government’s new handbook, Your Guide to Hosting a Successful Dialogue on Canadian Federal Electoral Reform, as I walked up Parliament Hill on Thursday.

Well, not so fast. All I’d really decided to do was to spend the morning sitting in the media seats and listening, as the special Commons committee charged with studying our electoral system held its second day of meetings on Parliament Hill.

But the big news from the first day of meetings was that Maryam Monsef, the eternal optimist who is Canada’s minister of democratic institutions, had released this handbook to help ordinary Canadians hold their own meetings, in kitchens and church halls across the nation, to discuss electoral reform. Because, you know, you want to.

So I thought Monsef’s handbook would be a handy reference as I watched your MPs try to figure out how we should elect governments.

“Select a date and time that will work for you and your intended audience,” it said in the book. How about right now? Right now would do fine.

“Be creative in taking advantage of local assets to keep costs low,” the handbook said. “The ideal room is an open, bright, welcoming space.” The committee had sure followed that advice. This meeting was in the Reading Room of Parliament’s Centre Block, one of the most opulent rooms in Ottawa.

“Place signage (if necessary).” And indeed, a sign outside the committee room told me I’d come to the right place. “Consider creating and promoting a special hashtag for your event.” Check – the committee’s hashtag is #ERRE, for “electoral reform/ rÈforme Èlectorale.”

The book suggests a separate area for refreshments. Muffins, coffee and herbal tea decorated a table at the back of the room. Somebody had finished off the muffins before I went back to look. Fortune favours the bold.

From here on in, the handbook and the MPs parted company quite definitively. The handbook calls on participants in electoral-reform kitchen parties, or garage jams, or whatever to break off repeatedly into groups of three. Like, repeatedly. “Form a new group of three,” it says, and give each person three minutes to answer these questions: “Do you and/or the people you know usually vote in elections? Why or why not?”

Beep! “Form a new group of three” and try this one: Are “certain groups . . . excluded” from our elections? “What do you feel could be done” to fix this?

Beep! “Form a new group of three” and tackle another question: “How do you feel about electronic voting? Why?”

The MPs declined repeatedly to form new groups of three. Also as far as I could tell nobody took notes on a whiteboard. The committee had gone rogue.

The morning’s main witness was Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, cheerful and sardonic in long exchanges with the MPs, ready to retire this year after nearly a decade on the job.

His message was that time grows short. If the electoral system is to be overhauled, voters will need more than a year prior to an election to learn its details amid everything else they do in their lives. If there is to be a referendum on proposed changes, as the Conservatives hope, that’ll take six months more. And if a new system requires that federal ridings be redistributed, add many more months on top of everything else. The last redistribution took more than two years from soup to nuts.

Mayrand is a big fan of online voting for disabled voters and those who are distant from major centres, but it’s tricky to implement and, as he reminded the MPs, as of now he has no plan to do so for the 2019 election. Add that to the list.

Scott Reid, leading the question round for the Conservatives, asked when Mayrand needs a new law in place if he is to be ready for 2019. “We need at least two years,” Mayrand said. But if you complicate the process with extra bells and whistles, “it could compromise the election.” Elections Canada uses 40 different information-technology systems. Most would need to be overhauled for any new electoral process. “The timelines I am mentioning are not elastic.”

It is not only for Mayrand that time grows short. This special committee will not leave Ottawa to travel the land before September. It must begin preparing its final report a month or two later, if it is to inform government legislation in time for Mayrand’s deadlines.

Monsef is steadfast in her belief that this committee and a nationwide burst of spontaneous “dialogues” in kitchens and hay barns will reach neglected populations that no more formal consultation could hope to reach. Her handbook suggests people use another special hashtag, #EngagedInER, to show they’re on board with this juggernaut.

A day after the handbook appeared, the hashtag had been used six times on all of Twitter. Better get the lead out.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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