National Column: Electoral reform talks are in full swing, sort of

by Paul Wells

Now we’re cooking with grease. After a lazy summer during which Canadians could not be made to care about anything in particular in any great number, there will soon be an electoral-reform town hall at a location near you.

A government website lists 12 public events for next Tuesday, 11 for Wednesday, 10 for Thursday. Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic and Green MPs are organizing town hall-style events. Some MPs are having several on successive nights in different parts of their ridings.

Maryam Monsef, the Trudeau government’s lead minister on changes to the electoral system, has launched a cross-country tour to ask people for opinions on changing the way we elect governments. Her effort will soon be – supplemented by? competing with? – that of the special Commons committee on electoral reform, which is launching its own national listening tour.

And so a nation rises up to change the way it picks its governments. Just kidding. Actually, the whole thing is pretty close to a shambles. Monsef kicked off her tour in Iqaluit, on a Monday morning with only a few days’ notice. Amazingly, almost nobody showed up. And the CBC reports that Inuktitut translation, which is really not a luxury in Iqaluit, was unavailable for those who did come. The minister, who seems conscientious, promised to do better next time.

Meanwhile, when it comes to electoral reform, this whole country has been behaving like a Monday morning in Iqaluit. Pollster Darrell Bricker told the Commons committee that he found three respondents in 100 who were following this whole process closely. They were disproportionately older affluent white men. Monsef’s stated belief is that we already hear way too much from older affluent white men. But a month-long burst of town halls, 100 people here and there, seems unlikely to change the numbers much.

The witnesses who did show up before the Commons committee during the Ottawa phase of its work found MPs who were, in the loudest cases, looking for support, not evidence.

Scott Reid, the Conservative MP for Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, has come alive this year to an extent that is gratifying for anyone who recalls what a quiet lad he was when his party was in power. He is careful to ask each witness whether they believe a referendum is necessary before electoral reform is implemented.

Some say yes. Others say no.

Sometimes Reid gets a consolation prize, as when the former NDP leader Ed Broadbent said no referendum is needed, but broad cross-party consensus within Parliament is. This is fine with Reid because
there can be no consensus. The Conservatives do not want the current first-past-the-post system changed, and since they are shy about saying so, they simply demand a referendum. All the evidence suggests such a vote could be run either quickly or well, but not both. Elizabeth May, who is inexplicably still the leader of the Green Party, is sure of one thing, which is that she doesn’t want any referendum.

The NDP and Liberals are less solidly entrenched on process, but on the substance of the matter their differences are irreconcilable. The NDP wants proportional representation, which makes life easier for
smaller parties. The Liberals prefer a ranked ballot, which ensures that winning parties draw support from more voters. What a coincidence: each change would make life easier for the party that proposes it.

The Trudeau government has stepped up the resources it is dedicating to this debate.

Last month, Mark Kennedy, a former Ottawa Citizen reporter, popped up in the Prime Minister’s Office as a communications adviser on electoral reform. The cabinet committee handling the electoral-reform file got a fresh infusion of new members.

This is a salvage operation, and I don’t see how it can work. A new PMO staffer and a longer committee table won’t create consensus or public interest where none exist. Opposition MPs suspect the Liberals are obsessed with ramming the ranked-ballot system through, and that they will do anything to get there.

This is all backward. Liberals I talk to don’t see any change as being worth a fight. Which means it’s hard to imagine any major change happening.

Trudeau did promise the 2015 election would be the last under first-past-the-post. Breaking that promise will be embarrassing. Keeping it seems impossible. Providentially, the Commons committee heard on
Thursday from witnesses who said it’s more important to do this right than to do it quickly. That’s the sort of line that will come in handy when the reform process collapses.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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