National Column: NDP brief keeps electoral reform wide open

by Chantal Hebert

If one had to take away just one thing from the NDP’s just-released submission on electoral reform, it is that it strenuously avoids tracing a party line in the sand.

As leader, Thomas Mulcair campaigned on a mixed-member proportional system. But in its brief, the NDP carefully avoids pinning itself down to a specific system to the exclusion of others, or to a process to achieve a reform.

Instead, the NDP reports that an overwhelming majority of those who attended the 40 or so town halls it held over the summer want a more proportional system.

That is only groundbreaking until one considers that voters who have no quarrels with the first-past-the-post system probably did not sacrifice a summer evening to dream up a different approach to electing members of the House of Commons.

Similarly, the New Democrats note that most participants want a “fair” and “legitimate” process; a notion that it interprets to mean anything between moving to a new system with multi-party support to a national referendum.

For a party that has spent years tilling the electoral reform field, this submission is remarkably free of specifics. The Liberals, by comparison, have been at this for a very short time. The first-past-the-post system has delivered more majorities to the Liberal party than to any of its rivals and Justin Trudeau is its first leader to commit to doing away with it.

But the NDP brief comes just as negotiations are about to get underway between the members of a
parliamentary committee tasked with making recommendations on electoral reform to the government by Dec. 1. At that point, time will be of the essence as Elections Canada needs a considerable amount of lead time to put a new system in place in time for 2019.

Although the Liberals hold the most seats (five) on the 12-member committee, they do not have a
majority. There cannot be a majority report absent an alliance between two or more of the five parties at the table.

The Conservatives are unlikely to be part of any deal. They have drawn their line in the sand on process.

For the official Opposition, any move to a different voting system has to be approved by a majority of Canadians through a national referendum. If that sounds like a long shot, it is because that is what the Conservatives hope it to be. From their perspective, the current first-past-the-post system best serves their party.

On paper, the Liberals, given their governing majority, always have the option of going it alone – imposing a preferred voting system through legislation. But that path would be fraught with difficulties.

Polls have shown that a majority of Canadians support the Conservative contention that an electoral reform of this magnitude should be put to a referendum.

Some experts have argued that moving to a new federal voting system could require a constitutional amendment.

It is far from certain that an electoral reform bill backed by only the Liberals would find timely support in the Senate.

There is precedent for the upper house to hold out on a major government plan until Canadians have had a say through a vote. At the time of the 1988 free-trade debate, the Liberal majority in the Senate refused to approve Brian Mulroney’s trade deal until an election had been held.

The scenario of unilateral Liberal action would also consume a fair amount of political capital on a file that is ultimately secondary to both the partisan and the policy interests of the current government.

This is one promise many Liberals would be happy enough to see Trudeau ditch, as long as he and the government did not have to take the blame for pulling the plug.

An all-party parliamentary committee deadlocked on the issue of the voting system would offer the government a relatively easy way out.

The NDP describes its brief as setting out the parameters within which its caucus would support a reform and a process to achieve it. If those parameters read like you could run a truck through them, it’s because keeping Trudeau from backtracking from his promise to change the voting system in time for the 2019 election is also the point.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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