National Column: Electoral reform continues to nag Trudeau

by Chantal Hebert

With every new development on the electoral reform front the disconnect between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s words on the promised introduction of a new voting system and his government’s actions is more glaring.

Such was again the case this week as the government reported on the public response to the online consultation it held over the holidays.

The discretion that attended the release was inversely proportional to the fanfare that had attended the launch of the exercise last month. It failed to inspire a 140-character tweet to flag its existence from Karina Gould, the incoming minister of democratic institutions.

That may be because a mountain predictably gave birth to a mouse. Although an invitation to participate in the consultation was mailed to every household, less than 3 per cent – or about 400,000 people – answered the call. Or it may be because the answers were not the ones Trudeau was hoping for.

Despite the obvious limitations of the exercise, the result did offer some insights a government looking to craft a consensual narrative on a new voting system could use.

For instance, almost three-quarters of respondents agreed that government policies should take into account the input of several parties, even if – as was pointed out in the questionnaire – it might take longer to get things done.

Sixty-eight per cent believed that a majority government should be open to compromise to the point of reconsidering, if need be, some of its policies.

It is not hard to find between the lines of those answers a healthy dose of skepticism toward the false majorities that the first-past-the-post system produces or the winner-take-all attitude that often results from them. There seems to be a significant market for a less adversarial more constructive modus vivendi between the government and the opposition parties.

Neither of the above made the list of key findings of the executive summary. One had to dig into the report to find them.

In their wisdom its authors chose instead to give pride of place to the response to what may have been one of the least illuminating questions in the consultation, i.e. the relative satisfaction of a majority of respondents with the state of Canada’s democracy.

For the record, by far the largest group – 50 per cent – was only somewhat satisfied.

On its face, that finding is too generic to draw a conclusion other than that Canadians are not on the verge of taking to the streets to change the voting system.

But based on the strength of the support for a more collaborative governance process, it is possible to infer that the satisfaction of a good many respondents might be less qualified under a system liable to force more co-operation on the various parties. Proportional representation fits that particular bill.

It may be that those who filled the questionnaire were those who are most eager to move to a more proportional voting system. Advocates of a reform along those lines did dominate the public hearings held by a parliamentary committee last year. Only a minority favoured the ranked ballot that Trudeau is on the record as liking.

What is certain is that the consultation reinforced neither the prime minister’s preferred option nor the notion that he has the social licence to act unilaterally and impose a system of his own choosing. What, if anything, the government will do with those results is anyone’s guess.

No one can even say for certain whether the appointment of a new minister of democratic institutions earlier this month was meant to restore some momentum to the file or to recruit fresh hands to bury it.

Chances are Gould does not know herself or at least she did not at the time of her appointment. On the heels of her accession to cabinet, the rookie minister refused to repeat Trudeau’s promise that the 2015 election would be the last held under the first-past-the-post system.

By all indications, Gould, like her predecessor Maryam Monsef, has not been given anything approaching a free rein with the file. Perhaps she was waiting on an updated mandate letter from the Prime Minister’s Office to figure out what her marching orders actually are.

As an aside, absent an ambitious electoral reform project, how does one justify the existence of a stand-alone democratic institutions ministry now that the transition to a more independent Senate is well underway?

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

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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