The Trudeau government launched its electoral reform project on July 7 with the appearance of Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef in front of a Commons committee. The committee is supposed to lead a national conversation and report to the House by December. The country should aim to reach a conclusion and reform its elections without holding a referendum.
Canadian elections have changed enormously over the last century and a half. At Confederation, voting was restricted to male British subjects over age 21, though election fraud was so widespread that dead persons and absentees made up a large part of many voter lists. Electors voted by attending a public gathering and standing up to cast their vote orally. Each provincial legislature made the rules for federal elections in that province. First Nations people were forbidden to vote on the Prairies. People of Chinese or Japanese origin were excluded in British Columbia. Government employees could not vote in the Atlantic provinces.
Almost every Parliament from then until today has amended the Elections Act, so that process has now changed beyond recognition. Ruling parties typically change the rules to favour their candidates. No party has ever succeeded in keeping itself in power forever by electoral jiggery-pokery – though not for want of trying. When a ruling party goes too far in torquing the rules to its own advantage, it pays the political price of public revulsion.
In 149 years of electoral reforms, Canada has never held a referendum on Elections Act changes. The ordinary political process has gradually curbed the worst excesses of cynical backroom operators. Each party has used its turn in power to correct the abuses it complained of during its years in opposition. By this incremental, evolutionary method, messy though it is, Canada has improved its elections.
A referendum is most likely to reject any conceivable reform plan because there are many possible systems, all of which have some merit and each of which will find supporters. Election rules are intensely interesting to politicians and the backroom operators who get them elected, but the rest of humanity will quickly tire of the subject. Turnout for an electoral reform referendum is likely to be small. Those who dislike a proposed new system will vote to block it. The rest will pay little attention. Electoral reform attempts in British Columbia in 2005 and 2009 and in Ontario in 2007 were blocked by negative referendums – not because the existing system is perfect but because reaching agreement on a new one is difficult.
The Conservative party in Parliament wants a referendum. It has offered no advice on the substance of electoral reform, but has taken refuge in the demand for a referendum – a means of blocking reform. In power, the Conservatives were happy to amend the Elections Act so as to obstruct voting by whole categories of people who would probably not vote Tory. Now that they are in opposition, suddenly a referendum is required.
The government is proposing a set of high-minded principles that should guide electoral reform: restore effectiveness and legitimacy of voting, encourage engagement, support accessibility, safeguard integrity and preserve local representation. These are excellent principles, but Canadians joining the conversation should not be naive: the people who will take the most interest in electoral reform are the election mechanics in each party whose purpose is to win elections.
The high-minded principles will probably be reflected in the coming six months of national debate, but those mechanics may have the last word.
An editorial from the Winnipeg Free Press (distributed by The Canadian Press)