Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef hosted a community dialogue in Victoria this past Thursday, billed as the last chance to have your say on electoral reform. The room was packed, and the vast majority of participants voiced their strong desire for some form of proportional representation.
Yet according to Minister Monsef, that's not the case across Canada.
When asked how she could reassure Canadians in light of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent comments — hinting at second thoughts about his promise that 2015 would be the last election under First Past the Post — her answers were contradictory.
On the one hand she said that the Liberal government is not backpedalling on their very explicit promise to introduce legislation to enact electoral reform in their first 18 months as government. But, on the other hand, she defended Trudeau’s comments, saying that they cannot move forward without broad support from Canadians and that she did not see the same appetite for electoral change as she saw in 2015.
Many Canadians trusted the government would keep its promise
It did not seem to occur to Minister Monsef that the majority of Canadians might not be clamoring for electoral reform precisely because the Liberal party already vowed to carry it out and, until recently, appeared to be moving forward on that promise. Many Canadian citizens (perhaps naively) trusted their government to follow through on this commitment, and had not realized they needed to continue to fight for what they had already been promised.
It also did not appear that the minister considered the results from the last election to constitute broad support, despite the fact that 62.7 per cent of Canadians voted for parties that explicitly promised electoral reform (39.5 per cent of Canadians voted for the Liberals; 19.7 per cent for the NDP; and 3.5 per cent for the Greens).
Electoral reform is a complex topic and it is not surprising that many Canadians are not paying close attention or are not aware of all the options on the table. Some key things to note:
- Our current system is called First Past the Post, and it tends to result in false majority governments, like the current one where the Liberals got 39.5 per cent of the vote but acquired 54.4 per cent of the seats and therefore 100 per cent of the power.
- The Liberals have previously expressed support for Alternative Vote (also called Ranked Ballot or Preferential Ballot), a system that results in even larger false majorities and favours the Liberal Party. If the last election had used Alternative Vote, it is projected that the Liberals would have received 224 seats instead of the 184 seats they received under First Past the Post.
- There are a number of different Proportional Representation models, but in general they aim to have the percentage of the popular vote align with the percentage of seats each party gets in Parliament. Under Proportional Representation, the Liberals would have received 134 seats (39.6 per cent of the total seats) instead of the 184 seats they received under First Past the Post.
Trudeau Liberals lulled Canadians into false sense of security
The community consultation was curious on a number of fronts. The explanation of one of the proportional models was rushed, skipping over important details. The consultation organizers also handed out paper forms to fill out that didn't ask participants to identify their preferred electoral system.
But most concerning was the minister’s response to closing questions, where she expressed that despite her and the prime minister’s “deep” commitment to electoral reform, they may not move forward on it. She told the audience that during her consultations she had not heard “overwhelming” support for electoral reform from Canadians, echoing the prime minister’s statement that under Stephen Harper, Canadians were vocally demanding electoral reform, but now the desire for electoral change has cooled.
I suggest that what Minister Monsef and the prime minister fail to take into account is that the Canadians who seem satisfied, are satisfied with a government that promised electoral reform. The federal Liberals lulled Canadians into a false sense of satisfaction with unequivocal promises. Now they have turned around and are using their approval ratings as a pretext for breaking their word.
If nothing else, the community consultation made it clear that if Canadians want electoral reform, they cannot rely on the Liberals to do it of their own accord. And, if they want Proportional Representation, Canadians will have to fight tooth and nail against a Liberal Government who is enjoying their false majority.
Laurel Collins is an instructor in Political Sociology and Social Justice Studies at the University of Victoria.
There is one final consultation on electoral reform with Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef, a live digital town hall on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 at 7pm ET (4pm PST). It will be presented through Huffington Post Canada Facebook Live.