Reforming the system by which we elect members to the House of Commons was an issue for at least one political party in the last federal election, but it is not a new topic. Arguably the most extensive study undertaken on the subject was the 2004 Law Commission Canada report: Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada.
The Law Commission noted that “Canada inherited its first- past-the-post electoral system from Great Britain over 200 years ago.” The authors found that since then our “political, cultural, and economic reality has vastly changed.” The Law Commission recommended that we add “an element of proportionality to our electoral system.”
What is more critical than the recommendations about how we should elect Members of Parliament is the Commission’s recommendation on how to proceed to reform the system. The Commission examined electoral reform experiences in Canada and abroad. The report concludes “that it is crucial that citizens be included in an ongoing dialogue about electoral reform, and that the process of reform include a citizens’ engagement strategy.” That strategy, says the Law Commission, should have “diverse and broad representation, including representation from women, youth, minority groups, and all regions.”
On May 10, 2016, the Minister of Democratic Institutions announced the appointment of a Special Committee on electoral reform. This committee is to include 10 Members of Parliament: six Liberals, three Conservatives, and one NDP. In addition, one Bloc Québécois MP and the lone Green Party MP shall “also be members of the committee but without the right to vote or move any motions.” The Minister’s order calls on that committee to “present its final report no later than December 1, 2016.”
From the perspective of the Law Commission’s Report, the federal government’s Electoral Reform Committee structure and mandate is disturbing and perplexing. Not only does it rely on its majority to control the Committee’s work, it has reduced the role of MPs belonging to parties whose political philosophy was endorsed by 1,424,516 voters in the last election to status of spectators. The government promotes fairness and equality in this country; how can it reconcile its principles with its actions?
The Law Commission’s Report places great emphasis on the process by which the system governing elections in Canada ought to be reformed or amended. The federal government’s make-up of and mandate for the Electoral Reform Committee makes a mockery of the Law Commission’s recommendations.
In the course of the last federal election, the Liberal Party promised that this would be the last first-past-the-post election. It was a reasonable and responsible promise to make in the course of an election. However, as the Law Commission’s Report makes abundantly clear, the consequences of reforming our historic electoral system go to the roots of our democracy. Therefore, the process by which a government proceeds in this regard establishes a powerful precedent.
If the government reforms the voting system by the same process by which it would implement a promise to reform employment insurance or participation in multi-national organizations, that process will serve as the precedent for future amendments to the voting system. Any political party with sufficient representation in Parliament to push through legislation will be able to rely on that precedent. Consider the extent to which procedural precedents have been abused when Parliament is dominated by a single political party; the omnibus bill process is a powerful example. In a spring 2013 Canadian Parliamentary Review article, “Omnibus Bills in Theory and Practice,” political scientist Louis Massicotte cautions that “the logic behind omnibus bills has been pushed to extremes never seen before.”
If the federal government proceeds as outlined in its announcements, how we elect our Parliament will no longer be consistent with democratic principles; it will be owned by whichever political party is in power.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administraotr living in Terrace, B.C.