Electoral reform should be put to a referendum

There has been a lot of premature skepticism about Justin Trudeau's ability to deliver on his platform this past week.

There has been a lot of premature skepticism about Justin Trudeau’s ability to deliver on his platform this past week. But of the various promises made by his party during the recent election campaign the implementation of a new electoral system by the time we next go to the polls may be the most challenging.

In its platform the federal Liberal Party pledged that the election of 2015 will be the “last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” The soon-to-be-governing party promises to create an “all-party parliamentary committee” to study the issue and “within 18 months of forming government… will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.”

Don’t get me wrong: our first-past-the-post system is fundamentally broken. Yet again we will – for the next four years – have a government that won 100 per cent of the power with 39.5 per cent of the vote. Nowhere was the dysfunction of the system more apparent than in the province of Quebec, where the Liberals were able to pick up a whopping 40 out of 78 seats (51 per cent) with a measly 35.5 per cent of the votes due to the four-way split with the Conservatives, NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. This is a system in desperate need of repair.

But democracy is a delicate thing, and allowing politicians to meddle with the rules represents the a very serious conflict of interest. It also sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

Not only that, but there is a conundrum inherent in changing our electoral system by legislation. Implicit in the notion that our system is in need of repair is the suggestion that the status quo is somehow lacking in legitimacy. So how can a new system be accorded legitimacy when it was crafted by a government elected under a system already lacking in legitimacy?

That lack of legitimacy might be overcome if there was broad consensus among all of the parties about where we go from here. But despite all the talk of “sunny days,” I am skeptical that we are on the cusp of a new post-partisan era where political differences dissolve and cooperation becomes the new modus operandi in Ottawa.

Along that vein, I doubt that will emerge from the “all-party parliamentary committee” the Liberals have proposed will be anything close to a consensus. The Conservatives in particular have every incentive to not only oppose any sort of change but scream foul about whatever is proposed.

Yes the Conservative Party was unsuccessful this time around, but there appears to be something of a ceiling and floor to their vote share and they are much better served by the status quo than anything more proportional or anything that allows voters to pick a “second choice” – two of the options the committee will no doubt explore. Moreover, since they lack any natural allies in Parliament, if the best the Conservatives could muster would be minority governments in the future they would face great challenges in ever advancing a small “C” conservative agenda.

The NDP’s position will be the exact opposite. If the last two elections have shown us anything it is the structural challenges that party faces if it ever hopes to take power under our system. Anything less than a total overhaul will be inadequate to the NDP.

There are legal limitations on what can be implemented as well. Some aspects of our electoral system are enshrined in the constitution. The Constitution states that no province shall have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate, and (subject to that rule) also requires that the provinces be proportionately represented in the House of Commons. These rules do not preclude electoral reform but they do constrain the choices. Incidentally this means that without a significant increase in the number of seats in the commons, the Yukon – along with the other territories and P.E.I. – will continue to enjoy our grossly disproportionate representation in the House, whatever the outcome.

The provinces which have explored the idea of electoral reform in the past – P.E.I., Ontario and British Columbia – put the proposed change to the voters through a referendum. In each case the changes were rejected by the public, but the notion that electoral reform must be put to the voters is sound. Politicians – with a vested interested in maintaining power – should not have the authority to unilaterally tinker with the rules. I would argue that in order for any new system to have any sort legitimacy, the Trudeau-led Liberal government will need to so as well.

I don’t fault Trudeau for trying. I would have preferred that he had attached the qualifier that he would “try” to make the election of 2015 the “last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system” and have been explicit that any new system would be put to the voters before our next scheduled trip to the polls in 2019. But politics being politics, such a qualification would inevitably have been met predictable howls that he was waffling and insincere – nuance and acknowledgements of the limitations of power being out of style in contemporary politics. And he should be credited for being willing to advance the idea, despite the fact that the Liberals has been well served by the first-past-the-post system, having been in power longer than anyone else since Confederation.

But not only must the new government come up with an alternative to our current system, it needs a lot of people to buy in to whatever the committee comes up with. I don’t anticipate that being easy.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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