Photo of a student submitting a mock-election ballot. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Photo of a student submitting a mock-election ballot. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Electoral reform committee talks referendums with experts

This week the committee heard from a researcher in New Zealand.

Public hearings on electoral reform in the Yukon continued this week, with presentations from academics in New Zealand and Toronto, in addition to a national advocacy group that promotes reform.

This week the committee heard from expert witnesses on the possibility of changing the current first-past-the-post system the territory uses to hold elections.

Representatives heard from Fair Vote Canada on Jan. 26, a group that advocates for proportional representation, focused their presentation on the process of getting to electoral reform.

“Honestly, if the process doesn’t work then it will end the way almost every electoral reform event in Canada has ended, which is failure,” said executive director Anita Nickerson. “If people don’t trust the process, they will not support it. If they think it’s being driven by partisan interests, it doesn’t matter what you come up with.”

Nickerson was the first witness to argue against holding a referendum to change electoral systems, arguing that it wasn’t politically neutral because the “Yes” often faces an uphill battle. Her presentation said referendums rarely succeed without a starting point of 70 to 80 per cent support, and misinformation campaigns can sway voters.

Instead of a referendum, Fair Vote Canada advocated for a citizens assembly — a selection of citizens that functions a bit like a jury – that would make a recommendation for change. The recommendation would then be implemented by the government.

“We do need to hear from people, it’s just how do we hear from them and how do we ensure we’re hearing from the equivalent of everybody?” said Nickerson

Peter Loewen from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, also recommended a citizen’s assembly but argued a referendum was required because such a major decision shouldn’t be made by politicians.

“Maybe voters kind of do know what’s good for them, and they like the system that they’ve got. I think that’s why a referendum is a really good test. If you think people are smart enough to vote for you and to engage in democracy, then they’re smart enough to choose their own electoral system or not,” said Lowen.

The three-person committee is composed of Kate White, Brad Cathers and John Streicker. To date, the committee has supported a referendum option if they pursued reform.

The presenters also heard from a presenter across the globe – New Zealand uses a mixed proportional system that combines both First-Past-The-Post and the list system from proportional representation.

Therese Arseneau, a senior fellow in political science at the University of Canterbury, walked the committee members through the history of electoral reform in New Zealand and what a similar system might mean for the Yukon.

“It’s not enough just to feel dissatisfied with the system you’ve got. You have to have a general consensus on what you want to move to,” she told the committee.

In New Zealand, the new system increased the representation of women and minorities but didn’t have a major impact on voter participation. While the initial period after the election resulted in a mix of parties, Arseneau said eventually the two main parties established dominance.

In order to maintain a stable government with a wider array of parties, Arseneau described a system of agreements much like the current CASA arrangement between the Yukon NDP and Liberal Party.

Like Loewen, Arseneau warned that electoral reform “is not for the faint of heart.” In order to be successful, the committee should be thinking hard about why the current issues are in the system and what their goals are in changing it.

“There’s no perfect electoral system. It’s about choosing: what is your priority? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” she said.

Loewen gave the committee the same advice to be very clear about the goals of reform.

“Electoral reform is a huge undertaking, changing a fundamental institution, and there may be easier ways to go about getting some other outcomes that you may care about,” he said.

“Don’t shy away because this has failed elsewhere. If you want to try and change the electoral system, then you should do it the way you’re doing it now, by deliberating with citizens.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at