Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef was in Whitehorse this week to discuss electoral reform with Yukoners during public discussions on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
But the question at the heart of the electoral reform debate — whether Canada should scrap its first-past-the-post voting system — was barely touched on.
Monsef said the event was about starting a conversation with Canadians that will lead into a more technical discussion about electoral reform.
“Part of the purpose of us even having this conversation in the way that we’re having it is to allow Canadians to have a dialogue amongst one another with their government,” she told the News.
She said she’s committed to the Liberals’ campaign promise that the 2015 federal election will be the last conducted under a first-past-the-post system. But she also said that if Canadians decide they “want system ‘X’, then we’re going to honour that.”
The event on Thursday at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre was attended by about 75 people, at least 10 of whom are Liberal or NDP candidates for the upcoming territorial election.
The evening played out a bit like a high school class. People sat around circular tables discussing questions from a PowerPoint presentation at the front of the room. (How can we encourage more participation? Should voting be mandatory?) One person at each table took notes. Between questions, volunteers stood up to share what they’d heard at their table.
But arguably the most important question — what do you think of our current voting system? — was left till the end, and there was no question about what system, if any, should replace it.
The entire event spoke to how difficult it is to get people to talk about electoral reform without putting them to sleep. Early in the evening, Liberal MP Larry Bagnell made a valiant but doomed effort to explain several different voting systems in less than five minutes.
There’s preferential balloting, which has voters rank candidates in order of preference and then sees the least popular candidates eliminated one by one. There’s list proportional representation, where voters might select a party instead of a candidate. And there’s mixed-member proportional, which allows voters to select both a local representative and a political party.
But Bagnell made it clear the evening was not to be a sit-down lecture about voting systems. The result of the rapid-fire overview was that only someone who already understood the different systems could have followed what he was saying.
At least one person present was upset with how the evening was structured. Connor Whitehouse, president of the Yukon Conservative Association, said he’d hoped for a town hall meeting where people could voice their opinions directly to Monsef.
Whitehouse wants to see the issue of electoral reform go to a referendum.
“We’re talking about changing our democracy simply by a Liberal majority vote in the House of Commons. That’s not democratic,” he said. “The only way to consult every Canadian on change this significant is by way of a national referendum on electoral reform.”
He said he would lean toward sticking with the existing first-past-the-post system, as “it’s a system that we have that works.”
But Monsef said that referenda tend to be “divisive.”
“A referendum is certainly one way of consulting, but I’ve yet to be convinced personally that it’s the best way,” she said.
Sandy Ganesan, 17, said she appreciates that the federal government is asking for people’s opinions about electoral reform. She attended on Thursday evening after Monsef visited her school, Vanier Catholic Secondary School, during the day.
She doesn’t like that people vote strategically, and said that could be a reason to change the current system. “If you like a party and their policies, vote for them,” she said. “And if there’s an easier way of going about that, then yeah, that would be better.” She would also like to see the legal voting age lowered to 16.
The Trudeau government’s special committee on electoral reform has been meeting since June, and will be in Whitehorse on Sept. 26. It must submit a final report to the House of Commons by Dec. 1.
Monsef said legislation will be tabled in the House in the spring of 2017.
But it’s unclear what exactly was gleaned from the meetings in Whitehorse this week. Questions about mandatory voting and online ballots may be simpler to grapple with than which system might best replace first-past-the-post. But they don’t touch on the most important question this Liberal government will have to answer: whether to change how Canadians choose their government.
Contact Maura Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org