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Editorial: Promising electoral reform is the easy part

Details of what that would actually look like are much harder to come by

Promising electoral reform is the kind of thing that sounds great when you are campaigning for votes but likely becomes harder to stomach after you come to power.

After all, why would anyone want to mess with a system that gave you control in the first place?

Case and point: Justin Trudeau and his federal Liberals took a public lashing for breaking their election promise regarding electoral reform. In his 2015 platform, Trudeau committed to “ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system” before turning his back on that promise after he gained power.

Now, Yukon Premier Sandy Silver is wading into a similar quagmire, but he’s doing it a little more cautiously than his federal counterpart.

Electoral reform was part of the territorial Liberal platform ahead of the 2016 election too, but Silver’s policy wonks chose their words more carefully than Trudeau’s.

The territorial Liberals didn’t guarantee that change to the voting system would happen, only that they would “consult Yukoners on possible options for territorial electoral reform and form a nonpartisan commission.

Plans to form the commission were announced this week.

Here’s a prediction: no matter what ends up being suggested, the Liberals will make some changes to the process - setting fixed election dates and possibly changing the finance rules - but odds are the current voting system is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Silver can technically ignore whatever the commission eventually recommends and still argue he has done what he promised.

That makes it all the more surprising that he would choose to open himself up to accusations of partisanship. Both the Yukon Party and the Yukon NDP have said that the government needs to give them more of a say in who makes up the commission.

That seems like a reasonable request. When electoral riding boundaries are discussed after every other election, each political party gets to appoint a person to that commission. Potentially changing the way votes are counted will have as much, if not more, impact on the future. Why entertain even the appearance that you are not taking it as seriously?

Instead, the premier says people will have to wait and see who gets chosen and trust that they weren’t picked for political reasons.

Finding out how Yukoners feel about changing the voting system is a challenge.

A summary of a survey was recently released. It said the majority of voters want some sort of change but avoids many specifics.

Among survey respondents, 89 per cent thought it was important or very important for the commission to focus on ensuring “elections are fair and transparent.” Similar data came out for making sure “political fundraising and spending is fair and transparent” and that Yukon has “an open and accountable legislature.”

But when it comes down to what type of voting system Yukoners prefer, the answers get foggier. The report says a “very large number of respondents” stated a specific preference for proportional representation while a “large” number of people wanted to keep things the way they are.

According to the report, “large” means between 20 and 50 references and “very large” means anything more than 50. The government received 836 completed surveys, including 705 written comments.

It may be that proportional representation was mentioned 55 times or it could have been 550 times. Based on the way the summary was written, we have no way of knowing for sure.

Whatever decisions are eventually made, Silver will have to be careful. When the Yukon Liberals rose from just a single seat in the legislative assembly to majority government status in 2016, the race was much closer than the headlines might have suggested.

Eight seats were decided by 50 votes or less. If those ridings had swung to the person who placed second, the Yukon would have a Liberal minority government not a majority.

The premier doesn’t want to monkey with the system too much and potentially put his future at risk.

Interim Yukon Party leader Stacey Hassard has suggested the issue should be put to a referendum. That’s in line with the Yukon Party’s election promise to put any major changes to the election system to a vote.

Earlier this week Yukon News cartoonist Wyatt Tremblay depicted Silver’s attempt at electoral reform as opening a box with an unknown monster inside. That monster only gets bigger and potentially scarier when the word referendum gets tossed around.

The mess happening overseas as a result of the Brexit vote is just one example of what can happen if voters are not prepared to make an educated decision on a referendum.

Closer to home, let’s not forget that it was a referendum that lead leaders to think they needed a fancy, un-proven wastewater treatment plant in Dawson City.

As a result of that vote the Yukon government has a $35 million piece of infrastructure that never worked and already needs to be replaced.

If a referendum is going to be considered, the Yukon government will need to put a lot more time and energy into educating the public about what they are being asked to vote on. Changing how Yukon’s democracy works is too serious of a decision to be made without the proper legwork.

Survey respondents were certainly aware of that, 83 per cent said the commission should focus on “public education on our current and other types of electoral system.”

Given the time it takes for a proper referendum to be planned, it seems unlikely that one could be called and changes made before the next election.

In the end, that could be what Silver has been aiming for all along.