Yukonomist: Electoral reform commission – a strange new government beast

It makes you question everything that is normal

The Yukon’s recently announced electoral reform commission is an intriguing new creature in the political jungle.

Like watching a documentary on a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal such as the duck-billed platypus, it makes you question everything you thought was normal; including how such a beast can survive in the fox-eats-housecat world of Yukon politics.

Conventional wisdom holds that tinkering with the fundamental rules of our democracy requires a more elaborate process than amending, say, the Motor Vehicles Act. Yet the commission has none of the usual defense mechanisms you would think such a body would need to withstand what is likely to be intense scrutiny.

It does not have a Yukon Supreme Court justice to lend an aura of authority, like the Yukon Electoral District Boundaries Commission.

It does not have a representative of each major political party, again like the boundaries commission, to fend off accusations that it is a tool of the government of the day. The commission’s members were selected by the ruling Liberal cabinet and include one member with close ties to the party, facts that prompted immediate complaints from the other two parties in the legislature.

The commission does not have any current or former members of the legislature with first-hand knowledge of how that body works in practice, to improve the likelihood its recommendations are practicable.

It does not have a majority of members whose jobs, business contracts or non-governmental organizations are independent of the territorial government.

Nor does it have any professors from Outside universities, like the Yukon’s financial advisory panel, to add a patina of global expertise.

Finally, the commission’s support staff will not be independent of the government. Research and administrative support will be provided by staff from the Executive Council Office, the department that serves the cabinet. Remarkably, if the commissioners and their support staff disagree on the commission’s work, the terms of reference say the dispute may be referred for “decision” by the deputy minister of the Executive Council Office.

Thus, even before it has begun work, the commission is under fire.

One line of criticism sees them as a transparent front organization for the Liberal Party. If you asked a cynical political operative how to game an electoral reform initiative, he would probably recommend naming some like-minded but not excessively partisan figures, in the summer, guided by loyal bureaucrats, to make the recommendations you asked them to make when you hired them.

The other line of criticism is exactly the opposite. It sees the commission not as an attempt to ram through reforms favourable to the government of the day, but as a gambit to run out the clock on electoral reform so the next election can be run under the same rules that got the current government elected in 2016.

Critics of this persuasion will have noted that the commission’s recommendations do not go directly to a referendum or the legislature for a vote, but to the premier for consideration. The timeline for subsequent implementation, if any, is unclear.

The commission is supposed to look at our first-past-the-post electoral system to “ensure our electoral system captures the intentions of voters as well as possible.” Our current system tends to shut out smaller parties and produce majority governments. In the 2016 election, the Liberals got just 39 per cent of the vote, but that was enough for complete control of the transfer payment and territorial government.

Back in 2011, the Yukon Party got a majority government with only 41 per cent of the vote. The NDP, meanwhile, got 26 per cent but just two seats in the last election. The Greens were completely shut out of the legislature.

The commission is also supposed to examine how political parties work, fundraising and political spending rules, and a “more open and accountable legislature.” Voting practices and citizen consultation are also in scope.

The commission has not been set up for success, but may be successful nonetheless. After all, the platypus has survived for eons.

I expect that they will do their best to be non-partisan, and we have to hope that with the $178,500 budgeted they will produce some wise recommendations to improve our democracy. Then we have to hope that the government decides to act on these recommendations in a timely fashion. Then we have to hope that the other political parties haven’t already decided to entrench themselves in opposition.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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