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Yukonomist: Time for a truly independent electoral reform commission

Last week, something unusual happened. Our elected representatives had a serious debate about something after an expert wrote them a respectful and carefully argued letter.

Last week, something unusual happened. Our elected representatives had a serious debate about something after an expert wrote them a respectful and carefully argued letter.

It all started with the expert. Dr. Floyd McCormick, retired after spending more than a decade as clerk of the Yukon Legislature and with a PhD in political science, wrote MLAs to point out that the Yukon government was going the wrong direction with its so-called Independent Commission on Electoral Reform. As the News reported last week, Dr. McCormick pointed out that the Commission is not independent because the government is calling all the shots.

People who know government know that a commission is not really “independent” if the leader of the executive branch of government and of the biggest political party in the legislature picks its members, drafts its terms of reference and funds it. Even the person listed on the website for citizens to contact is listed as an employee of the premier’s department.

It’s hard to tell what the government was thinking, but they may have been trying to make the commission seem less “partisan.” If so, having just one political party pick 100 per cent of the members is not the right fix.

There have been plenty of independent commissions in various jurisdictions over the years. One option is to have representatives of all political parties. Another option is to have all the political parties somehow pick a set of non-politicians that everyone can agree on. The Yukon’s Electoral District Boundaries Commission approach works well. The last one had a Supreme Court justice, members named by each party in the legislature and the Yukon’s independent Chief Electoral Officer.

The Not-Really-Very-Independent Electoral Reform Commission’s members were announced by the executive branch in July. The chair has already resigned and declined to comment about it last week to the Yukon News. It’s probably safe to say not much useful work has been accomplished by the Commission despite the passage of over three months.

Electoral reform is important, and it’s time for the legislature to show some leadership on this topic rather than leaving it to the executive branch. Hopefully our MLAs will get together and choose one of the standard options mentioned above, and get on with things.

The reason electoral reform is important is that our current system has proven ineffective at two things: representing the full range of political views in the electorate, and holding the executive to account. The 2016 election saw the Liberals win total control of the transfer payment and government appointments with 39 per cent of the vote. The previous election did the same for the Yukon Party with 40 per cent of the vote.

In 2016, the NDP got the votes of 26 per cent of Yukoners and only 10 percent of the seats. The Greens have a lot of support in the Yukon, but ended up with zero seats. Backbenchers of the majority party almost never vote differently from their leader, resulting in a dangerous lack of oversight and accountability by our elected representatives. Review of important things like the budget or major new legislation almost always ends up the way the majority party leader wants it, since their 40 per cent of the vote translates into enough seats for them total power.

So, assuming we do end up with a truly independent electoral reform commission, what should it propose?

Here’s one suggestion it should consider seriously: copying the system used by our German and New Zealand friends. Each Yukoner would get two votes, one in their local riding for their local MLA as today and another for one of the parties. You might vote for your local Purple Party candidate since she’s a hard worker, and for the Brown Party overall since you like their policies.

First, Elections Yukon would tally up who won the local MLA seats. Then, if a party won less seats than its share of the party vote, additional “Yukon-wide” candidates from that party would be added to the Legislature. In 2016, had this system been in place, after Elections Yukon realized the NDP won 26 per cent of the vote but only 10 per cent of the seats, they would have added some names from the NDP list to even this out.

There’s a choice here about how many MLAs to have. If you stick with 19 overall, then the individual ridings need to be bigger to allow for “Yukon-wide” members. This is bad news for Old Crow. If you keep the 19 current local ridings, and add a layer of “Yukon-wide” candidates, you’ll end up with more politicians.

My vote would actually be for the latter. If the Yukon Government is going to keep adding hundreds of new employees every year, adding a half-dozen more citizen representatives to hold the government to account is worth it.

I’d also suggest copying New Zealand’s and Germany’s rule that a party must get five per cent of the vote to be represented. This does discriminate against the Communist Party of Canada and other sections of our electorate, but I see no need to encourage even more fragmentation of our body politic.

Yukoners should get a chance to vote in a referendum on the proposal. After Brexit, referenda are not in fashion. But this is such an important change to our democratic rules that one is needed.

Finally, we need to make sure the referendum is held in time for the next Yukon election to be held under the new rules, if Yukoners approve them. This means the legislature needs to get cracking so the referendum can be held by the third quarter of next year. Fortunately, many countries and provinces in the world have already reformed their electoral systems and charted out the options for us.

Reforming in time for the next election also means that the current government should commit to not calling a snap election before the referendum, a possibility mooted in last Friday’s News editorial. This would help the current government avoid any cynical allegations they deliberately ran out the clock on electoral reform so they could try for a second majority term under our current rules.

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.