Liberals dig in heels against election referendum
Published Thursday, December 1, 2016 10:28AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, December 1, 2016 5:49PM EST
OTTAWA -- An all-party committee is recommending Canadians be given the chance to choose between a new proportional voting system or stick with the current one, but the Liberal minority report suggests it won't happen.
MPs on the electoral reform committee presented a mostly united front in their initial press conference, but the day soon devolved into sniping, with Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef arguing in question period that the committee hadn't done its work.
The special committee recommended the government hold a referendum asking voters to choose between the current first-past-the-post system and a new, proportional system that would more closely match a party's percentage of votes to the number of seats it gets in the House.
The committee also recommends using a proportional system that maintains the connection between an MP and voters, meaning elected officials should have some geographic connection to those who elected them.
The committee touches on a proposal rejected by MPs earlier this fall: it recommends creating a financial incentive for parties to run more women candidates. The House voted against a private member's bill by New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart to penalize parties that don't come close to gender equity in their slates.
Finally, it recommends exploring how to build a national youth registry to pre-register future voters, something Monsef introduced in a bill last week.
The committee's mandate instructed it to look at online voting and mandatory voting, but it recommended neither.
But while the committee recommended a referendum, the Liberal MPs disagreed. In a minority report filed with the main study, they said the government needs to consult further, and that it can't meet its own 2019 electoral reform deadline.
"We contend that the recommendations posed in the Majority Report (MR) regarding the alternative electoral systems are rushed, and are too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged," the MPs wrote in a supplementary report.
"The timeline on electoral reform as proposed in the MR is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline."
No consensus on referendum
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the 2015 campaign that it would be the last election held under the existing first-past-the-post system, in essence imposing a 2019 deadline.
During his election campaign, Trudeau frequently spoke of increasing cynicism about politics, and the party said its electoral reform and election law changes would "renew Canadians' faith in government."
The committee's 333-page report was further complicated on the question of a referendum, with the NDP and Greens giving the recommendation only qualified support. New Democrats Nathan Cullen and Alexandre Boulerice, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May wrote in their own dissenting report that they have serious concerns about it.
"The evidence for the necessity of change is overwhelming; the evidence for the necessity of holding a referendum is not," they wrote.
During the House of Commons daily question period on Thursday, Monsef said she's going to review the report, but that one thing is clear.
"The only consensus the report found was that there is no consensus on electoral reform," she said.
Monsef seemed to anger opposition MPs, who roared with disapproval, when she said the committee "did not complete the hard work we expected them to."
"I have to admit, I'm a little bit disappointed," Monsef said.
Monsef argued the committee was to recommend a single system, but the mandate the House approved last summer instructed it "to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems" to replace the existing one.
The Liberals struggled to explain the disconnect between their campaign promise and Thursday's dissenting report, which said meeting Trudeau's deadline would mean rushing into change. Liberal MPs John Aldag, Matt DeCourcey, Sherry Romanado, Ruby Sahota and Francis Scarpaleggia, said they want "comprehensive citizen engagement" before proposing changes.
Sahota said the committee heard from less than one per cent of the population, but refused to say what percentage would meet the Liberal threshold for consultation. Monsef has referred to broad consensus, but hasn't outlined how many Canadians would have to agree to meet that bar. She has also said she doesn't think a referendum is the right way to consult on a complex issue.
"We heard from a lot of Canadians. Unfortunately, it was not the amount that we had wished to hear from," Sahota said.
The committee started meeting over the summer and travelled the country. It heard from 196 witnesses and received 22,500 responses to its online questionnaire.