OTTAWA -- Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef says any change to the way Canadians vote in federal elections must have broad support nationwide, but she remains unconvinced that holding a referendum is the best way to get it.
"Referenda do not easily lend themselves to effectively deciding complex issues," Monsef said Wednesday as she appeared as the first witness before the House of Commons special committee on electoral reform.
"They can and have often led to deep divisions within Canadian and other societies, divisions which have not been easily healed."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised last year as Liberal leader that the 2015 federal election would be the last one conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system -- a commitment later repeated in the speech from the throne.
The Conservatives have been pushing for the question to be decided by a referendum, earning a concession from the Liberals on that point last month when Monsef agreed it would be up to the committee to advise on the best way to consult Canadians on whatever alternative voting system it ends up recommending.
On Wednesday, Monsef did not slam the door on a referendum, but also would not clearly promise to hold one if that is the way the committee decides to go.
"If that is what the committee recommends, if that is what you hear from Canadians, if you arrive at a consensus that is the best way to engage Canadians in 2016, then it is incumbent upon me and the government to take that seriously," Monsef said.
Conservatives on the committee also wanted to know whether Monsef had begun working with officials to prepare any possible changes to the Referendum Act, such as expanding it beyond constitutional questions or updating the rules on finances.
Monsef said it would be premature to make those changes before the committee issues its Dec. 1 report.
"It is putting the cart before the horse," she told the committee.
Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has said his office will have enough time, she added.
Monsef tried to strike a conciliatory tone, despite the back-and-forth with the Conservatives that Monsef said reminded her of question period in the Commons, where she was often attacked this spring for refusing to commit to a referendum and for an initial proposal to give Liberals a majority of seats on the committee.
She urged her colleagues to reach a compromise that takes into account the views of all Canadians when it comes to figuring out the best alternative to the current voting system, rather than coming up with five minority reports outlining the position of each political party.
"This is not to suggest that electoral reform should not cause much debate and discussion," Monsef said.
"Each of us, as parliamentarians, has a responsibility to provide Canadians with a variety of perspectives on how we move forward on this and indeed on any issue."
Monsef also unveiled a discussion guide on electoral reform meant to help Canadians take part in the conversation, which she said she envisions happening at town halls and even book clubs across the land.
The guide, available at Canada.ca/Democracy, walks people through alternative voting systems, gives tips on how to host a public meeting about electoral reform -- including sample invitations to put out on social media -- a list of questions to get people talking and instructions on how to share their results with the committee.
Monsef also says she is open to online voting, one of the issues the committee is exploring.