The government doesn't need to hold a referendum to legitimize whatever electoral reforms it proposes, according to the head of Elections Canada.
While the federal Conservatives have been pushing the Liberal government to hold a referendum before moving ahead with electoral reform, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand says it's up to elected officials to decide.
"I think it's up to the elected officials to determine what's the best way [to legitimize any significant change]," Mayrand said in an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CTV's Question Period.
"They have the support of Canadians and they should be making those decisions."
That's likely to draw the ire of Conservative MPs, some of whom also clashed with Mayrand in 2014, over proposals by the then-government to change many of the rules within the existing voting system. The Conservative government ignored the advice of dozens of experts who criticized the suite of changes, and all opposition MPs voted against the bill. The Conservatives slightly adjusted some of the most contentious measures, and the 2015 federal election was run under the new rules.
Mayrand says those measures should have had broader support in order to become law.
"There was no broad consensus [on those changes]," Mayrand said. "And it's a pattern that's developed since the early 2000s. I think it's not healthy for our democracy. I think it doesn't inspire confidence of Canadians that the game will be fair if a party can singlehandedly change the rules of the game."
That means significant or material changes to how Canadians elect members of Parliament need the support of more than one political party - but not all of them, Mayrand told Solomon.
"I would not advocate for giving a veto to anyone. That could lead to paralysis. But I think parliamentarians should be conscious and hopefully [support] the idea that important change needs a broad consensus," he said.
Need to have a proposal
A special committee of MPs is studying the options to change Canada's electoral system, known as first-past-the-post. The Liberals have resisted calls for a referendum, but haven't ruled it out. The Conservatives argue, however, that by the time the committee reports in December, there will be too little time to mount a referendum. Mayrand has already said the current referendum legislation is out of date and needs to be amended before it can be used again.
Several of the options before the committee would force Elections Canada to redraw the riding boundaries, which would take additional time and resources from the agency as it prepares to run the 2019 vote under whichever new system is adopted. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the election in 2015 would be the last under first-past-the-post, which critics say is unfair because of its winner-take-all result. With three or four competitive federal parties in Canada, it takes approximately 38 per cent of the vote for a party to win a majority in the House.
Mayrand says it's not too late, yet, for Elections Canada to implement any of the systems being considered. Next spring is the deadline for the government to table a bill, which would need to become law by the end of 2017.
"Action means a bill. At minimum a bill, and a statute in the book before the end of the year," he said.
"We can't do anything right now. We don't know what's going to be the proposal. So we need to have relative assurance there is a proposal there and there's a broad consensus so that we can start planning."
Mayrand is stepping down from his post in December, a year early, because he wants to give his successor more time to get accustomed to the new system.
"I would have liked to stay because, for an election administrator, this is the most exciting time, of course," Mayrand said. But "it's better ... that the successor be in place well before the election."