For a preview of our novel referendum concept, read the article below published in the Hill Times today. The author is Helen Forsey, author of "A People's Senate for Canada – Not a Pipe Dream."
This is good news as it means that many MPs across the country will now learn of, and hopefully consider, "a realistic way forward" for electoral reform.
Our thanks go to Helen!
Electoral Reform – A Realistic Way Forward
published in the Hill Times, May 1st, 2017
In the three months since Prime Minister Trudeau's about-face on electoral reform, real change in our voting system has begun to feel like a lost cause. A vigorous and high-profile public discussion got pushed back into the shadows, and now, even with Nathan Cullen's upcoming motion in the Commons, the prospects for breathing life back into the issue seem dim. The hitherto fluid and hopeful "how-to" discourse has morphed into a battle where the various players – organizations and political parties alike – are dug into their own particular positions and unwilling to lose face. There might appear to be no way out.
Ah, but there is. Led by Democracy Alert in St. John's, Newfoundland, several groups are putting forward an idea that has benefits for all sides. Their proposal? Attach a referendum question to the 2019 election posing a simple choice between a) keeping the present system, or, b) moving to a more proportional one. Then, if the referendum favours proportional representation, the incoming government would complete the process of selecting the best system and putting it in place for the following election.
One of the recurring problems of electoral reform efforts to date has been the complex mechanics of the different systems of proportional representation being considered. As Democracy Alert's Marilyn Reid explains, that complexity can confuse the issue and discourage people. A simplified referendum asking voters to choose or reject PR based on its merits rather than its mechanics would enable citizens to argue the real pros and cons of change versus the status quo before deciding to adopt a particular system.
A quick recap of where we're at right now. After spectacularly reversing their commitment to ending the distortions and false majorities of first-past-the-post elections, Mr. Trudeau and his ministers trotted out every possible excuse to justify keeping the very system they had formerly denounced. Electoral reform has since been fading from the headlines, in accordance with the government's efforts to consign it to oblivion. But the grassroots citizens' movement is not about to give up. After months of tangible progress towards their goal of proportional representation, the most vocal reform organizations continue to demand that the Liberals' fulfil their original promise – a new system in place for the 2019 trip to the polls.
Unfortunately, that 2019 deadline now constitutes an obstacle to its own goal. In order to jump through all the procedural hoops required to implement such a change in time for the next election, legislation would have to be developed and passed in double-quick time. But hasty legislation has an alarming record of being counter-productive, especially on complex and controversial issues. Moreover, as the official Opposition has pointed out, changing the system without explicitly asking Canadian voters whether or not they want change suggests a lack of respect for democratic principles.
At this point, then, the 2019 implementation deadline is simply not a good idea for either supporters or opponents of proportional representation, or for the undecided. The timeline should be adjusted.
But that's adjusted, not abandoned. Contrary to the government's assertions, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform last year did find broad consensus across the country for a move to greater proportionality – that is, election results that reflect approximately the popular vote. What they did not find in the short time available was a specific system that they could unreservedly recommend.
There are many potentially viable forms such a system could take, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Given the complexities and the time involved, the next step is not to decide on a particular model, but to have voters make the crucial choice between keeping first-past-the-post or moving to a more proportional system.
For those who like the prospect of electoral reform, this proposal would provide the opportunity to move the matter forward. For those who favour the status quo, it would give them a definitive chance to defend it. For the various opposition parties, it would break the current deadlock and enable them to work co-operatively again, implementing the agreement they reached late last year in the multi-party Electoral Reform Committee. And for a government facing burgeoning cynicism and disillusionment, it would offer a way to address the problems they now see with their own ambitious campaign promise, and a chance to try and restore a degree of public trust around this issue.
We must not let the government’s abandonment of this major commitment become just one more bit of old news. With more Canadians aware of the issue than ever before, now is the critical time to take the next step forward.
The Democracy Alert proposal gives us a way to do that which is both principled and practical. Their modified referendum plan provides the time that will be needed to pursue the work the multi-party Electoral Reform Committee began, examining the many possible systems and selecting the best one for Canadians.
This essential process should not be rushed, but nor should it be delayed any longer. One of the beauties of this plan is that attaching the referendum to the next general election will both minimize expenses and maximize public involvement. It will require an amendment to the Referendum Act, but the benefits would make it well worthwhile.
Coming out of Newfoundland and Labrador, this proposal has already sparked the interest of some parliamentarians, and once it is more widely known, it should win broad support from the public across the country. It could be a workable and productive compromise in the best Canadian tradition.
This is not a pipe dream. Like the positive changes now happening in the Senate, a fairer, workable, made-in-Canada electoral system is a totally achievable work in progress. It has been temporarily halted by a misguided decision, but it is propelled by the will of millions of citizens. Now we all just have to get out of our own way, listen to each other, and use our collective energy, creativity and experience to make it happen.
Helen Forsey is a writer based in Ontario and Newfoundland. Her latest book is "A People's Senate for Canada – Not a Pipe Dream."