Minister ‘disappointed’ as electoral reform committee recommends referendum on proportional representation

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The special committee of MPs studying electoral reform in Canada recommends the government hold a referendum that pits the current system against a system of proportional representation, without specifying a particular alternative.

But the Liberal members of the committee do not agree that a referendum should be conducted at this time, casting doubt on whether the Trudeau government will be able to fulfil its campaign promise of electoral reform in time for the 2019 election.

NDP and Green members, in a joint supplementary report, also still question the need for a referendum.

The committee’s seemingly contradictory report led to a rebuke from Minister of Democratic Reform Maryam Monsef during question period, when she accused it of shirking responsibility.

“I have to admit I’m a little disappointed, because what we had hoped the committee would provide us with would be a specific alternative system to first past the post. Instead, they’ve provided us with the Gallagher Index,” Monsef said, referring to a complicated formula of determining the proportionality of a legislature.

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Members of the House of Commons special committe on electoral reform speak at a press conference. The committee is recommending that the Trudeau government design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge how much Canadians would support it. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

“They did not complete the hard work we had expected them to,” she said. “On the hard choices that we asked the committee to make, Mr. Speaker, they took a pass.”

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said Monsef’s comments were insulting, “and, frankly, it’s a disgrace,” she told reporters after Monsef’s remarks in the House.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Monsef needs to apologize to the 12 committee members.

‘Insult’ to the committee

“We did our work, we met our mandate. This may have been the worst day she had in question period,” May said. “I cannot possibly imagine why the minister chose to insult the committee and chose to mislead Canadians. If she meant what she said, it’s appalling.”

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who sat on the committee, said it was very difficult to hear those remarks after all the time MPs spent trying to craft a report. He said they did recommend an option — some form of proportional representation — but decided not to endorse one system so as to give the government some flexibility.

Electoral Reform Reports1:11

Tej Sahota, the husband of Liberal MP Ruby Sahota, a committee member, also took to Twitter to criticize Monsef’s remarks.

“My son saw his mom for total of 6 hours over 3 weeks, while the [electoral reform committee] toured Canada, so, try again Maryam,” he said. The tweet was later deleted.

“The committee recommends that the government should, as it develops a new electoral system … minimize the
level of distortion between the popular will of the electorate and the resultant seat allocations in Parliament,” reads the majority report of the special committee.

That system would then be put against the current first-past-the-post system in a referendum.

The committee also recommends that the government not proceed with either mandatory or online voting at this time.

Monsef has criticized the current first-past-the-post system, but she has repeatedly insisted that the government will not implement reform without the broad support of Canadians, while also questioning whether a referendum is the best way to measure public opinion.

NDP MPs and Elizabeth May weigh in

In a joint supplementary report, the NDP members of the committee and Green MP Elizabeth May recommend two alternative models:

  • Mixed-member proportional, with two-thirds of the House of Commons elected to represent direct constituencies and one-third elected as regional compensatory members.
  • Rural-urban proportional, a mix of urban ridings with more than one MP and conventional rural ridings with a single representative. An additional 50 seats would also be distributed across the country to make the result proportional to the national popular vote.

If a referendum is held, the three committee members argue, their two alternatives should be on the ballot alongside first-past-the-post, and Canadians 16 and older should be eligible to vote.

But the New Democrats and May are not enthusiastic about a referendum: “While it remains an option,” they write, “we have serious concerns about holding a referendum on electoral reform.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, NDP reform critic Nathan Cullen said the government still has “options” for implementing a new system.

Cullen says Liberals may not be interested in keeping promise1:40

Liberals suggest government proceed slowly

In their supplemental report, the Liberal members of the committee question the basis for proceeding with a referendum, the formula proposed for measuring the proportionality of an alternative proposal (the so-called Gallagher Index) and the timing of implementing reform for 2019.

“The recommendations posed in the majority report regarding alternative electoral systems are rushed and are too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged,” the Liberals write.

“Our position is that the timeline on electoral reform as proposed … is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline.”

Speaking to reporters after the report’s tabling, Liberal MP Matt DeCourcey said that the “level of engagement with the electoral reform process amongst the Canadian public is still insufficient to generate a clear mandate” for moving forward.

Liberals, DeCourcey said, are concerned with the “divisive nature” of a referendum and the ability of such a tool to produce a fair result.

“Canadians are not ready to vote on a referendum tomorrow on this issue, if that is the vehicle that is chosen,” said Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, the chair of the committee. “If Canadians are not engaged with this issue, it’s very problematic to move ahead quickly.”

Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer, has said that a new system must be chosen approximately two years in advance of the next election, and DeCourcey said Liberals feel implementing reform for 2019 would thus be rushed.

Further outreach and study is necessary before any change is made, DeCourcey said.

The committee was struck in June to study alternatives to the current first-past-the-post voting system for federal elections. In last year’s federal campaign, the Liberals committed to forming such a committee and implementing a new system in time for the 2019 election.

Scarpaleggia seems to back down on electoral reform promise2:09

After opposition complaint, the Liberals agreed that the committee would include five Liberals, three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one member of the Bloc Québécois and May — the seats allotted roughly in proportion to the popular vote in 2015.

That alignment apparently cleared the way for opposition MPs to agree among themselves on a majority proposal.

Cullen said the fact the committee could not find consensus is no excuse not to have a new system in place for the next election in 2019. There is enough time to usher in change, even with a referendum, he insisted.

“In Canada’s 150th year, I think it’s time for us to evolve our democracy, to enhance it and give voters more power and a proper system for voting,” he said.

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Minister ‘disappointed’ as electoral reform committee recommends referendum on proportional representation

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