REALITY CHECK: Remarkable consensus on need for electoral reform referendum

There are few issues in Canadian politics that Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats agree on. The need for a referendum on electoral reform, however, is one of them.

The National Post, Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and Postmedia Network (formerly called Sun Media) have all penned thoughtful editorials calling for a national vote on the issue.

Toronto Star:

“Referendums on voting change have already been held in three provinces, setting a precedent of sorts. All failed, and some reformers are so hell-bent on dumping first-past-the-post that they are urging the Liberals to be “brave” and move ahead on their own hook. That makes no sense. The lesson of past referendums cannot be that the people are too blind or foolish to see the light; it must be that those who want change have to do a better job of persuasion.”

National Post:

“The opposition is mounting to the Liberal government’s electoral reform plans. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to give in and call a referendum. It’s the only politically sensible option. It’s the right one, too.”

The Globe and Mail:

“Mr. Trudeau is mistaken in arguing that a change to the foundation of Canadian democracy can be treated as just a regular piece of legislation. He cannot seriously believe that a promised special parliamentary committee on electoral reform, its government members drawn from a House where MPs have traditionally taken daily dictation from their party leader, will really be independent and non-partisan. Nor can any member of the government assert with a straight face that euphemistically “consulting” the people is the same as actually consulting them democratically, with a vote. That’s just politics as usual, isn’t it?”

Postmedia Network:

“It seems sensible that Canadian voters should have the final say on something as fundamental to their democracy as the manner in which they elect their political representatives. And yet, in recent days, Trudeau and Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc have rejected mounting calls for a referendum on any future changes to the electoral process.”

Beyond editorial boards at newspapers, Canadians of every political stripe have also joined the chorus of people who recognize the obvious: electoral reform can only have legitimacy if Canadians vote for a new system directly.

Rona Ambose (Conservative):

“When you change the rules of democracy, everyone gets to have a say. If the Liberals want to make a fundamental change to our country’s voting system, the process must not be dominated by one political party’s interests. A committee comprised of a select number of parliamentarians studying electoral reform is not, and never will be, a substitute for all Canadians having their voices heard directly. This Liberal committee scheme is simply a vehicle through which they can impose their own pre-determined agenda without any meaningful way to restrain them.”

Bill Tieleman (NDP):

“How we vote in a democracy is a fundamental question requiring Canadian voters to give their approval through a binding referendum because it will affect every election in a way far more important than any budget or policy decision.”

Ujjal Dosanjh (Liberal):

“Any change to the electoral system can’t be a partisan endeavour. It has to be a nation-building project. If the Trudeau government wants to remain true to its commitment to democratic electoral reform it has only two options. Either it must seek and find interparty agreement on the proposed changes and approve them with a unanimous or near unanimous vote in the House of Commons. Or it must place the proposed changes before the people in a nationwide referendum.”

Scott Reid, M.P. (Conservative):

“I have been advocating a referendum on this subject since 2001, for a reason that I stated years ago, and still strongly believe: If politicians are left in charge of designing a new electoral system, they will be unable to resist the temptation to choose a system which will, based on the dynamics of Canadian voter behaviour, have the effect of benefiting the party in power.”

Warren Kinsella (Liberal):

“There are ten reasons I can think of, off the top of my head no less, why they are wrong to ram this through, as they seem intent on doing.”

Michael Taube (Conservative):

“This is an unbelievably foolish strategy. You can’t strongly support a democratic principle, and then implement it in the most undemocratic fashion imaginable. By doing so, this important exercise in improving Canada’s flawed electoral system has already been defeated at the starting gate… Here’s my advice to the Liberals. Hold a referendum on electoral reform, and let the Canadian people decide. It’s the democratic thing to do.”

Tim Harper (Liberal):

“The Liberals will consult Canadians in a “thoughtful and thorough process” through an all-party committee, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef maintains, but it is difficult to see how a fundamental change in the way we choose government can be put in force without a referendum.”

Mark Bonokoski (Conservative):

“Despite outcry from the opposition, threats of a Senate blockade, and constitutional experts and editorialists urging them to reboot their thought process, the Liberals will change our electoral system essentially by coup, using their majority as a truncheon and locking out the public as if inconsequential to the outcome of their unilateral treachery.”

Experts have also weighed in, generally from a dispassionate and non-partisan standpoint. They agree that changing Canada’s electoral system demands a consensus from the Canadian people – something that cannot be attained by an ordinary act of Parliament, even if a committee “consults” with Canadians along the road.

Matthew P. Harrington (Law professor at Université de Montréal):

“Canadians have always recognized that some substantial consultative process by which the voters themselves get a say is required for significant electoral reform. No province has sought to make changes in its electoral system without one… Consequently, if the Liberals do carry through with their plan to implement electoral reform by a simple vote of Parliament, the Senate ought to reject the bill and force the prime minister to go to the country. This is, after all, why the Senate exists. It was originally conceived as a place where cooler heads would prevail to prevent popular passions from overwhelming the parliamentary system. It was intended to serve as a bulwark against legislation that was ill-conceived or hazardous to the constitutional or social structure of the nation.”

Gordon Gibson (Architect of the B.C. government’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform):

“Set these excuses aside with the contempt they deserve. We were promised “sunny ways,” not a dark and evasive manipulation of our right to vote. We must have direct consent. A course correction on this one cannot come too soon. The voting system belongs to the people. Not the politicians. Period.”

Patrice Dutil (Political science professor at Ryerson University):

“The government of Canada simply cannot assume the powers of unilaterally changing the way in which we vote. It must conduct true consultations — rigorous and comprehensive consultations that are not simply driven by the self-appointed advocates of reform. Regardless of its quality, however, the consultation process must also include a referendum, no matter how much it costs. And if that referendum rejects reform, the government must abide by the result.”

With this widely representative group of Canadians having already spoken out, what remains a mystery is the Government’s position to stubbornly refuse common sense. No one government, led by any one political party, can impose a new electoral system in a free and democratic society, such as Canada, and expect that system to have legitimacy of any kind.

Indeed, even some proponents of electoral reform have come to this conclusion. Take for instance the Canadian Taxpayers Federation – a group which campaigned on the Yes side of the B.C. referendum on implementing the Single Transferable Vote system.

Aaron Wudrick (Canadian Taxpayers Federation Federal Director):

“Pro-reformers who refuse to endorse the need for a referendum are left to confront a few awkward questions, such as: how is it that 39 per cent of the vote (for the Liberal party) in a supposedly unfair system can equal a clear mandate for such a fundamental change? Is arbitrarily tallying up the party votes on a policy-by-policy basis really a defensible way to measure support? How can one claim to want to make “every vote count,” while opposing the use of a mechanism that does exactly that? And why spend precious time and energy fighting the idea of a referendum, instead of preparing to win one by promoting the merits of reform?”

There is also a precedent that has been set on this issue. In the modern era, no Canadian province (even ones with Liberal majority governments) has ever sought to impose an electoral system without a referendum. The same is true internationally: New Zealand and the United Kingdom both have held electoral reform referendums.

Harrison Ruess ( coordinator):

“Since 2004, governments in Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia have all undertaken studies and committees to propose electoral reform in those provinces. In every case a provincial referendum was held over the proposed changes. (Or a referendum was promised: in New Brunswick and Quebec, the governments that promised the reforms and referendums were defeated before any took place, and subsequent governments backed away from the issue.)”

Beyond the robust list of names and sources here, there are still many more. If you’re interested, find links in the “Voices” section of the Defend Democracy Blog page.

In democratic countries electoral systems are chosen, they are not imposed. It’s time for the Government of Canada to stop defending the indefensible.

Click here to add your name to the growing list of Canadians that agree by signing House of Commons e-petition 48, the only official petition on the subject.

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