Fraser Forum

Electoral reform in Canada requires a referendum

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The issue of whether the new federal government requires explicit approval of the electorate via a referendum to change the method by which parliamentarians and our federal government is elected is gaining a surprising amount of attention.

Perhaps more surprising is the overwhelming consensus emerging demanding that the federal government specifically ask Canadians for approval. Over the last two weeks commentaries and editorials have appeared in the National Post, Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, and a myriad of regional dailies across the country all calling for a national referendum to approve any change in our electoral system.

Thus far both the prime minister as well as his Minister for Democratic Reform, Maryam Monsef, have refused to commit to a referendum, relying on their election to justify a mandate for electoral change.

There are several problems with this response that make it difficult to see how it will survive criticism. First, and foremost, the Liberals’ election platform did not contain a specific proposal for electoral reform. Instead it simply stated that the current system would be changed and mentioned a number of possible reform alternatives:

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.

Second, there is a substantial precedent in Canada in requiring general votes on electoral reform. British Columbia (2005), Prince Edward Island (2005), and Ontario (2007) all brought the decision of changing the way by which governments are elected to their citizens through either a referendum or plebiscite. (Quebec and New Brunswick, which were both also considering electoral reform, abandoned the initiatives after the formal recommendations and reports by select committees were made public.)

Another troubling aspect of this brewing problem for the government is the real possibility that it wants to avoid a referendum because citizens have consistently rejected electoral reform. All three provinces that held votes soundly rejected electoral reform. Indeed, one of the prime minister’s principal advisers on electoral reform, Robert Asselin, has been quoted as saying that electoral reform may be too complicated for voters. For instance, in a recent Globe and Mail piece he responded to questions about referendums in B.C. and Ontario: “It’s fair to say that the process led to misconceptions about what people were voting on… It’s really difficult to explain with all the options possible, to come up with a yes or no question.”

This response misrepresents the referenda process in both B.C. and Ontario. For example, in Ontario, it wasn’t so much that the public didn’t understand the proposal, but that it was neglected by political elites. Polls at the time indicated that only eight per cent of the public were aware that there even was a referendum. Further, as a study of the referenda demonstrated, the rules regarding the campaigning on the referendum were so restrictive that it limited debate, discussion, and awareness. If the government is confident that the public has a desire to change the electoral system, then it should be willing to face that electorate in a question on the matter.

It’s not hard to imagine the next federal election developing into a referendum on electoral reform if the federal government presses forward with reform without general consent. Such fundamental re-tooling of our democracy requires broad support, which can only be achieved through referendum on a specific proposal.

Lydia Miljan is a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute and a professor of political science at the University of Windsor. Jason Clemens is the executive vice-president of the Fraser Institute. They are the co-editors of a collected series of essays on the reality and myths of electoral reform, which will be released in 2016.


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