An Update on Electoral Reform

Liberals readying to table electoral reform legislation read the CTV headlines on 21 March 2024.

Our democracies didn’t happen by accident, and they won’t continue without effort

Justin Trudeau, 21 March 2024

This bold announcement may have come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has been following the campaign for electoral reform in Canada.

Just last month, on 7 February 2024, the Liberals played a decisive hand in defeating Motion M-86 – a motion to form a Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. This motion was a cross-party initiative spearheaded by Green Mike Morrice and Liberal Jennica Atwin along with FairVote Canada. Trudeau, along with all but 39 Liberals voted against the motion.  

The 21 March announcement included the following initiatives:

  • Allowing a three-day voting period during general elections.
  • Allowing voters to cast votes at any poll in their riding.
  • Improving the mail-in ballot process.

That’s not a particularly inspiring list, being tweaks to the existing system rather than meaningful electoral reform. Manitoba already allows voting at any poll in a riding in provincial elections so this isn’t a big stretch to impose federally. Giving people more time to vote is a good idea, and certainly ensuring the efficiency and security of mail in voting is a good thing.

But there is nothing here that will decrease apathy, reduce polarization, or make every vote count.

A Bit of History

“We will make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring the 2015 election 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.

Justin Trudeau, before the 2015 election

The Liberal’s 2015 win was followed by a lot of effort on reform including establishing the Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) that traveled the country talking to people and compiling expert opinions. While not unanimous, the result was strongly in favour of proportional representation. Importantly, it also suggested that ranked ballot alone (Trudeau’s proposed reform in 2017) was even less proportional than our current FPTP system.

Trudeau scuttled the entire reform project, without debate, proclaiming that now Canadians had a Liberal government, they weren’t so interested in reforming the system. As Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP who put a tremendous effort into the ERRE project said:

What Trudeau proved himself today was to be a liar, was to be of the most cynical variety of politician.        

Nathan Cullen 1 February 2017

It was a hard blow to the aspirations of Canadians who want a modernized, representative, equitable electoral system that could help solve the growing problem of polarization and apathy.

Continuing the Work

In February, 2023, Mike Morrice, Green MP, brought forward a private member motion, M-76, to establish a Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. The motion included 20 supporters from four parties including Liberal Jenica Atwin, and NDP Daniel Blaikie. Unfortunately his motion was too far down the worklist to make it to a vote.

In May, 2023, the Liberal Party passed a resolution at their convention making a Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform policy of the Liberal Party of Canada.

In June, 2023, NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron brought a new motion, M-86, on forming a Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. It easily got 20 seconders including Greens Morrice and Elizabeth May, Blaikie and Atwin.

These MPs worked hard to gather the necessary support to pass the motion, spending countless hours working to bring other MPs on board. Fair Vote Canada’s volunteers put in a massive effort, calling and writing their MPs and running a phone campaign, calling folks in “soft” ridings to ask their MPs to support the motion.

In the end, on 7 February 2024, the motion was defeated with 101 MPs voting yes, and 220 voting no. The NDPs, BQ, and Greens unanimously voted in favour.

Only 39 of 156 Liberal MPs voted in favour – a disgraceful showing for a party who’s policy, officially adopted by their membership, is to support a Citizen’s Assembly. It also shows the tremendous gap between Trudeau’s words and actions.

Trudeau’s statement this week that democracies won’t continue without effort must leave us questioning where the evidence of effort is. While a group of MPs and Fair Vote’s volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring in meaningful reform, all the Liberals could muster was a few tweaks to the electoral system and a vote against any further effort.

So, Now What?

One might suppose that after so many failures (including losing provincial proportional representation referendums in BC, PEI, Ontario and Quebec backing away from a commitment), there might not be much passion to continue the work.

Quite the contrary, according to Fair Vote Canada’s Anita Nickerson in a Fair Vote webinar on 17 March 2024. She and the guest speaker, electoral reform expert Professor Dennis Pilon from York University, offered a great summary of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going.

When Fair Vote started the campaign in 2000, most people they spoke to, including politicians, thought PR meant “public relations”. Now politicians know that, in a political context, we’re talking about Proportional Representation. Fair Vote and other organizations working toward a better electoral system have opened up space for discussion where no space existed twenty years ago.

Fair Vote’s proponents were under the belief, in 2000, that they would storm on to the political scene and we’d have proportional representation in place quickly because it is so obviously a better system in so many ways. They didn’t count on how difficult it is to change the prevailing system that so unfairly grants absolute power to two large parties who do not earn their majorities. The elites behind the structure do not want change.

As if to confirm this, Provencher MP Ted Falk, when recently approached by GPM Leader Janine Gibson about reform, suggested it would be unthinkable that he would support changing the system now when the CPC is about to win an overwhelming majority. Clearly, he’s more concerned about power than a healthy electoral system.

Fair Vote’s position has matured. They recognize from their experience, and the experience of movements around the world, that electoral systems change only with a considerable amount of work and time (expect where a catastrophic event causes the collapse of a nation’s political systems as in the case of Germany.)

For supporters of meaningful electoral reform, we shouldn’t give up. The fact that the M-86 vote was able to muster a third of the House is promising. We need to keep talking, keep promoting, and keep hoping.

Eventually a government, federal or provincial, will show the courage and commitment and effort, actual effort, required to bring in meaningful electoral reform.

(Cross Posted to GPM Lac du Bonnet)

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