Underscoring the importance of electoral reform and significance of the Special Committee’s report

On Tuesday, May 30th, 2017 in Committees, Debate, Parliament
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Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, I am so proud to participate in today’s very important debate. I am also very proud of our report, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform’s report entitled “Strengthening Democracy in Canada: Principles, Processes and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform”.

We worked very hard on this report. There were 12 of us, and our approach and the spirit our our discussions throughout was very collegial.

We worked really well together, as I have just said, as a committee of 12 members of Parliament from five parties, a uniquely comprised committee. I commend the former minister of democratic institutions, current Minister of Status of Women and hon. member for Peterborough—Kawartha, who made the decision that it would be fair to ensure that the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party each participated as full members of the committee. She went further—and this was a step that I never thought the Liberals would take—and conceded to an NDP request that the Liberals give one seat of theirs on the committee to allow the NDP to have two full members, so that we were a committee of five Liberals, one of whom served as chair. I have to say our chair, the member for Lac-Saint-Louis, did an extraordinary job. There were then four voting Liberals, three voting Conservatives, two New Democrats, one Bloc member, and one Green member.

We heard from witnesses across Canada. We fulfilled our mandate, and I think we fulfilled our mandate admirably. We had, between late June and December 1 when our report was due, more than 60 meetings. We heard from experts. We heard from the leading experts on electoral reform, not only in Canada but from around the world. Many world-leading experts participated by video conference with us. We also heard from hundreds, in fact thousands, and tens of thousands of Canadians. That process led to an overwhelming consensus, which was that it was time for Canada to move away from first past the post.

I want to touch briefly on the substance of the issue before moving to the politics, but the politics are clearly important.

I have worked on electoral reform for a very long time. For much longer than I have been a member of the Green Party, I have been committed to seeing the end of the first-past-the-post voting system because of its perverse results. On the substance of the issue, we learned in this committee process that it is clear it is a voting system that allows the popular vote to diverge from the seat count. That is the easiest way to understand what is wrong with first past the post. The popular vote can say there is a minority Parliament, but the seat count can say there is a majority. Democracy is not well served when the popular vote is not reflected in the seat count.

As I said, I have worked on this issue for years, but there is always a lot to learn and I learned a lot as a member of the parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform. For instance, I never knew how it was that Ireland had single transferrable vote. Ireland got their voting because in 1921 when the British Parliament of Westminster decided that Ireland should be allowed its own parliament, the British were concerned for the minority rights of Protestants so they did not want Ireland to have first past the post. They did not want Ireland to have the same system Westminster had so they gave Ireland single transferrable vote, a system of proportional representation that works well in Ireland to this day.

It had something to do with that decision in Ireland in 1921 that 1921 was the first year in which this Parliament, the Parliament of Canada, struck a committee to study our voting system. That committee in 1921 concluded that first past the post does not work for Canada. That is right. Since 1921, we have known this. That was when a committee said that as long as we have a democracy with more than two parties—and since the 1920s Canada has always historically in this place been a multi-party system—first past the post did not serve Canadian democracy.

We worked hard to then decide what would serve Canadian democracy, and that is why this report is so historic. We worked to deliver on the promise of the Speech from the Throne and of our Prime Minister that 2015 would be the last election held under first past the post. We wanted to provide, as we were mandated to do, the answer of what is next.

We concluded that a system of proportional representation was appropriate for Canada, that it could be tailored specifically to Canada’s needs, and we specifically precluded the kind of PR used in Israel or Italy. We said that we did not recommend a system where we have only lists by party and voters only vote for a party list. We want to maintain that crucial link with the local MP as well as proportionality. At the end of the day, we want the popular vote to be reflected in the seat count and we want to make sure that members of Parliament are elected to represent their constituents and have a local connection. It is important that voters know that. We can have both. That is what our committee recommended. Our committee also recommended that this be tested by a referendum.

Now we are going to have for the first time, and we are having today for the first time, a debate. I wish more MPs were participating in this debate. This is the first chance we have had as a Parliament to really discuss what kind of voting system would work best for Canada. We know that every single Liberal MP in this place was elected on a platform that said we would be moving away from first past the past. My plea to them is, do not let the promise fade away. Too much rides on it.

For a very long time now, Canadians have known that first past the post has this perverse result of separating the seat count from the popular vote. It is possible to have, and in fact two times in Canada we have had, what political scientists call the “wrong winner problem”. The wrong winner problem is when the party that got the most votes loses the election. It has happened twice in Canada. It has not happened recently. However, it can and does happen under first-past-the-post voting systems.

How do we ensure that the way the popular vote is cast is reflected in the Parliament we get and we still have the advantage of MPs being elected after going door to door in their own community where people know them?

There are a number of solutions, and there are a number of compromises. This is the only place where I regret how our committee worked together. It comes to this. We ran out of time. We had a hard deadline of getting the report in by December 1. I believe, and I am firmly committed to this belief because I know every single one of those individual 12 MPs, all of them, are excellent people, if we had more time, if we had been allowed to work to consensus, we would have had that discussion of, “What if we give a little here? Is the problem that by 2019 we have full PR? What if we did it incrementally, a bit more fairness in our voting system by 2019, a bit more the election after that? Would that work for you?” We never got to have that discussion of what could work if we compromised.

However, it is not too late to compromise. In voting for this concurrence motion, I certainly hope that the Liberal benches will be given a free vote so Liberal MPs can go back to their constituents and tell them they actually voted for what their constituents wanted. We know that the four MPs from P.E.I. just had a plebiscite that called for electoral reform in P.E.I. We know that in British Columbia 40% of the voters just voted NDP and 17% just voted Green, and that 57% of voters voted for parties, once again, that called very clearly for getting rid of first past the post.

MPs know what their constituents would want them to do on the motion. What I want to urge people to consider is that in voting for concurrence, we will not be forcing a referendum to happen and we will not be forcing the government to move to PR. We will be keeping the debate alive and creating that opportunity to find the middle ground. There is middle ground here to be found. Whether it is having a referendum in 2019 concurrent with the voting day that we have next, whether it is saying we move to a single transferable vote system as our former chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, recommended, that we cluster those ridings in the vast areas of Canada where that works and exclude those areas that are remote or where the ridings are too large, or if we move to the Fair Vote Canada approach of one set of voting rules that work for rural Canadians and another set that work for where we are more concentrated in our ridings, there are compromises here that can be found.

What is unacceptable is to break the promise and leave it broken. That will break people’s faith with democracy itself, those young people who voted for the first time and who believed the Prime Minister’s promise. I frankly believe he fully intended to keep it when he made it, and it will be better for the health of democracy if we work to allow that promise to be kept.

It is time to keep that promise. I urge the members to vote in favour of this motion.
Yves Robillard - Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate our colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands.

As she said, she travelled across Canada with the other committee members. I think she made a very positive contribution.

The member mentioned a referendum, and I would like to hear more about that. We are talking about modernizing how we do business here in the House. I did not quite understand the member’s comments about a referendum.
Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question.

We know that some referenda work well, and others are total disasters. It depends entirely on how much people know about the issue and how well they understand it prior to the referendum.

We have had very few referenda in Canadian history. Federally, we had one on conscription during the war. We had one on prohibition. We had one on Charlottetown. If we were to hold a referendum we would need to rewrite our Referendum Act. Our current Referendum Act does not allow for the question of electoral reform to be put to a referendum.

It is clear from the British North America Act, as it was written in 1867, 150 years ago, that the question of our voting system is squarely one for Parliament to decide. However, there is a strong view among public opinion and strong views from some of the parties in this place that if we are changing our voting system it should be put to a referendum.

I mentioned that P.E.I. just had one, and the people of P.E.I. voted overwhelmingly for mixed-member proportional voting systems and for getting rid of first past the post. We had a referendum in British Columbia on single transferable vote and 57% of British Columbians voted for that, but they had set the threshold at 60%. A lot depends on the level of public information available before the vote.

Sheila Malcolmson - Nanaimo—Ladysmith, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am so glad that the House agreed to the New Democrat motion to formulate the committee on electoral reform so that it would include Bloc and Green members for the first time. I am very grateful also for the continued iteration of what happens when we have many parties represented and have co-operation. The electoral reform committee report is an expression of that, along with yesterday’s news about the agreement in British Columbia around potential co-operation of two parties to work together and hold government in British Columbia.

Looking at all the examples around the world of what happens when many parties co-operate together, we see their parliaments and legislatures develop policies that are more lasting and do not have extreme swings of ideology from one election to the next.

I would like to know about the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands’ degree of optimism. I understand we only need 20 members of Parliament from the Liberal Party to agree to this concurrence motion to keep the discussion around electoral reform alive. It is an opportunity for these MPs to keep their promise, which was broken by their Prime Minister. I would like to hear whether my fellow member of Parliament is hopeful that tomorrow’s vote might result in a keeping of the promise by at least some of the Liberal members of Parliament.

 

Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, as ever, my optimism on any issue of fundamental democratic reform increases in direct proportion to the non-partisan nature of the debate. If we use this as an excuse to beat up on the Prime Minister for breaking a promise, we will not succeed. If we use this as an opportunity to focus the Prime Minister’s attention on the possibilities, they are still there for him to keep his promise. If we urge Liberals to vote for what we think is in the best interests of democracy, I am quite optimistic, particularly if it is not a whipped vote and Liberal MPs are allowed to vote how they believe their constituents would like them to vote. I thank my colleague from Nanaimo—Ladysmith for giving me this chance to reframe my main point, which is that we can still salvage this promise in a way that meets the needs of government and opposition parties. We can do it together if we check our partisanship at the door and think about what is best for Canada.

I would ask members to please consider this. Let us say that 10 or 15 years from now, we do not know when it might be, somebody who represents a Canadian version of Trump—and do not think it cannot happen—seizes 100% of the power over our country with a minority of popular support. There is always the risk of someone extreme seizing power with majority support, which is a democracy, but our system of government is extraordinarily vulnerable because the Prime Minister of Canada has more power, relative to our government, than the president of the United States or the prime minister of the U.K. We must check that exercise of power by assuring it is never vested in any party or individual that does not have the support of the majority of Canadians before getting 100% of the power. It is a matter of protecting our democracy in the future by voting yes tomorrow.

 

Scott Reid - Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have to take exception to one thing my hon. colleague just said. I personally do not believe that any electoral system has the effect of privileging or diminishing extremism. It has been an unfortunate aspect of this debate that the Prime Minister has asserted that proportionality would lead to greater power being exercised by extremists who would hold the balance of power, potentially, in some future government and be able to get disproportionate influence. My colleague from the Green Party is now making the opposite assertion, that first past the post does this.

The fact is that we have seen pure proportionality used to terrible effect in Germany, in the system under which Hitler was elected, and yet it has not discredited proportionality in other countries, including Israel, the Netherlands, and so on. The same thing is true for first past the post and, I suggest, any system. We need to discuss these things with the goal of trying to improve our system as much as we can, but I actually do not think it is helpful to suggest that any system that is going to be seriously considered in this country, including the status quo, actually privileges extremism. We are an inherently moderate country, we have more than a century of inherent moderatism, and I suggest that our future will be moderate and intelligent as well, as long as we are moderate in our rhetoric.

 

Elizabeth May 

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the chance to respond to my friend from Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, and I want to thank him once again for his superb contribution to our work on the committee.

He has misunderstood my point. I did not say that first past the post privileged extremism. I am saying that Canada is uniquely vulnerable to an extremist or unpopular leader, so to speak, of a party gaining 100% of the power with a minority of the votes. It is only under first past the post that a party with potentially 25% of the popular vote can get all of the power, because our executive and legislative are not separated, as they are in the U.S., and because, as we know, the Prime Minister of Canada is not subject to caucus confidence, which can remove the leader of the party and, thus, change the prime minister.

We have numerous authorities on this from academics, whether it is Peter Russell or Donald Savoie. A lot of experts have pointed out that the Prime Minister of Canada, relatively speaking, has more power than other leaders of other governments, and the reality is that no one should hold that office with a majority, unless the person is supported by the majority of the voters. That is why we have to get rid of first past the post.

 

Jenny Kwan - Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, fundamental to this issue is really the issue of trust in our democratic system.

A lot of young people went into the election believing this was going to materialize: the election would be the last one held under first past the post, and going forward we would have something different.

I am worried that this motion might not pass. I hope it will, as this is an opportunity for all members of the House to reflect on that and to pass this motion, to change course so that we can restore faith and ensure that the young people and Canadians who voted for change will actually have that change.

I wonder if the member could comment on the democratic system and the faith the electorate placed on us, and on restoring the work we need to do to demonstrate that democracy is in fact fundamental to the promises we make.

 

Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, clearly, no one would debate or dispute that our democracy is threatened by cynicism and that those who give up on voting are a tremendous loss to the health of our democracy. In fact, when there is low voter turnout, we increasingly lose the legitimacy of government and we lose the empowerment of a society to actually choose its own course.

We are a democracy, and we should be getting 90%-plus voter turnout. We were pleased to see it go to 68% last time. I believe the reason we saw it go to 68% in 2015 was largely based on young people voting for the first time, young people who believed this promise, young people who will become increasingly cynical and angry, and who may not vote again if we do not work hard in this place to find some common political ground to deliver on that promise, either partially or fully, and with a promise for before the next election. One way or another, this promise for fair democracy and fair voting must be kept alive.

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