Elizabeth May: We’ve got two years to get the public fully involved in electoral reform

Any day now, a postcard will arrive in your mailbox to invite you to participate in the single most important democratic reform in a generation: moving to ensure that in Canada “every vote counts.”

Some will reply with sophistry – “every vote is counted now” – but anyone who looks at our majoritarian, winner-take-all voting system knows that every vote does not count. Those “orphan” votes are those cast for the NDP in safe Conservative ridings, those for Conservatives in safe Liberal ridings and those for Green candidates almost everywhere.

It was an enormous honour for me to participate as a member of the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform. Over the last five months, in nearly 60 meetings, we have put in long hours, travelled to every part of Canada, and heard from literally thousands of Canadians.

The evidence was overwhelming that Canadian democracy will be reinvigorated and the quality of it vastly improved as we reject the archaic First-Past-the-Post voting system.  The recommendation to move to proportionality to ensure that, in the words of the Speech from the Throne, “every vote counts” is driven by abundant evidence.

We heard from the leading political scientists, electoral systems practitioners, academics and public policy analysts from within Canada and around the world. While we heard many opinions, that held by the vast majority was that First-Past-the-Post is a deeply flawed system that perverts the will of the electorate and creates a political culture of hyper-partisan conflict.

Our committee achieved support from four out of the five parties on the committee that it is time to move to a voting system where the will of the voters is closely mirrored in the composition of the House, and to do so by 2019. We leave it to the government to choose among a number of systems that protect the relationship between citizens and their local MP, while also ensuring proportionality. Any number of systems we studied, from Mixed Member Proportional, to Single Transferable Vote, to Fair Vote Canada’s Rural-Urban proposal.

I also believe that making the change incrementally is an option for the government, although not one identified by the majority of the committee. In other words, Canadians could experience a small move toward proportionality in a change in 2019 to allow greater familiarity with the concept, and move to a full PR system in the next election.

Undoubtedly, the most controversial of our recommendations will be that in moving to proportional representation, we should hold a referendum first. The evidence before us did not find any legal or constitutional requirement for a referendum. Quite the contrary.

Significant changes to our electoral system over the decades – extending suffrage to women, indigenous people, Japanese Canadians, and expanding the power of political parties by adding their names to the ballot – did not involve a referendum. Provinces have moved from multi-member ridings to single ridings without using a referendum.  At the federal level, we have only held three referenda since 1867. Ours is a responsible government, meaning that elected members of Parliament are responsible to the electorate. And it is the job of Parliament to pick a voting system.

In the effort to achieve consensus, those of us who opposed referenda compromised. However, Green Party members will determine the appropriate response for the party I lead.

The most significant recommendation is that we fulfil Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election pledge. In this, we have a critical two-year opportunity to ensure full public engagement, between legislating the new system in 2017 and the next election in 2019. Let’s start with that post card in your mail box.