May: Electoral reform committee has set records for public consultation – let’s not throw that away

Ever since the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform was created in June, we have had a designation in the House of Commons emails and online presence as ERRE: “Electoral Reform-Réforme Electorale.” It generally ends up sounding like ERRRRR, although some have tried in vain to twist it into “eerie.”

We are hardly the first group of Canadian parliamentarians to have been tasked with examining our “winner-take-all” voting system to consider its flaws. The first committee met in 1921. Since then, more than a dozen efforts, provincial and federal, citizen assemblies and law commissions have all recommended that the quality of our democracy, the requirements of fairness will be better served once First Past The Post (FPTP) is gone and we move to a proportional voting system.

We have developed quite a following on twitter – hashtag #ERRE – and we have fans on CPAC (yes, really!). As a team of 12 MPs from five parties, with a superb staff from House clerks to Library of Parliament analysts, we have set records and broken new ground in consultations.

With the advent of e-consultation, ERRE has pioneered public input by online questionnaire. It was not an easy or quick process, and not entirely user-friendly, yet 20,000 people used that method to reach us. In addition, thousands more submitted briefs or letters. Hundreds attended our hearings in person, stepping up to an open mic to make their case. We took questions on Twitter. The input of hundreds of MP town halls also comes to us.

And our road trip was intense. Every day for three weeks, we flew (or bused) to a new province or town. We were ready for witnesses by 1:30 p.m. and heard the last witnesses at 9:30 p.m. The next morning, we were on an early flight to do the whole thing again. We held hearings in 19 locations, in every province and territory. We have heard from hundreds of expert witnesses in political science, constitutional law and electoral systems as well as those with expertise in the challenges of voting for persons with disabilities, the poor and groups underrepresented in Parliament: women, minorities, indigenous persons.

Of course, none of this got us any media notice. For reasons beyond my comprehension, journalists seem to think this issue is boring.  Fortunately, Canadians don’t agree. We began to feel like rock stars arriving at airports where hard-core “democro-geeks,” as Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef has dubbed those of us for whom this is a passion, were waiting to cheer us on arrival.

It might be said that Justin Trudeau did the process a favour by musing about whether there was less need for electoral reform now that he has become prime minister. Trudeau’s comments as reported in Le Devoir were ambiguous, but could be interpreted as meaning that there was not a sufficient public appetite for electoral reform to justify keeping his campaign promise: “To make every vote count, 2015 will be the last election held under First Past the Post.”

Thankfully, he has clarified that he remains committed to this long-overdue reform. It is an historic opportunity. Never before in Canada has a party campaigned on the need for fair voting – to prevent the distortions that allow a minority of the vote to elect a majority government – and then formed government. To the credit of our prime minister, the promise remains front and centre, repeated in the Speech from the Throne and pursued by the ERRE committee.

That is not to say that there are not forces within both the Conservative and Liberal parties hoping this promise will go away.

Reforming our voting system so that the will of the electorate is reflected in the composition of Parliament is the right thing to do, but it won’t be easy. The 12 of us on the committee are committed to fulfilling our responsibilities. We have a mandate and will deliver.  Then it is over to the prime minister to prove that we were right in taking him at his word.