Parliament: Speech on the Government’s Commitments Regarding Electoral Reform

Elizabeth May:

Madam Speaker, I rise today and want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the unceded territory of the Algonquin of Golden Lake. We say meegwetch.

Before I begin my speech, I would like to thank my colleague, the member for Perth—Wellington. I am delighted that he decided to share his speaking time with me. I would also like to thank the member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, who was a member of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform. We have been working together for several months, and we are working very hard.

Today’s debate is on the following motion:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government misled Canadians on its platform and Throne Speech commitment “that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system”, and that the House call on the government to apologize to Canadians for breaking its promise.

The promise was clearer than that. The Liberals also said they would introduce a bill on electoral reform. However, according to information provided to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, their promise is no more.

As I look at this, I want to take this House, my colleagues who are here today, through what we heard in the electoral reform committee, and then put that up against the question that is before us today. Do I vote for a resolution that says, “That, in the opinion of the House, the government misled Canadians…”?

Let me start with what I specifically heard in my own riding. I sent out a questionnaire to every household in the riding, and the households of Saanich—Gulf Islands filled out forms and sent them back to me by the hundreds, overwhelmingly favouring proportional representation as a new system of voting.

I also held town halls within my riding, and 400 people showed up in Sidney, British Columbia, where I live. In Saturna, a tiny island, we had 80 people and the honour of the former minister of democratic institutions participating. We had about 150 people out on Salt Spring Island. Those were the town halls within my riding.

I also conducted town halls with the Green Party in many communities across Canada. Overwhelmingly, what we heard in those town halls was that people liked this promise. It influenced them to vote. Many people said they had voted Liberal because of that promise. For me, as an individual, I have to say it influenced my vote. I know I am the only member of the opposition who voted for the Speech from the Throne, because that promise meant so much to me, and it was clear, black and white, that 2015 would be the last election held under first past the post.

As well, I was honoured to be named and voted by this House as a member of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform. I want to say that we had great leadership, as my colleague from Louis-Saint-Laurent mentioned just moments ago, from the chair, the member for Lac-Saint-Louis.

We worked together as a team. We worked very hard. We heard from thousands and thousands of Canadians and virtually every expert on electoral reform from within Canada and from around the world.

We discovered, when we dug deep into this issue, that we were not the first parliamentary committee to study whether first past the post was a good voting system for Canada. The first committee was actually in 1921, and it concluded that it did not serve Canada well, that in any democracy that had more than two parties, first past the post would distort the results and result in elections of parties that were not supported by the majority of Canadians but that would enjoy majority power.

Some of the evidence was very compelling, and I could go on at length but I will not have time now. However, I will just say that the evidence was overwhelming that proportional representation would serve Canada better.

We heard from one of the preeminent global experts by video conference from the University of California, Professor Arend Lijphart, who has a seminal work Patterns of Democracy. He studied every single election in 36 democracies from 1945 to virtually now to see if there was a difference between what he described as the majoritarian systems using first past the post or ranked ballots within first past the post. He also studied consensual democracies, which are those with proportional representation. He found on average 7% higher voter turnout in those countries that have proportional representation, a much higher representation of women, marginalized groups, and ethnic minorities in countries with PR, but perhaps surprisingly, stronger environmental regulations and better macroeconomic performance.

The bugaboos about proportional representation that will lead to extremists getting into Parliament and so on have been disproved over and over again, including in the text of our report. We recognize it is a risk but with either a mixed member proportional system with a threshold or with using single transferable vote, the electorate is not going to give a seat to an extremist party. If the government looked at the recommendations of our committee it would see that we clearly said we would specifically not advise using the system used in Israel or any system where people vote purely on a party. We want to make sure that our democracy always has that link between a local MP and ensures proportionality.

With the time I have left I will now turn to the specifics of this resolution, that the government misled Canadians in its platform and in the Speech from the Throne. Every speaker on behalf of the government has today denied that there was any intent to mislead nor that the government actually misled anyone. The words “good faith” have been used. It states it made this promise in good faith.

The only way we are going to get fair voting in Canada is if we can somehow get past partisanship, which we nearly did in our committee. If we would have had more time, if we would have had a consensus-based process within our committee instead of falling to default at the end to voting and so on, we could have arrived at a conclusion with which we could all agree. I cannot reveal what happened in camera.

To suspend partisanship and to suspend disbelief, as a member of Parliament I have two choices here. I can either accept there was a deliberate attempt to mislead Canadians by making a promise with no intention of keeping it, or I can accept the words of all my Liberal colleagues that there was good faith, that there was no intent to mislead. That leaves only one conclusion, and that conclusion is that the Liberals still want to keep this promise but they just cannot figure out how. Those are the two choices we have. We are either facing a government that misled us as Canadian voters and as members of Parliament, or we are dealing with a Prime Minister and ministers and a cabinet who cannot figure out where we go from here.

We heard from the former parliamentary secretary today, the member for Ajax. I am not paraphrasing. I took notes as he was speaking. He said the government did not see a clear path forward. The Prime Minister himself in this place has never once said he was wrong. He never once said that first past the post is a good system, and thank goodness for that. That means we can still infer that the Prime Minister would rather keep his promise than break it.

What can we do now? Can we help the government by putting this promise back in the front window so it will not break faith with the Canadians who believed in the Liberals and believed that promise?

How do we do that? Fortunately, there are numerous ways forward. If the Prime Minister was rash in promising he would get rid of first past the post by 2019, what if we did a path over a period of elections? By 2019 there will be, if we were to take it incrementally, some additional seats under mixed member proportional or if we were to take it under single transferable vote, we would cluster most of the ridings in urban Canada and areas where they would be clusterable for those who understand the system. In other words, there are places for a landing ground where we can make the promise work.

We must not leave the future of Canada’s democracy with a system so perverse that a minority of the voters can give majority power to an extremist, future demagogue/false populist, alt-right, whatever we can imagine, or for my friends in the Conservative Party, extremist left-wing. We need the kind of Parliament that reflects how Canadians actually voted. That is the heart of democracy. That is the heart of the promise, and it must be kept.