Hébert: Electoral reform left lying in ruins

Cut through the spin that has attended the publication this week of the much-awaited conclusions of a special parliamentary committee on electoral reform, and what you find is a collective failure to rise above partisan self-interest.

When it comes to the rules of engagement of future federal election battles, every party is ultimately in it for itself.

In this context, the claim that the committee’s work advanced the discussion is eminently debatable.

At the end of the day, a majority on the committee could not even agree that a move to a different electoral system is desirable.

The recommendation that the options of sticking to the status quo, or moving to a more proportional system be put to a referendum, is little more than a convenient cover for irreconcilable positions.

The Conservatives came into this discussion riding the referendum horse, and they come out of it more firmly in the saddle.

They have not budged an inch from their sense that the first-past-the-post system remains the best option. But they have found support from the other opposition parties for their contention that any change should clear the hurdle of a national vote.

Even as they are part of a pro-referendum consensus, the New Democrats, for instance, continue to argue that it is not necessarily essential to put a reform to a national vote prior to its implementation.

If the Liberals set out to put in place the more proportional voting system the New Democrats crave, the government could find support on their benches for dispensing with a referendum.

But the NDP has otherwise failed to win either of the other main parties over to its bid for a more proportional system. And, among the electorate, the numbers suggest it has mostly been preaching to the converted.

The party did mobilize proportional representation advocates – in no small part drawn from its own ranks – to show support for a reform along those lines. The town halls it sponsored were well attended.

But by the less partisan measure of the take-up for the committee’s public consultations, the level of public engagement is uneven at best. Ontario and British Columbia alone accounted for two-thirds of those who took part in the committee’s online consultation. Only five per cent of the participants identified as French-speaking.

That is not to say that, in the event that the government ditches the promise that the 2015 election was the last one fought under the current system, New Democrat efforts to wave the reform flag would not pay off. A broken Liberal promise on this front could bring lapsed NDP supporters back to the fold.

But given that the electoral reform debate is taking place in the shadow of a showdown over pipelines, it may be hard to ascertain if any rise in NDP support in the polls over the next few weeks or months is related to one rather than the other.

As for the Liberals, they have managed to turn a secondary policy front into a field of ruins.

With the logistical clock ticking on moving to a different voting system in time for 2019, the government waited eight months to set up a process to follow up on the prime minister’s election promise.

The Liberals went into the debate with a known preference for a ranked ballot but could not be bothered or could not find a critical mass of intervenors to advance that option.

The Liberal committee members ended up rejecting the time frame set by their own leader to achieve a reform as unrealistic, and the notion of a more proportional system as too radical.

In all the years that I’ve covered Parliament, I’d never heard a cabinet member dismiss a major committee report as contemptuously as Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef did in the House on Thursday. (She subsequently apologized for the choice of words, but not the substance of her arguments.)

At the end of this week, it is not just Justin Trudeau’s word on electoral reform that can be construed as not having been given in good faith, but also his commitment to run a government that has a minimum of consideration for the work of parliamentarians – including those who toil on its backbench.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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