OTTAWA – A special all-party committee is recommending that the Trudeau government design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge how much Canadians would support it.
The long-awaited report of the electoral reform committee also recommends that the government not proceed at this time with mandatory voting or online voting.
In a dissenting report, however, the committee’s Liberal members — the party does not support a referendum — is essentially recommending that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abandon his promise to change the system before the next election.
The 392-page majority report is the product of a hard-won consensus among members of the committee, on which the four opposition parties held a majority.
Whether the government will accept the recommendations, however, remains far from certain.
Trudeau, who promised that the 2015 federal election would be the last conducted under the so-called first-past-the post system, has already suggested that public enthusiasm for electoral reform has waned since his Liberals won power last fall.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef has repeatedly said she’s detected no consensus around any particular alternative and has warned that the government won’t proceed without the broad support of Canadians.
Monsef has conducted her own hearings and is about to launch a postcard campaign inviting all Canadians to take part in an online survey.
Monsef has also said she doesn’t like the idea of a referendum, citing the expense and its potential divisiveness. Still, she’s said she’ll take the idea seriously if it’s recommended by the committee.
The supplementary Liberal report says Canadians have not been sufficiently engaged in the issue, and recommends “a period of comprehensive and effective citizen engagement” before recommending a specific voting system.
“We believe that this engagement process cannot be effectively completed before 2019.”
Unlike Monsef’s conclusion that there is no consensus, the majority report acknowledges that the “overwhelming majority” of testimony the committee heard from almost 200 electoral experts and thousands of interested Canadians was in favour of proportional representation.
And it says most of those PR advocates favoured a mixed-member proportional system, in which MPs would be elected in each riding just as they are currently, supplemented by additional regional MPs chosen from party lists and apportioned according to each party’s share of the vote.
In the end, though, the report does not recommend a specific proportional voting model. It does say that whatever model the government designs should score no more than 5 on the so-called Gallagher Index — a formula for measuring the degree of disproportion between the share of votes received by parties and their share of seats in the legislature.
The lower the score, the more proportional an electoral system is deemed to be. Canada’s existing system — criticized for routinely handing the majority of seats in the House of Commons to a party that won less than 40 per cent of the popular vote, for under-representing small national parties and over-representing regionally concentrated parties — scores a 17 on the index.
The report also says that whatever proportional model the government designs, it should not involve MPs being chosen from closed lists supplied by the parties, which the committee says would sever the connection between voters and their MP.
Furthermore, the report says the new system should be aimed at increasing voter turnout and improving the chances of electing women, the disabled, youth, indigenous Canadians, visible minorities and members of other historically under-represented groups.
At the same time, the report recommends that the government amend the Canada Elections Act to create a financial incentive for parties to run more women candidates, such as reimbursement of campaign expenses.
The report does not recommend precisely how a referendum should be conducted or how many electoral options Canadians should be asked to choose among, other than to say that the existing system should also be on the ballot, along with the government’s proposed new model.
And in a nod to the time crunch facing the government if the voting system is to be changed in time for the next election in October 2019, the report says the design of the new voting system should be completed prior to the start of the referendum campaign.
Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has said Elections Canada would need six months to prepare for a referendum and at least two years after that to get any new voting system up and running.