The timing is right for electoral reform

It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister reiterate his commitment to electoral reform this week after recent comments from the Minister of Democratic Institutions had left the process in doubt.  All the more important, the statement from the Prime Minister clarifies a position that he appeared to walk away from during an interview with Le Devoir  where he stated he no longer sees the same appetite for electoral reform he did when the Conservatives were in power.

That interview was worrisome since it suggested that ending first-past-the-post elections was more of a throw away election promise than a concrete one. It also put a huge question mark over the work that the Special Committee on Electoral Reform was doing and left Canadians confused by the process.

This week’s comments from the Prime Minister can be filed under better late than never since they came at the 11th hour - a day before the committee tabled its report in parliament.

The report is calling for a referendum on proportional representation which is a system that many Canadians have been advocating for as a way to make our elections much fairer.  First past the post might work fine in a two party system, but we haven’t had a two party election in Canada since 1917.   Even then there were independent candidates and MPs in parliament going back to 1872 and there were three parties in our first ever election - the forgotten one being the Anti-Confederates. 

Electoral reform is an ongoing process for any healthy democracy and many changes have already been made to arrive at our current system.   Women only received the right to vote in 1920 and First Nations voted for the first time in 1960.  Confederation preceded the adoption of the secret ballot and the right to vote was only enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

Proportional Representation (PR) is something that New Democrats have been proponents of for years.  The Liberals supported it when they were the third place party in our last parliament and it also has support from the Green Party, Fair Vote Canada, Lead Now, the Council of Canadians, the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Federation of Students, and many others.   PR can be employed in a number of different forms, but all strive to build a parliament that more closely matches the popular vote across the country.  It would force MPs to work together, across party lines and reduce the likelihood of absolute power resting in one party, or one individual if the governing party has an overbearing leader.

There are still hurdles to overcome.  For starters, the Liberals who sat on the committee are stating that it is already too late to implement change for the 2019 election and that they don’t support the idea of a referendum.  New Democrats raised concerns over the delay in setting up the committee last winter for that exact reason, but the timeline is not insurmountable either.  The fixed election date is a creation of parliament and can easily be changed to accommodate the time needed to repair our first past the post system that routinely hands political parties majority governments for less than 50% of the vote.  We are being offered a unique opportunity to make our democracy more representative, so artificial timelines need not be applied to the exercise.