With a national election more than three years away, even the most civic-minded Canadian could be forgiven for having taken a seasonal break from politics over the summer. The halls of Parliament were filled mostly with tourists throughout July and August.
Except Room 237-C.
That’s where a committee of politicians gathered, without fanfare, to set the stage for a seismic shift in the way Canadians vote. In a sharp contrast with the recent federal election — when politicians were desperate for your attention — this past summer saw some of them trying to move as quickly and quietly as possible on electoral reform.
The task set by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government for these politicians was to begin rewriting the most basic rules governing how we vote, what that vote means and how Members of Parliament are chosen. And unless you are a heavily-credentialed academic, you likely weren’t invited.
At these committee meetings there have been discussions about merging constituencies, eliminating local Members of Parliament and implementing complicated voting systems like the one in use in Australia — where the outcome of a recent election was delayed for weeks while ballots the size of dorm-room posters were carefully tabulated like a choose-your-own-adventure book.
Canada is one of the most stable and admired democracies in the world. Canadians are proud of our current system, and rightly so. We’ve been blessed in the fact that Canadian troops haven’t had to fight for our own liberty for generations, even though they frequently have done so for others around the world. We have built a country and a democracy in which our differences make us stronger, one that serves as a shining example to the world.
Changing the way we vote has the potential to change everything we understand about our electoral system. That’s because it would change the incentives for voters and the politicians who seek their favour. Academics can theorize about the relative merits of different electoral systems, but at the end of the day, we simply don’t know how any of these changes will affect Canada’s democracy.
One thing we do know is that no one political party should be able to use its 39 per cent of the popular vote to rig the next election in its favour by unilaterally changing the voting system for 100 per cent of Canadians.
I firmly believe choices about the value of our vote should not be left in the hands of a small group of politicians who have a personal stake in the outcome. Any change to what our vote means can only be made with the consent of the Canadian people.
The solution is simple: If you want to change the rules of democracy, then voters — not politicians — must have the final say. To make such a monumental change without consulting Canadians would be a clear conflict of interest — one that should worry every Canadian who takes his or her voting rights seriously. And the only way to ensure Canadians are clearly heard is to hold a national referendum.
Still, the prime minister and Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef have consistently refused to seriously consider a referendum. Their arguments against a public vote — that the issues are too complex for the average voter, that Canadians cannot make difficult decisions themselves, that Ottawa politicians may not get the answer they want in a referendum — are not only arrogant and elitist, they betray a fundamental misunderstanding about the fundamental source of democratic power. That power comes from the people themselves.
During the summer, Room 237-C heard from an “expert” witness, Dennis Pilon, who called regular Canadians too “ignorant” to be entrusted with a decision like choosing a voting system. Shortly after he finished his testimony, Liberals tweeted that he did a “great job”.
If the prime minister believes that he does not need the consent of Canadians to change what their vote means, he is mistaken.
If the prime minister believes he has the power to rig the next election in his favour, his arrogance knows no boundaries.
But if he believes that what he is doing is in the best interest of Canadians, and not just in the best interest of the Liberal party, then he should not be afraid to propose an alternative, make his case to Canadians — and let them make the final decision.
It’s time for the prime minister to commit to a referendum on electoral reform.