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William Hogarth, The Polling, 1755

Is the government’s electoral reform dialogue toolkit as stupid as it looks?

Oh God, it might not be.

Okay, here goes. The government’s new electoral reform dialogue toolkit may not be as stupid as it seems.

In case you were unaware, the Liberal government is — at least ostensibly — attempting to find a way to reform the way Canadians vote in federal elections from the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to something else. In its 2015 campaign platform, the Liberal party committed to making that election the last one held under the FPTP system. To do it, they committed to establishing a parliamentary committee that will review the alternative voting systems. And, subsequently, they also committed to introducing new legislation to enact electoral reform within 18 months of taking office.

That committee is now in session, but getting there hasn’t been easy. There were problems initially with the committee’s makeup. And there have been discussions about how the different electoral systems might, respectively, be established nationally. But most pressing of all has been the question about a referendum — that is, a question put to all Canadians about whether they really want to vote a different way or not, before any decisions are made by parliamentarians over what the alternative might be.

A referendum on electoral reform was an idea first pitched by the Conservatives. And given that fact, cynically, this option can be seen as a grenade meant to destroy the process before it really gets going. That’s because the theory goes that under any system other than FPTP — that is, using systems of ranked balloting or proportional representation — the Conservatives would have a very difficult time being in power. And since in the past in both British Columbia and Ontario, voters have opted to stick with FPTP, the thinking also goes that the Conservatives are betting that Canadians generally would do the same, thus settling the matter and allowing the Conservatives to retain their apparent advantage in an apparently disadvantageous system.

The Liberals, on the other hand, are opposed to a referendum.

“Although I recognize that a referendum is one way of seeking clarity from Canadians, I remain to be convinced that it is the best way,” Maryam Monsef, minister for democratic institutions — and thus the minister in charge of implementing electoral reform should it happen — said Wednesday at committee.

She also noted that, in the past, referendums in Canada have drawn very low voter turnout, sometimes less than 50%. “My apprehension with a referendum is the possibility that it will provide an incomplete picture of what Canadians want,” Monsef said. She repeated her desire to instead gather intel from Canadians in other ways.

This has been a constant line from Monsef for months: that there are ways of garnering Canadians’ interests in electoral reform, including on what kind of system they might prefer, in a manner other than a referendum. But it has never been entirely clear what that might be. Back in May, Monsef spoke in circles to the Toronto Star when pressed on the issue.

“I want to assure all Canadians that we will not proceed with any changes without the broad support of Canadians,” Monsef said. Star reporter Alex Boutilier then asked how exactly, the government would gauge that support. “Frankly, that’s the debate. And we will not proceed with any changes without the broad buy-in of the people of this country.”

Boutilier was flummoxed. “I’m just trying to get a sense of what that means,” he replied.

“It means that there needs to be a conversation in the House of Commons including all parties. It’s an opportunity for us to engage in debate about how to move forward in the 21st century. And that in itself is the conversation we need to be having,” Monsef said.

Even by the terrible standard of non-answers, this was a terrible non-answer.

But, two months later, we now have some clarity as to what she might have been non-talking about, because on Wednesday, Monsef unveiled an idea: that people around the country can host electoral reform discussion groups and, after collecting thoughts and reactions from those attending, send a briefing to her office.

The plan has been met with immediate derision, as has the 38-page document released by the Privy Council Office that acts as a guide for those who want to host one of these discussion groups. And that scorn is partly warranted. The guide goes into details, for instance, about optimum seating setup and includes the note that “hosting a successful dialogue is both an art and a craft.”

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William Hogarth, An Election Entertainment, 1755

On Twitter Wednesday evening, the whole concept was soundly ridiculed. At the same time, reasonable questions were asked about its potential effectiveness — for instance how, if a referendum was not sufficient to gauge the true breadth of public interest, these random groups of discussions should be considered a more telling cross-section of national opinion.

And yet…

Could this plan for electoral reform discussion groups be that much of a mistake? Are we to believe nobody raised a flag about any of these questions internally before this plan was revealed to the public?

Perhaps!

Then again, maybe we’re looking at this document all wrong. Maybe this is not a replacement for a referendum at all. Maybe, instead, this is the first clue that a referendum is coming.

A thought experiment might be necessary here.

Let’s assume that there will be a referendum on electoral reform. And let’s assume that the Liberals also assume this — or at least entertain the idea more than they publicly let on. What do they do?

Maybe they work backwards from that point: Their concern is that the referendum will not go their way (ie. a “Yes” to reform). And, pace Monsef, it will not go their way because voter turnout will be low. And it will be low because people will not be informed.

Okay. So how do they pre-emptively work to counteract those issues? You’d logically start from the bottom. That means you need to start first with informing people. But there is still an issue — that of agency.

In other words, you ask: How do you make sure that people are informing themselves — so they are not easily convinced by someone that they are being coerced from above by a government with an agenda?

And how do you start that process before there is a referendum campaign where facts and reality are likely going to be thrown to the rhetorical winds? How do you work to make sure people feel like they know what they know before they are told what to know — even if that might still mean they disagree with the idea of reform?

Maybe you try to make reform appear more grassroots. Maybe you provide people with a fairly comprehensive breakdown of electoral systems, explained in plain language. And maybe you suggest that people sit in a semi-circle and talk it through with their friends or neighbours.

Maybe that’s literally the best option you have.

writer.

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