We're now at meeting number 14 of our special committee's study of electoral reform.
We have three witnesses this evening. Thank you so much for making the time to be here not only in the summertime, but also the evening.
I would like to take a moment to briefly introduce our three witnesses. Professor Nathalie Des Rosiers is currently the dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, and former general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. She is also former president of the Law Commission of Canada and a member of Fair Vote Canada's national advisory board. Professor Des Rosiers has been awarded the Order of Canada for her work on advancing civil liberties and has received numerous other accolades, including being named one of Canada's 10 nation-builders in 2010 by The Globe and Mail.
Christian Dufour is a lawyer, political scientist, writer and commentator. A columnist for Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec, Mr. Dufour is also a researcher and a professor at the École nationale d'administration publique in Montreal. His areas of research include democratic institutions and electoral reform.
Through his work in the Quebec public service, Mr. Dufour acquired considerable experience in intergovernmental affairs. He has published numerous works on Quebec's identity, and on linguistic and political issues.
Harold Jansen is an associate professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge. Dr. Jansen has focused part of his research on electoral systems and electoral reform, as well as on the impact of the Internet on political communication and democratic citizenship. He has also researched the use of preferential voting, namely the single transferable vote, and alternative vote systems in Canada.
Welcome to all three of you. We're greatly looking forward to the insight you will be providing to us.
We'll start with Ms. Des Rosiers, if that's okay.
Good afternoon and thank you, Mr. Chair. I want to thank the committee for inviting me to appear today. I will speak in English and in French. Copies of my presentation have already been distributed.
Today, I am speaking as a former president of the Law Commission of Canada, which produced a report titled “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada” in 2004. I thought the committee may benefit from understanding the reasoning behind the report and our view of the issues Canada was facing then.
In general, I will make three points on this. First of all, certainly I think the commission was quite clear, based on its consultation and its work, that our current electoral system must be modernized. The first past the post system has too many disadvantages to support Canadians' present and future democratic aspirations. I will talk a little bit about the philosophical roots of the system and how it's a bit 19th century-ish in trying to respond to a 21st century society.
Our vision at the time was that the system must be reformed. We came to the conclusion that it was necessary to add an element of proportionality and curb the system's negative effects.
In a way, we were trying to maintain the good parts of the first past the post system while remedying the bad parts. It was a moderate report that was aimed at helping Canadians and Parliament grapple with this issue of electoral reform at that time. The moderate but resolute language was about engaging with this, stressing that modernization is essential. It was a progressive language of evolution of our electoral system.
The second point I want to make is important. Some electoral systems may exacerbate some of the distortions we see in our system, in particular the difficulty of our current system adequately reflecting the diversity of the Canadian population. Here I will talk a lot about gender equity. We should be mindful of this now and in the future, and my recommendation would be that if the committee is poised to recommend something other than what we had recommended, we would urge it to take into consideration the impact of its proposal on gender representation. I think that would be essential.
The third point I want to make is that the process of electoral reform is ongoing. We must look at the changes now, but we must also increase the institutional capacity to continue to monitor the effectiveness of change. In our report we recommended that after three elections there be a thorough evaluation of what's going on. We also recommended that there should be an institutional mechanism to have an ongoing ability to monitor what's going on and to make the institutional adaptations necessary.
We should not have to wait for a legitimacy crisis to make changes to the voting system. In a way, I will ask your committee to consider the commission's recommendations. I am talking about all the recommendations; not only those on the system recommended by the commission, but also other recommendations, which had to do with the institutional capacity to properly assess what is happening in the system and to carefully examine gender representation issues.
I'll say a few words about the commission.
The commission was set up in 1997. Its mandate was to ensure that the law would remain relevant in Canada. It was a legislative body that reported to Parliament through the Minister of Justice.
The report on electoral reform was produced as part of a study on governance relationships in Canada. In particular, we were concerned that innovation, which seemed to be occurring around the world, was not reflected in Canada. Many new democratic practices implemented in other countries appeared to be struggling to emerge in Canada. The commission was independent and well placed to study the issue of electoral reform and begin the conversation on the topic.
Many issues came up in our consultations, including lowering the voting age and election financing. The commission followed its usual process. It created expert panels, held public consultations and developed web tools. A three-year process led to our report, in a way.
The reasoning behind the conclusions of our report was based on the following. Reform of the electoral system—that is, the method by which votes are translated into seats—is not a panacea. It does not resolve all political malaise or failures. In fact, the electoral system must be changed if it does not adequately reflect the values of a society or produces distortions that undermine the system's legitimacy. From a legal perspective, it is important for the parliamentary system to be viewed as legitimate. That is actually what gives the laws that are passed moral authority.
No electoral system is perfect. No system can perfectly address all values that a society may want to see addressed. However, systems can be assessed in terms of the preferences they assign to our values or the balance they establish among those values. The preferences of some systems come at too high a price. That was our conclusion regarding the first-past-the-post system. Its preference for stability was too costly, as it deprived us of a more adequate representativeness in terms of ideas and people.
We propose 13 criteria for the evaluation of the system, which are in the report and reflect some of the ones that you've identified already. I could talk about that and the report later. I'm still going to focus on why we chose MMP in the end.
We evaluated different families of systems in light of our criteria. One of them was certainly geographical and territorial representation. Another was fairness. Demographic representation came up over and over again in our consultation. There was also meaningfulness: voters do not want wasted votes, but want to have the impression that what they're doing is being translated adequately. There was also one person, one vote; an effective legislature; consensus-building; accountability; effective government; effective opposition; ease of administration; and ease of transition. The closer the new system is to the current system, the easier it will be.
We considered, though, that the political culture would evolve and that it's dangerous to try to predict how actors will act and who will be the winner and who will be the loser. Our view was that we indeed had a robust democratic culture in Canada and that actors would adapt to the new system and make it work, so there was a certain way in which it was dangerous to assume that there would be failures.
We did consider and look in-depth at the question of gender and minority representation. We did many consultations and many studies on that. We concluded that electoral reform alone could not ensure gender equality.
That was a necessary but not sufficient condition. In our report,
we suggested that parties adopt additional measures, obviously to enlist women and minorities, and be accountable to Parliament for the measures they do or don't take. We made similar recommendations for indigenous representation.
We also made very specific recommendations for the type of MMP that could be implemented with closed-list thresholds.
Certainly, I think in terms of implementation, we did not recommend that a referendum be held but that the possibility be studied. Our view was that it was very difficult to determine, on a principled basis, why electoral reform as opposed to other legislative reforms—age of voting, party financing, symbolic requirements like citizenship—would require a referendum. For us it was more a question of
justifying why it would not be done in other contexts if this approach was used. As legal experts, we were concerned about ensuring the system's consistency.
In conclusion, electoral reform
is not a panacea, but is quite necessary at this time. It's normal to be reticent, but we should embrace the possibility of change and be confident that it's a vital step to improving public governance in Canada.
Thank you very much.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before this committee.
The way we translate citizen preferences into votes, and then those votes into seats, is fundamental to how democracy works in Canada. A serious discussion about the way we have been and could be doing this is long overdue. I can't think of a better way to spend an evening in August than to sit and talk about electoral systems.
As the chair pointed out, my research lies in two areas that might be of interest to the committee. First, in what seems like the increasingly distant past, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the use of the alternative vote and single transferable vote systems in Alberta and Manitoba between 1920 and 1955. I've read some of the testimony you've heard, so you've heard this already. These provinces used STV in the big cities and the alternative vote in the rural areas. These cases, along with British Columbia in 1952 and 1953, which used AV, represent the only uses of electoral systems other than the first past the post electoral system in provincial and federal elections. The use of STV, I think, is particularly interesting because it represents the only use of proportional electoral system in a context with political parties in Canada. I think we can, should, and do learn a lot from things around the world, but these examples provide some important domestic cases to help us understand how these systems might work.
I'm sure you're all going to be running out to read my doctoral thesis when this is done, but to save you the joys of reading 300 pages of turgid graduate student prose, I'll give you my major conclusions.
The second area where I do research that might be of interest to the committee is around Canadians' online political activity. My colleagues at four other Canadian universities and I have been surveying Canadians for the last two and a half years about their online political activities. In our surveys, we've asked a few questions about Canadians' attitudes toward online voting. This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and part of what they asked us to do was to try to come up with knowledge that would be useful and inform public debates. We've only begun to start analyzing some of that data, so I'm going to give you some preliminary findings quite briefly at the end.
My research into the uses of preferential balloting in Canadian provincial elections has led me to conclude that the alternative vote is probably not the best option for Canada. The historical experience with AV suggests that it results in election outcomes that differ little from those we would encounter under the first past the post system, and it wouldn't do anything to address the most serious shortcoming of first past the post: the failure to produce a legislature that accurately reflects the preferences of Canadians. In Alberta and Manitoba, the system had no impact on proportionality, which is how political scientists measure the correspondence between seats and votes. It had no impact whatsoever.
Even if we look at the district level, the alternative vote produces results that differ little from first past the post. In the entire experience of Alberta, with over 30 years of using the alternative vote, fewer than 3% of all the seats contested would have turned out differently under AV than first past the post. In Manitoba, the number is less than 2%. In other words, in 97% to 98% of the cases, the person ahead on the first count ends up winning, and that person would have won under the first past the post system.
A big reason for that is that over half of Manitoba's voters, and nearly half of Alberta's voters, in the AV districts only bothered to indicate a first preference. Even though they can rank all the candidates, what we find is that many voters—and in Manitoba's case most voters—only indicate a first preference. They don't even bother with a second preference, let alone a third or subsequent preferences.
When we imagine how the alternative vote might work in Canada, we often cast our eyes toward Australia, but one of the things we often overlook in the Australian case, especially nationally, is that in Australia voters are legally compelled to rank each and every candidate. That's a big difference. In Canada, we didn't do that. There are, I would argue, some moral issues around that. Would we want to compel people to perhaps contribute to the election of a candidate or party that they fundamentally oppose? It might be their third choice out of four candidates. In Canada, we didn't do that, and when we leave voters to their own devices, many voters don't seem to want to indicate more than one preference. We tend to imagine a greater use of preferences than might be the case.
Another finding was that the alternative vote resulted in a significant increase in rejected ballots in all three provinces where it was used. In some of the cases, this was the result of various stringent ballot marking rules. In the case of Manitoba, they didn't have those stringent ballot marking rules, and we saw a tripling in the rate of rejected ballots. We might think it doesn't ask a lot of voters to write one, two, and three rather than an X, but there is some circumstantial evidence—and we don't have access to the ballots to know exactly what the problems were—that there were problems for voters, at least at that time.
By contrast, I'd argue the STV system used in Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg performed much better. It much more accurately reflected the wishes of voters in legislative representation.
We tend to focus on the fact that a move to a proportional electoral system would likely mean the end of majority governments, and I know this has been pointed out to the committee several times by now. But one of the things we often overlook is that such a system can ensure that we end up with an opposition that's sizable enough to do the job. I come from Alberta where provincially that's been a problem for much of its history. We don't tend to have large oppositions. The use of STV in Edmonton and Calgary during the Social Credit years actually was instrumental in ensuring that there was some opposition in the legislature. While Social Credit swept nearly all the rural seats, after they got rid of STV and AV after the 1955 election, Social Credit swept nearly all the seats in Edmonton and Calgary.
One of the purported benefits of STV is that voters can jump between candidates of different parties. But to what extent did they actually do this? Theoretically, you're right: they could pick, and I'll use the current federal context. They really like the Liberal candidate, then a Conservative, then a New Democrat, then a Green, then a Liberal, then a Conservative. They could go in whatever order they want to. But what I found, when we looked at how voters actually used it in Alberta and Manitoba, is that they tended to vote along party lines. If there was another candidate from that party available, 60% to 90% of transferred ballots stayed within the party. Once the last candidate from a party was eliminated, 35% to 40% of the votes were just by people who wouldn't indicate any more preferences after that. This suggests to me that fewer voters than we might anticipate take advantage of that freedom to jump between parties. This is one of the arguments made to support STV over other PR alternatives.
There are some costs with STV, which is that the ballots tend to be longer and more complex. We may not actually see as many voters taking advantage of the benefits as we might expect.
I'll just quickly say there was no impact on voter turnout in either system. Often this is cast as a potential benefit. I could find no evidence that it made any difference. There was also concern expressed that proportional representation could lead to a proliferation of parties, and I also found no evidence of that.
To me, the big take-away, looking at these cases, is to echo something that André Blais told you last month, that claims about other impacts of electoral systems on things like party formation and voter turnout should be taken with a bit of caution, as those kinds of things tend to have multiple causes. The electoral system can play a role, but it's not the only role.
The one thing that the electoral system does is alter the math of the translation of votes into seats. PR systems like STV or MMP or list PR do that much more accurately than first past the post, or the alternative vote. I'd argue that this is really the fundamental basis on which a decision about electoral reform should be made.
Quickly, when it comes to online voting, we find some interesting things. Our survey of the research shows that a significant proportion of Canadians have concerns about its safety, but they still are very interested in doing it. In our survey, 36% of Canadians thought that Internet voting was risky; 42% thought it was safe; and the rest weren't sure one way or the other. What I found very interesting, though, is that a third of the people who said it was risky still said they were very likely to vote online if it were available to them. I think it's because the risk doesn't accrue to them personally; it's a risk to the system, not to them personally.
That said, those who think it's safe are considerably more likely to vote online if they can. I think that if there were to be any move towards that, there would need to be some work done to reassure voters of the safety and security of it.
If it were an option, 55% of our respondents said they were very likely to vote online; 22% said they were somewhat likely. That's pretty staggering.
One caution: our survey was done through an online panel.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Prof. Harold Jansen: These are people who are very comfortable with online technology. I will absolutely tell you that it overstates the extent of the comfort. I can't tell you by how much, so bear that in mind.
The other thing we find—indeed, any political science research that does surveys—is that the kind of people who are willing to sit in front of their computer for 20 minutes answering questions about politics are very politically interested, so we get a very high voter response. This is just a problem we all face.
Among the small number of people who said they didn't vote, 48% said they would have very likely done so had online voting been available.
The last point I want to make about online voting is that I looked at some of the demographic predictors. Are there certain groups that could be left behind? Two stood out. Very high income people were most likely to say they would very likely vote online. And this isn't going to surprise you: it's people who are very comfortable with digital technology. This has been an emerging theme.
As more and more political activity moves online, our team is increasingly getting concerned about people who lack confidence in their digital skills. This suggests to me that any move to online voting should be pursued with some caution. It should be supplementary to what we have. It shouldn't replace the kinds of things Elections Canada always does, because there is a divide in digital skills that could end up disenfranchising voters.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.
I am honoured to be appearing before a House of Commons committee. At my venerable age, this is my first such appearance. Thank you for the invitation.
On Friday, I had a summary text titled “Two Deeply Different Dynamics” distributed to the committee members, since 10 minutes will not suffice for me to cover all the aspects.
During the question period following my presentation, I may have an opportunity to answer questions about the voting age, Internet voting or mandatory voting—topics I have not discussed in my text. In this presentation, I will stick to two of my most important points.
The first is about the reform process and the way to ensure its legitimacy, should the reform come to fruition—and that's no easy task. In the text, I tried to emphasize the deep difference between the dynamic of the current voting system, on the one hand, and that of proportional voting systems, on the other hand.
We are faced not only with technical or procedural differences, but also with structural changes. I do not have a lot of faith in adding small elements of proportionality. The dynamic is not the same. The political experience is different. It may change the way democracy and governance work in Canada.
I think it is clear that these are constitutional changes. That may not be the case in law, but in reality, I feel that it redefines how our democracy works. In addition, the voting system is an institution that has been in place in Canada for 150 years. We have had the same voting system since 1867. In fact, if the reform is implemented, it would arguably be the most significant reform made by the Trudeau government. That is why it is important for there to be true consensus in order to adopt this reform and ensure its legitimacy.
I am quite the francophone, but somewhere in my head, I am a British Conservative and am attached to the Westminster-style parliamentary system. Normally, the support of the official opposition is needed to achieve consensus because it is official and an attempt is being made to change an institution. The issue is in fact constitutional in nature, but at the very least, the institution is an old one that has been around for 150 years. I am not saying this because I support the Conservatives. That has nothing to do with it. It rather has to do with the institutional aspect.
If the official opposition does not agree, the government has no choice but to invite Canadians to participate in a referendum and choose between the existing voting system and a proportional voting system that this committee could recommend. It is important to keep that in mind, as I fear that we may be faced with a very dangerous precedent concerning a reform that affects an old institution belonging to Canadians.
The voting system does not belong to experts. It belongs to Canadians. Most experts are actually against the current voting system. I am one of the few who see some positive aspects in the existing voting system. To change it, things have to be done right. If the government was to create a precedent of a reform without the opposition's agreement and without a referendum, it would mean that another government could do the same four or five years down the line.
We should not turn into the French, who spend their time considering a change to their voting system and their Constitution. Therefore, the way to proceed is very important. It is also a way to convince people who are resistant to this change. Experts do not represent Canadians. With all due respect for experts, they do not see many redeeming qualities in the current voting system. I personally see many such qualities, and that is my second point.
In my text, I tried to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the existing voting system, on the one hand, and proportional voting systems, on the other hand, as the current system is heavily criticized by elites, experts and intellectual communities. I think that is unfair, given that, for 150 years, the existing voting system has been assuring Canadians of what is at the heart of any functional democracy—regular peaceful replacement of partisan teams in power, through processes such as electoral sweeps.
We know that is a unique feature of our system, which rewards the winning party, and as a result, that party often has the majority. That is not something that originated in the 19th century or the 18th century. A year ago, a federal election was held. Most experts felt that the Conservative government, although worn out and unpopular, would be hard to defeat with the opposition being divided between the NDP and the Liberals.
What happened? At some point, Canadians hesitated between the NDP and the Liberal Party and finally focused on the Liberals, whom they elected with a majority to the people's satisfaction, I think. The surveys were clear on that.
I don't think a single Canadian expert had predicted a majority government. At best, people were saying that the NDP or the Liberal Party would perhaps manage to defeat the Conservatives, but that the result would be a minority government. The existing voting system is stronger than experts had thought because not so long ago—just a year ago—it produced the results Canadians wanted. That's the pragmatic side of politics, as it's not entirely rational or consistent.
We have a majority Liberal government. It may become unpopular, but at first, it was delivering the goods. I think this system deserves the chance to be kept it place if Canadians want to hold onto it. It may need to be modernized, but I think proof must be established to that effect.
I may be too much of a British Conservative, but it's wrong to say that it does not hold up. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, but it delivers the most important elements. It delivers governments that are strong, but that can also be voted out, and that's not nothing. In the context of globalization, which is dangerous, the powerlessness of democracies is something to be avoided. Our system ensures that governments often enjoy a majority. Without the current voting system, the Trudeau government would not have a majority. It does, but we can get rid it of eventually. We can vote it out and clean house. In Quebec, we say that a penny can be cleaned regularly.
Italy is another example. In that country, after the Second World War ended in 1945, the Christian Democratic Party dominated for several decades. It was rotting away for decades. A proportional voting system was in place and, after every election, the party would adopt a new approach by forming alliances with smaller parties. However, the same group always remained in power.
The voting system should perhaps be changed if things get to that point. It is easy to criticize the existing system because we are familiar with it. The problem with proportional voting systems is the fact that there are many of them. On July 27, André Blais said that it was practically impossible to predict what exactly the outcome may be.
To say the least, a precautionary principle ought to apply. If Canadians decide that it is time to change our system—I am a democrat, and I would lend my support, as it would not be the end of the world—it is important for the reform to be legitimate. I don't think the government can impose such a change. I am not an expert on this, but I think the decision belongs to Canadians. You are politicians, members of Parliament. You should beware of experts, as they will only criticize the current voting system. They are only in favour of proportional systems and discuss the differences between various types of proportional voting systems. They cannot see the forest for the trees, but the forest represents an old Canadian political dynamic, which is not perfect.
I think the proof is in the pudding, and tests have been done recently. That is why, if a reform is implemented, it should really be legitimate. That is how I feel about the issue. It would be absurd to carry out a reform to increase the system's legitimacy while the reform itself was illegitimate and viewed by Canadians as a power grab. I know that the expression “coup de force” was translated as “show of force”, but an English-Canadian journalist friend told me that it should rather be “power grab”.
Basically, Canadians would see this as a power grab by the elite, the majority of whom are opposed to the existing system. Elites are more intellectual. I underscored this in the text. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. It is clear that a proportional system is viewed as more fair, but to be honest, I would say that a purely proportional system is absurd. Look at Israel....
The one I continue to be absolutely confident in is the assessment of the first past the post system. We may be happy at some point, but we have to look dans la longue durée
. I think there have been too many instances of distortions. I continue to be confident about that.
One thing we did not do in 2004 is look at or simulate made-in-Canada solutions. Our process was to look at the family of systems that existed around the world and assess them on the basis of the criteria we had selected. I continue to think that the criteria we had selected remained valid, as well as the issue of the meaningfulness of voting, the issue of fairness, of ensuring
that it is a mirror of the nation. We talk about
—the idea of representation. I'm quite committed to that.
I also think that the recommendations we made on ongoing attention being paid to this issue are important and should be part of your report.
I continue to think that what we said on gender.... And there's no doubt, ce n'est pas garantie. The only advantage of creating more openness in the system and new ways for people to access elected office was to diversify la classe politique.
I have to say that in the context of our report, we had the occasion of a visit from the New Zealand Speaker of the House who had experienced the transition. Certainly his view was that there were new people who got elected, new types of people who got elected, and that at the beginning he was angry because they didn't know the rules. They were not behaving the way he liked. He looked a little like Winston Churchill. Then he turned around and said, but that was the right thing. It didn't take very long for some rules to change, for some new voices to be heard.
I continue to think that in whatever system we choose, there should be an added element of proportionality in some fashion. We must continue to pay attention to that. Otherwise, it's missing the mark, and we'll continue to have big swings. I think false majorities don't help us in the long run. A new government comes in and changes everything; the next one comes in and undercuts it. I think there's some cost to that. There was an expert who testified to the cost of big policy swings in terms of taxpayers' dollars. We didn't include that in our report, but I'm concerned about that.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your Parliament.
Had we known, we may have invited you to appear before today, but it's never too late to do the right thing. That said, it is a pleasure to hear from you in this parliamentary committee.
I think that everyone agrees that our current system is far from perfect. Even those those who believe in it recognize that it has some major shortcoming. Be that as it may, there is no ideal system. We have been operating in the existing system for nearly 100 years. The system has been in place for 150 years, but there have been more than two dominant parties in Canada only over the last 100 years. There is a third, a fourth, and sometimes even a fifth party.
The fact that a third party would emerge with great strength at the right time is actually one of our current system's strong points. We saw this in 1994 with the Bloc Québécois, as well as with the emergence of the Reform Party. Later on, parties merged, became less popular or, conversely, more popular, but democracy was being exercised. The wheel turns and, at the end of the day, Canadians are deciding, in good conscience, what happens.
The wheel has turned 29 times over the past 100 years. We have held an election 29 times. Only once were conditions breached, so to speak, when it comes to democracy. Only once in 100 years of parliamentary democracy has the government been formed by a party that did not receive a majority of the votes. That happened in 1979.
It has happened in Quebec more often—three times. The fact remains that, in 1944 and 1966, it was caused by the distortion stemming from protected constituencies that existed in Quebec. As a result, one constituency may have had 10,000 residents, while a neighbouring constituency may have had 50,000.
So the batting average is not so bad. I agree with Mr. Dufour that the current system is far from perfect. However, it is not so bad and any changes to be made to it should be justified.
Mr. Dufour, it goes without saying that we have read the document you sent to us over the weekend. But this morning, your show of force has turned into a real bang on the table with a fist. Your essay does contain some strong words. You first use the term “show of force”. Then, you talk about dangerous precedent.
What is it that worries you so much about the fact that the government is preparing to change the voting system without consulting Canadians? Why are your concerns so strong?
Frankly, I am not that worried. In fact, it is very difficult to change the voting system. A certain inertia weighs in favour of things staying as they are. It's an old institution that has been ingrained for 150 years. Those who are criticizing it have a louder voice. Intellectuals—and I apologize for talking about elites again—have access to the media and are highly organized. Nevertheless, to make changes in a system like ours, I think legitimacy is needed. It's an institution. So I am not that worried.
I must say I was still disappointed that the government has preliminarily rejected the idea of holding a referendum, given that a democratic rationale underlies the government's project. In fact, a referendum is not guaranteed, and neither is the official opposition. I repeat that I am a traditionalist when it comes to this. Our parliamentary system is based on the tradition of Westminster. For there to be true consensus, it's not enough for members to hold meetings around the kitchen table—I mean no disrespect—and it is not enough to consult people on the Internet. An institution is affected, so institutional consensus must be reached.
I think this is an opportunity to change the system. That much is clear. This is a government project. It may be time to change things, but don't take it for granted that Canadians have become committed to a proportional system. I must admit that my concern mainly comes from the fact that we do not know what we are getting into.
We know the current system well. André Blais said so. He is not a hothead, and you probably saw that when he appeared. He said it was very difficult to anticipate what would happen.
I am worried about a number of things. To be honest, and with all due respect for the House of Commons, I must say that political correctness was extremely strong in the wording of the House of Commons motion drafted by your committee. Of course, the motion talks about Canadians, our society, diversity, women, aboriginal peoples, young people, Canadians with a disability, new Canadians, and residents of rural and remote communities. We are clearly in 2016, but there is no mention of either regionalism in Canada or the profound regional differences that have characterized the country since 1867. The motion does not talk about linguistic differences. Not one word is said about that.
I read the entire transcript of the July 27 meeting, when Mr. Blais, Mr. Milner and Mr. Himelfarb appeared. I have gathered from it that a proportional voting system would reduce the representation of regional phenomena in the House as far as we can tell, as we do not know what kind of a system will be established.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you once again for joining us today. On behalf of the NDP, I am glad to have your participation in this important study.
Of course, for the New Democrats, the case of the first-past-the-post system—which I refer to as “first takes it all”—is pretty well established. We are familiar with its ability to create distortions.
Mr. Deltell doesn't seem to be overly angry that we had an election where the party that finished second in terms of the popular vote won the most seats.
Mr. Pelletier, who is here this afternoon, told us that this has happened three times in Quebec. It's not only a distortion of democracy; it's a reversal of the popular will. We are governed by a system where these distortions are occurring repeatedly.
In the latest election, some ridings in Quebec had three-way and four-way races, and candidates were elected with less than 30% of the votes. This means that, for the people of the riding, 70% of the votes may as well have been tossed in the recycling bin. Those people are not represented in the House of Commons, in their Parliament.
We also saw some pretty terrible distortions during the election in the United Kingdom, last year. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party won 50% of the votes but 95% of the seats. Mr. Dufour may like regional sweeps, but if I were a labourite or a conservative in Scotland, I would be a bit angry about that.
Ms. Des Rosiers, in your study in 2004, you suggested a mixed proportional voting system, which is used in a number of countries. It leads to effective, responsible and relatively stable governments. It is used in the Scandinavian countries and in Germany. You had a preference for the Scottish system over the one in place in New Zealand or in Germany. Can you tell us what you felt were the virtues of each system?
When we were doing this report, we had several conferences on women's issues and “how come women aren't elected", and the range of issues that were identified included the nature of politics, the lack of access to finances, and having to displace a guy in the nomination. The NMP, or the idea of the list, was a way of reaching out to people in a different way and expanding
the political class.
It was a way of expanding the number of people who would access political life, get experience, get visibility, and so on. That's the first part.
The second part—and I agree, because that was one of the comments I received that you'll see in my paper—is that the 19th century vision of strong leadership is to say, “Get it done, get elected, get it done”, as opposed to consensus building. There was a sense in which the nature...and I'm not sure that it's only gender studies that note this. I'm just saying that there is a way in which the vision of what good governance means in the 21st century may not be the same as it was in the 19th century in a colonial power that said, “Okay, we're here to get things done.” You may want to say it's better to delay a little and speak to more people before you move forward.
The other aspect of the 19th century vision that's embedded in first past the post is the idea that your identity is solely based on where you are. You only have one identity, and you vote in that riding. I am solely defined as an elector from Ottawa East, as opposed to the ability that's created in an MMP system where you can express yourself in two ways, both as to who is the best person to represent Ottawa East, but also with which party I want. That seemed to reflect the more complex way in which people defined identities. People move more than they moved in the 19th century and have a broader range of issues, and so on.
I'm talking about the way in which people explained it to us. In the consultation, when people were playing with this, why were they expressing a preference for that system?
Each system has its pros and cons, I would say. The danger is that we could at some point have the worst of both worlds, losing the strengths of our current system without gaining the benefits of a new system. We have to be careful of that.
In answer to your question, I would say that governance is a very important value. Much is said about representation here, but the point is to elect a government, and it must have the means to govern. In the turmoil of globalization, having a strong and stable government is an important value.
The other value, as I said, is being able to change governments at regular intervals. We know what happens when someone is in power for a long time.
Representation is the third value. Canada's changing population must be represented.
That said, there could be a very post-modern trend. Societies today are increasingly individualistic and fragmented, and people have opinions they want to express. We must not be overly influenced by this though because it could weaken our system. That is why I defend the State. The State and government are much criticized and maligned, but the average citizen does not really understand what the State and government are. They are forces of order and stability in the turmoil of globalization. This is an important value.
Modernizing the system is one thing, but I'm put off by the complacency I see. People say we are very post-modern, that things have changed, and that people have to express their views. The point though is electing a government. At the risk of sounding partisan, I would say that Canadians seem happy to have a Liberal majority government that can take action. How long will that last? I can't say.
A stable government that can govern, that can be voted out eventually and that represents what Canadians think reasonably well although not perfectly, that is what is important to me. Nothing is perfect of course, but there are also drawbacks with proportional representation. The difference is that we don't know what they are yet because we have never tested them.
In both the questions and the testimony, I have heard statements that are a bit worrisome. As my colleague said, we are talking about working within the system, looking for an outcome, and so on. In my opinion, our work here, as we heard earlier, should allow us to make a sound choice that represents our values rather than looking for an outcome or working within the constraints of a system.
Mr. Dufour, I would like to go back to your reference to voting out a government. On the contrary, I think our electoral system should allow us to not vote out but rather to engage a government or an MP. In both the questions and testimony, we heard that we have had the same system for 150 years. Things have changed a lot in that time.
I am thinking of the way a student on a university campus in another province interacts with people from his riding in 2016. That has changed a lot since the 1970s or 1980s.
Moreover, when canvassing, we sometimes hear that people appreciate our work at the local level or what a certain leader or party is doing. I have no doubt that my Liberal colleagues had the same experience during the campaign, and that my Conservative colleagues heard the same thing. Yet much is said about the public's understanding of the system.
In my opinion, the public wants all of that. They want to elect a prime minister. They also want a party and a good local representative. I have trouble imagining what kind of system could do this better than mixed-member proportional representation. This system includes a local representative, a representative of a political party, and through the party, a prime minister. In my opinion, that is the challenge.
It is often said that the public does not understand the political system but I think it is more a question of aspirations than ignorance.
How can we bring these aspirations into line with the new and changing reality of social and other media, and align the work of a local MP or of a prime minister, who represents everyone, with a party that has a national platform?
I would like to hear from all three of you on this. I might interrupt you though with other questions. I apologize in advance.
The lead-up to this was that in the decade of 1910 to 1920, there were big discussions on the Prairies on this. A lot of the complaints they were having about their electoral system were exactly the kinds of things you've been hearing here and we've been talking about today, around the lack of fairness in terms of representation. The single transferable vote was seen as the British form of PR, so it had a particular popularity, but there was this a populist element to western Canada. The idea that it was candidate focused was attractive.
When the liberal progressives came in—actually the Liberal Party in Manitoba brought it in in 1920—they were facing farmers suddenly becoming active, and they figured that if they gave them this one demand, then that would help. So they brought it in to Winnipeg. The other thing in Winnipeg was that there had been the general strike. It also helped, they thought, to contain some of the labour radicalism a bit because the labour parties might have absolutely swept Winnipeg.
In 1922 the United Farmers of Manitoba came in, and they extended AV to the rural areas, which was a bit of a betrayal because everybody had argued about STV. This helped to preserve their power base, and it was a blend of idealism and political self-interest. It was the same with the United Farmers of Alberta. They brought in STV in Edmonton and Calgary. They lifted whole parts of the legislation from Manitoba and just copied it in Alberta. It was the same thing. UFA was strong in the rural areas and weak in the urban areas. This fragmented their opposition, but they were partly keeping their promise. Everybody saw that eventually this would get better and that it would switch. This was a stepping stone to STV everywhere, and it never happened.
The big concern was over the size of the districts. At that time, where you're travelling by horse and buggy to places, that's a big concern. You can't use Skype.
The reason it ended was slightly different in each province. In Alberta it was strict political self-interest for the Social Credit. They were starting to lose. The Liberals and CCF finally figured out that they could use this to defeat Social Credit.
Manitoba is a little more complicated. In Manitoba, the big issue was about the rural overrepresentation. There was a bit of a trade-off. If they solved this problem and started to bring in independent boundary commissions, then they would get rid of this. They had another big complaint, and this is a very important one, because I've seen people come before you and suggest that we should adopt this model. If you do AV in the rural areas and STV in the cities, the problem is that going from 30% to 40% in a group of 10 single-member districts is going to pay off big time in seats. Going from 30% to 40% in Winnipeg, which had 10 districts, is going to get you one more seat.
Where did parties spend their efforts and focus their attention? In the rural areas. Winnipeg complained they were being ignored.
My time is up.
One of the pitfalls of reform in Quebec was thinking that the number of ridings could be mathematically and automatically reduced from 125 to 75, despite the fact that Quebec MPs offer many local services in their ridings. People said it didn't make sense, that it was already difficult for them to access their MP. The issue is not so much the individual but rather the role.
We talked about accountability, simplicity and equity. We referred to the drawbacks, but didn't discuss them much. You are right, Mr. Dufour, in saying that the devil is in the details, and we saw that in Quebec. There were 26 regions, which favoured three major parties, and ideological pluralism was impossible. So there is a big challenge.
With respect to governance, under mixed-member proportional representation, do accountability and party lines still play a role? Would an MP on a list who is chosen by the party establishment say no and decide to vote according to the platform, or would they be expected to follow the party line?
I imagine that coalition governments become increasingly centrist over time if people want to take power and be those that people reach out to. Do election platforms lose their importance to some degree in that context?
What about citizens who are used to deciding who will take power? Apparatchiks will be the ones deciding who will form government. Is that not a political distortion? Should citizens not be informed and have a say in this? Personally, I think people should be able to make a decision about these drawbacks. That is why we need a referendum.