I call the meeting to order.
Good afternoon, colleagues and guests. Welcome to meeting number 17 of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform. This is our last week in Ottawa before we start extensive travel across the country, visiting 10 provinces and three territories. In three weeks' time, for three weeks, we'll be travelling.
I'd like to introduce our guests. We have with us Dr. Broadbent, who really doesn't need an introduction, but I will give him a proper introduction all the same because I think there are a number of details here that are very interesting and go beyond what we already know of Mr. Broadbent as a political leader.
He is a former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force—I didn't know that, actually—a former leader of the NDP, and the founder of the Broadbent Institute, obviously. Dr. Broadbent spent his early career as a university professor—that I knew—and since 1968 has devoted himself to a life of public service, among other things serving as the member of Parliament for Oshawa—Whitby as well as for Ottawa Centre.
He was the vice-president of Socialist International from 1979 to 1989, as well as the director of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development from 1990 to 1996. In 1993 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 2001.
Dr. Broadbent was a critic for democracy, parliamentary and electoral reform, and corporate accountability, as well as for child poverty, in the NDP shadow cabinet from 2004 to 2005.
Welcome, Mr. Charbonneau. I often saw you on television as you presided over the National Assembly. It is a pleasure to meet you here in person.
Mr. Chairman, I'll continue now.
Members of the committee will have received a brief from the Broadbent Institute. I don't intend to go over in detail everything that you will readily see in that. I will highlight only a few points that I think are important, and then I want to come to one particular issue that I want to talk about and that I think is important to all members of the committee, whatever their ideological orientation, whatever their partisanship, or whatever—simply as members of Parliament.
The first few points are about support for proportional representation. As members of the committee will know, when the large majority of experts—not only those who have made their presentations to this committee, but also those around the world who have studied democracy and democratic institutions—make up their minds about electoral systems, they come down on the side of some form of PR.
It is also the case that among the vast range of civil society organizations in Canada that have been involved with the Broadbent Institute—some 60 organizations, from the YWCA to human rights organizations to trade unions—a great cross section of Canadians have supported, if I can put it this way, the principles that were found in the brief by the Broadbent Institute in support of proportional representation.
There are four particular points on why I think that any variety or type of PR is by far to be preferred over first past the post.
First, every vote does indeed count. With the PR system, we do not get what appropriately have been called the “false majorities” that have occurred, whether with Mr. Trudeau in the most recent victory, when some 39% of the vote resulted in a substantial majority of MPs, or before that, in the election of Mr. Harper with roughly the same vote, when 39% of the vote got more than a majority of MPs. In more than 80% of the democracies in the OECD, that would be impossible. To get a majority government in most of the democracies, you have to have a majority vote. Therefore, the first thing to be said about the PR system is that every vote does indeed count, and you don't get false majorities.
Second, I would say that the first-past-the-post system distorts both national and regional outcomes. For example, in the 1997 election, the Reform Party, if I recall correctly, got 40 more seats than the Conservatives, even though they had roughly the same percentage of the vote in that election, but their vote happened to be concentrated exclusively in western Canada, and the Conservative Party vote was spread right across the country. There was a distortion because of the first-past-the-post system.
Similarly, my colleagues in the Bloc Québécois may well remember that in one election, indeed they got two-thirds of the seats in the province of Quebec with less than 50% of the vote. Many Canadians across the country were unaware of the fact that a majority of Quebeckers, in fact, voted for federalist parties, but the governing group, the majoritarian group, was the Bloc Québécois. Once again, the electoral system distorted that outcome.
The third point I would make is that first past the post does discourage a number of people from voting for their first choice. A survey undertaken by the Broadbent Institute following the most recent federal election found that 46% of Canadians voted for a party that was not their first choice. I'll repeat that. In the most recent election, 46% of Canadians said they voted on their ballot for a party that was not their first choice in order to avoid electing, in their view, another party that was even less favourable to them. The system does not encourage people to vote for their choices; it encourages them to do strategic voting right off the top, instead of getting their basic democratic wish.
The final point I would make in defence of PR—and it's a very important one to me—is that almost without exception around the world, where you have PR systems, you have more women elected. That is the other half, in gender terms, of the population, and I think this is a very important consideration in a democracy.
Canada ranks 62nd in the world today in terms of percentage of women elected to our House of Commons. In New Zealand, when they introduced the system of PR, they went from having 21% women in their House of Commons up to 29% women in the first election with PR, and in the one after that—the most recent election—up to 31%. The evidence is quite strong that if you adopt a PR system, you're bound to get more women elected than is presently the case.
The other point I want to make—and I can't elaborate, because I want to go on—is that the PR system is conducive to more civility in politics. I had experience following my political life with, for example, German politicians in both the CDU and the SPD. They both say, as people familiar with the Scandinavian situation, that with multi-party systems in which it's taken for granted that you're going to have multiple parties forming governments, the politicians are more civil with each other before elections and during elections because they know they're going to have to work with somebody afterwards. That isn't a trivial point.
In the last speech I made in the House of Commons in 1989, I talked about the problem of civility. It is a serious issue for democracy. The fact that PR systems are not unequivocally clear on this but tend to be historically more conducive to civilized debate than first-past-the-post systems is another advantage.
Let me come to the point I really want to mention today, because it has had relatively little attention; that is the national unity question.
Whatever the ideological persuasion of members around the table—and there are differences, and there should be in democracy—or the partisan differences—and they are real, and they should be in a democracy—all members of Parliament, with the possible exception of my colleague, in the Bloc Québécois, whom I respect but differ from—all federalist members—have a pronounced commitment to the national unity of Canada and are very sensitive to policies that would be conducive to disrupting that unity.
The personal experience that shifted me away from strict PR, if I can put it that way, to favouring a mixed system of PR and electing your own member was my conversation with the current father, Mr. Pierre Trudeau, in 1980. After the election, when he regained a majority, he wanted me to come into the cabinet, even though he had a majority. Not only that, he wanted a number of my colleagues in the New Democratic Party to join him in cabinet.
Now, why did he do this? This was not because he thought I was a splendid fellow or because he was madly in love with the NDP, though there was obviously some policy overlap relevant to the proposition. His concern was, and it's an appropriate one, that he was going to bring in, as he told me in private conversation at the time, what turned out to be the national energy program and effect the repatriation of the Constitution with a charter of rights.
He knew that in both of these areas I was in considerable agreement with much of the policy; for some of it, that turned out to be not the case. Notwithstanding the fact that he had a majority—and this is the point—he had 22% of the vote in B.C., but no seats; 22% of the vote in Alberta, but no seats; 24% of the vote in Saskatchewan, but no seats; and 28% of the vote in Manitoba, with two seats. In short, in the national energy program he was bringing in a measure that was going to have a profound effect, particularly in western Canada, but he had only two seats in all of western Canada, notwithstanding a vote in excess on average of 25%. He had only two seats.
He was concerned about this, as he ought to have been. He knew that when governing it's desirable to have representation, not only in caucus but also in your cabinet, from all regions.
What happened then, and we don't need to go into all the details of it, was that a national energy program was brought in that had, to speak bluntly, an alienating effect—not all of it, but a good part of it—on western Canada and was objected to not only by a Conservative government in the province of Alberta but also by an NDP government in the province of Saskatchewan.
The point I'm trying to make is that through goodwill, if you do not have in the cabinet people from different regions who are going to be making crucial policy affecting those regions, then you can make serious mistakes. The first-past-the-post system distorts the electoral system in Canada, and the 1980 election is a perfect example: a majority government could be formed, and yet the prime minister of the day had to look elsewhere, to other parties, because he only had two seats. If he had had proportionality, then he would have had many times that number. He would have had seats in Alberta, he would had seats in Saskatchewan, and he would have had seats virtually in all the western provinces.
This had a serious impact on my personal thoughts about electoral systems. First past the post can have a negative effect on our national unity politics through no bad intention of prime ministers or opposition figures because of the results and the importance of having representation from all regions.
Mr. Chairman, can I ask how much time is left?
Okay. I think you're being generous, but I'll conclude with this.
I mentioned the problem of 1980, and maybe we'll have another discussion about that, but I could shift to the most recent election and ask you to look at Atlantic Canada, with 32 seats, and they've all gone to the Liberal Party of Canada. This is not good, I would argue, for the Liberal Party of Canada, and it's not good for Canada. If we had a proportional system, instead of being wiped out in Atlantic Canada, the Conservatives would have six seats, the NDP would have six seats, and the Green Party would have one.
This would mean, as the law commission pointed out some years ago, that opposition parties would be represented from all parts of the country, as they need to be if they want to know what they're talking about. One time, coming from a town called Oshawa, I had to make a speech on the spur of the moment about something called the Atlantic fishery. I knew as much about that as I know about walking on the moon, but all of you, as MPs, would have been in similar positions, I suspect. The point I'm making is that it's desirable for all parties, whether in opposition or on the governing side, to have representation from regions, and a PR system does that in a way that first past the post does not.
I'll leave it at that, Mr. Chairman. I thank you, and maybe we can have a discussion later.
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen of the commission, good afternoon. You will have to excuse my language, but I spent 25 years in the National Assembly where we call a committee a commission parlementaire.
I am happy to be here with Mr. Broadbent today. I do not know if he remembers, but between my two political lives, when I was chair of the board of Oxfam-Québec, we led an observer mission to the elections in Honduras, if memory serves. We spent a lot of time together then. We did not talk about this matter, but I have realized today that we still are on the same wavelength on a lot of subjects.
I only have 10 minutes, with the rest of the time spent on discussions with you. First of all, I would like to tell you that, before we started, Mr. Cullen came to say hello; he asked me if I had been mulling over this question for long. When I said yes, he asked me why reform did not work in Quebec. I told him that it was because the elected elite had not kept their campaign promises.
Put another way, in our political system, first ministers have enormous power. If, in an election campaign, a party leader promises to change the method of voting from top to bottom, for example, the way in which that will be done will largely rest with them, or rather with the people they choose to take on that portfolio and the way in which their troops will behave.
In Quebec, we have been talking about reforming the method of voting since 1909, but there have been some real campaign commitments. Since it was formed, the Parti Québécois has had this commitment in its program. Only in 1981 was René Lévesque able to be hopeful about putting the program, the commitment that was close to his heart, into action. But unfortunately, subsequent events did not allow him to do so.
We had to wait until 2003, when Quebeckers again began to be interested in the matter, for the leaders of the three parties to make the same promise that Mr. Trudeau made in the last election, to change the method of voting used in general elections. The Liberals had just had a painful experience in 1998, when they found themselves as the official opposition while we, under Lucien Bouchard, took power with 35,000 fewer votes.
Today, in 2016, I am here before you as a former minister responsible for the file, and still nothing has budged in Quebec. Yet everything was in place. The chief electoral officer had issued a notice, Quebeckers had participated in a special parliamentary commission and, before that, I, as the minister responsible for reforming democratic institution, had got everyone on board. But Mr. Charest, the premier at the time, decided to put a stop to it.
In Quebec today, we are using the excuse that Ottawa has reopened the file to mean that we are going to wait and see what happens before we decide if we will reopen it as well. But with the exception of the party in power, all parties in the National Assembly now have reopened it.
Personally, I favour scrapping our system for the same reasons that Mr. Broadbent gave and for the same reasons you have heard from a number of witnesses.
As René Lévesque wrote in 1972, it is a democratically rotten system that produces governments, which, most of the time, are not built on popular majorities, but on distortions in representation. We live in a representative democracy, but representation is distorted and falsified.
Some parties and some ideas are over-represented, while others are under-represented or not represented at all, while a considerable part of the population, whether in Quebec or in Canada as a whole, support those ideas and voted for them.
In addition, as Mr. Broadbent said, in a system like ours, an ancestral system, we also generate an excessive culture of confrontation.
More could be said about the flaws in the system, but I hope that members who have recently made a campaign commitment to modify the system are convinced about it and are not in the process of studying the matter simply in order to decide to maintain the status quo. When you make a campaign commitment, you live up to it and you take steps to do what it takes—my apologies for putting it so bluntly—otherwise you are disrespecting the people, as was done in Quebec. We disrespected the people and ended up not living up to our political and campaign commitment. That is even more important when you are the premier or a party leader.
I support the mixed-member proportional voting method because it is the replacement system that most meets the needs and expectations of Quebeckers and Canadians in general. We would keep direct representation with the constituency members but the representation would also be fair and equitable.
Last year, in April 2015, the research chair in democracy and parliamentary institutions at the Université Laval organized a seminar at the National Assembly in cooperation with the National Assembly; the polling firm CROP conducted a survey for the university. The result was that 70% of Quebeckers agreed that a change was needed in the method of voting in order to have fairer and more equitable political representation.
Compared to all the other systems that have been tried, studied and even designed in theory, this system has the advantage of providing a transition. Does that mean that, in Canada, we would be forced to live for 100 years with a new way of voting, such as the compensatory mixed-member proportional system, for example? No, not necessarily. But the transition would make it easier for people to achieve their two objectives: to have fair and equitable representation and, at the same time, to keep constituency members.
We must be very frank about this. People, including some members here, have said that, with that system, there would be two kinds of elected members. There are not two kinds of members; the same citizens are responsible for and masters of the electoral system and those same citizens would, using two mechanisms, choose their own representatives and party representatives. That means that, when you are elected to Parliament, whether you are a member from a list or a member as a result of the current first-past-the-post system, the reality in the caucuses such as we have in Parliament is that the two classes of members become one. They all represent the people and they all also carry their party's banner. To claim that there would be two classes of members is a false argument.
There are no problems in countries that do it that way. Why would we have problems here when they do not have them in Germany, in Scotland, in New Zealand and in a lot of other countries? At some point, the argument has to be based on facts, not on some kind of abstraction.
One of the reasons why it did not work in Quebec is that most MNAs, including those who had made the promise through their leaders or their political programs, were afraid of losing their seats.
Second, a significant number of MNAs, especially those who were in the government or those who hoped to be able to get there, thought at the time that they would not be able to control the political program as they wanted. That is to say, to do what they wanted to do with a minority of popular support. As soon as you get a majority in Parliament, the process becomes accelerated by cutting off debate, whether at the National Assembly or here, with mammoth bills and with other parliamentary mechanisms. The parliamentary majority, resting on a minority of popular support, is used to gag Parliament and rush processes along, though there is no legitimacy for doing so.
There is a third and final reason why this did not come about in Québec. It is because the Parti Québécois considered that it would lose control of the referendum program, given that, in 1976 and in 1994, it took power with a minority of popular support.
Today, however, the Scottish model and the Scottish experience have proved that this did not hold water. A country is not won and formed by an election, but by a referendum process. You need a majority. So it is all very well to control the referendum program, but, if you do not have a popular majority, it will not get you much.
Even for those not calling for independence, it is ideally preferable to have a political mechanism that allows for the development of something fundamental in democracy: a culture of collaboration, compromise, and coalition. Coalition does not imply that our governments are unstable. That argument is soundly thrashed in any country with a proportional system, more specifically in those with compensatory mixed-member proportional systems. Having to make compromises with political opponents, just as with people whose ideology is closer to our own, actually creates a favourable political climate. When it comes right down to it, people are fed up with excessive partisanship and behaviour that devalues the institution of politics. We see that all over Canada, including Quebec.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon.
My remarks today will focus on the process of electoral reform in Canada, but I won't be speaking about the kind of electoral system that ought to be adopted. My remarks today are drawn from an article entitled “The Process of Electoral Reform in Canada: Democratic and Constitutional Constraints”. This article is forthcoming in the Supreme Court Law Review.
In the article I considered a number of possible mechanisms for the process of electoral reform, including a citizens' assembly, a commission, a referendum, and an all-party parliamentary committee. I did so by drawing on provincial and comparative international experience with electoral reform. I looked briefly at electoral reform efforts in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and Quebec, as well as electoral reform in France, Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
My main conclusion is that although no one process or mechanism is required for electoral reform, the process must be, and must appear to be, democratically legitimate. To achieve democratic legitimacy, the process should visibly follow three norms: first, political neutrality or non-partisanship; second, consultation; and third, deliberation.
Electoral reform differs from the passage of ordinary legislation because it sets out the very ground rules by which political power is attained. For this reason, the process of electoral reform must be held to a higher standard of democratic legitimacy.
Let me talk about the first norm, political neutrality or non-partisanship.
This norm is important because it ensures that the process is as neutral as possible, which in turn helps to prevent the governing party from entrenching itself by selecting rules that favour itself at the expense of the other political parties. This norm is also the most difficult to achieve, in large part because the choice of process can have a determinative impact on the kind of substantive reform that's ultimately adopted. In other words, the choice of process can be as partisan as the choice of the electoral system, in the sense that a particular process could allow or could prevent a particular substantive outcome that is either favoured or disfavoured by any given political party. Any majority government, in particular, must guard against the perception of self-serving entrenchment by ensuring the process is as non-partisan as possible.
As for the norms of consultation and deliberation, these norms ensure that the process has canvassed and considered in detail a wide array of opinions and options. Consultation is connected to the democratic ideal of participation, while the norm of deliberation requires that a collective decision should be justified by reasons that are generally convincing to all of those who are participating in the deliberation. Valid options should not be excluded without consideration, either directly, or indirectly by setting arbitrary goals and limits from the outset.
To further enhance democratic legitimacy and the norms of political neutrality, consultation, and deliberation, I would make three observations.
First is that the proposed reform ought to have the support of all the political parties. In the event, though, that a consensus is impossible, it would be important for the proposed reform to secure the support of political parties that collectively achieved at least a majority, and preferably a supermajority, of the popular vote in the 2015 election. The composition of this special committee on electoral reform would enhance the real and perceived legitimacy of any recommendations issued by the committee, but it would be equally important for there to be agreement among the parties at the legislative level to avoid the perception of partisan self-interest.
Second, it would enhance the real and perceived democratic legitimacy of the process if an additional process option such as a commission, citizens' assembly, or referendum were implemented. While the town halls certainly add to the legitimacy of the process, they don't provide the kind of deep and detailed analysis of a commission or the more inclusive feedback of a referendum.
That said, I don't think that a referendum is required for the legitimacy of electoral reform, although it is of course one option as an additional process.
It should, however, be noted that a referendum is not necessarily a politically neutral choice. Based on the provincial experience with referenda on electoral reform, it is likely that a national referendum would fail, leaving the status quo first-past-the-post electoral system in place to the advantage of the larger parties.
A commission on electoral reform might be a better option as an additional process. Many recommendations from the 1989 Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, for example, were used to revise electoral laws, but there are other smaller-scale options for commissions. For example, New Brunswick and P.E.I. each established an eight-person commission, and the P.E.I. commission consisted in part of citizens. In Quebec, the parliamentary committee was assisted by an eight-person citizens' committee.
My third observation and recommendation is to extend the self-imposed deadline of December 1, 2016. While this special committee has heard from a number of witnesses, and while MPs have organized a number of town halls on electoral reform, the timeline appears to be unnecessarily hasty, and it runs the risk of undermining the perceived legitimacy of the process. The deliberative and consultative processes should unfold over a longer time period to reflect the importance and scale of electoral reform, particularly in light of the fact that there is no additional process, such as a commission.
My article also addresses the constitutional constraints on electoral reform, and while I cannot discuss this topic in any detail, given time constraints, my conclusion is that electoral reform can likely proceed without a constitutional amendment involving provincial consent, provided that the reform is consistent with certain constitutional limits. I'm happy to discuss the constitutional aspect, should there be any questions on this topic.
I'm saying that however the Liberal Party voted on that motion—frankly, I was not familiar with that—they had a campaign after that, in any case. The man who became prime minister did make a campaign for electoral reform, with many options open, as I recall. He also, again if I recall, used the phrases, “every vote must count” and “make every vote count”. If you do that, there's only one system that does that, and that is a system of PR of some kind. I think there would be legitimacy for the Liberals to say they campaigned on that, as there would be for the Green Party and the NDP.
Let me add further about a deliberative process. I agree with what our academic colleague has said about the importance of the deliberative process of this committee and its important work to give legitimacy.
I want to raise one negative thing about referendums. If we have all the positive conditions of deliberation and campaign commitments by more than one party, then I ask members of the committee to think what might happen if the country went ahead with a referendum.
I lived through, in part, what happened in England on the Brexit vote, and I can tell you that it's a hopelessly divided country right now, very seriously so. What would happen in Canada, whether a referendum question won or lost, if Quebec and Alberta voted one way and the rest of the country voted another way, or if British Columbia and Quebec voted one way and other provinces voted another way, and the campaigns were rather intense and the divisions were rather intense? My own serious view is that this would contribute to national disunity, not unity. Whether the campaign was won or lost, there could be great divisions.
If it were the only option, I say to the honourable member.... I take seriously the argument for a referendum, even though I don't agree, but if all the other conditions of deliberation and campaign promises were met, then I think it is legitimate for the parliamentary system to make a decision on its own.
I would add one final point. The two great political theorists of the late 18th century and early 19th century, one a liberal and one a conservative, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, would have both favoured parliamentary action in a case like this.
I'm going direct my comments and questions to our two end-person witnesses to start.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've had the opportunity at home to do a couple of town halls on electoral reform. The most recent was this past Saturday. It was put on by Fair Vote Canada and a neighbouring riding association from the Liberal Party.
For the first one that I put on and organized, I had a number of constituents come out, including a number of self-proclaimed Conservatives who were effective in addressing their concerns for a referendum. I would say that on the session we did on Saturday there were many of the same faces there. Although I wouldn't consider it a breakthrough, I found it quite exciting, because we were able to move from that position into some more discussions about values.
The question I put to the audience was “What values should we be looking at to design a new system?” With a range of participants, including some of the Conservative members and others who were there, we started talking about what things they would like to see guiding the design of a new system.
I found a document from the Broadbent Institute entitled Canadian Electoral Reform - Public Opinion and Possible Alternatives. There's a good section on values, and a couple of them are things like “The ballot is simple and easy to understand”. That got 55% of support, and 51% went to “The system produces stable and strong governments”.
Over the discussion this weekend, those were a couple of the issues that came up from a broad variety of participants. I'm not picking holes in any particular system, but those ones also raise questions about systems such as PR and the idea of coalition governments. Can they produce stable and strong governments, and do the two work against each other? With regard to “The ballot is simple and easy to understand”, at my first town hall there was a gentleman who brought a German ballot that was three feet by three feet. People remembered that one, and they were concerned that any PR system ballot is going to be complex.
I simply throw out for comment, how do we address these kinds of issues? How do we frame the discussion on values that will help us come up with a system that is the best option for Canada at this point, and is designed for Canadians? There's not really a question there, just thoughts on values and criticism that we hear. How do we address that?
The committee's mandate already states a number of principles and values. You have to think about it and assess the various options. It really is a fundamental guide. For example, must we attribute importance to fair representation of the major political currents in our society? Are we concerned about under-representation, over-representation or lack of representation?
We must also be concerned about the stability of governments. However, how do we show that governments will not be stable if, all of a sudden, the method of voting is different and parties have to come together? The only way would be to try it and to see what is done elsewhere. Otherwise, we are just tilting at windmills. We make the point that people do not want to have elections regularly, every week. We bring up the worst examples, like Italy and Israel, and we say that they are scary. However, if we take away the examples that have no bearing on the choice to be made here, there is a lot less drama.
Tomorrow, you are going to hear from the president of Mouvement Démocratie Nouvelle, where I am a special advisor. I know the issue a little, but I learned something when we met with a number of experts last spring. In some countries, a mechanism was established in Parliament to ensure that coalitions are stable. We call it the constructive vote of confidence. The mechanism was established in West Germany, where they have the perfect compensatory model. Basically, it is 50-50. Half of the members are elected using the current system and half using a proportional system.
The mechanism there is that, if a party in a coalition wants to bring down a government, it has to be able to propose another solution, or another government leader who is able to secure a new parliamentary majority. Otherwise, they stick with the commitments that were made and the political deal that was reached in order to form the coalition.
Nothing prevents us from putting a mechanism like that in place. It is a way to do what you want as you are innovating, while making sure that there will be no unstable governments. The threshold can be 3%, but it could also be 5% or 6%. There are tools to guarantee stability, according to the principles.
This is great. I'm enjoying this conversation. I'm also enjoying this.
I wonder if we've come to a political tipping point in this country. I'm thinking of you, Ed, standing with Guy Giorno and Mr. Himelfarb, and reading quotes from talking about our system being medieval, and reading the minister's quote about how our system was designed to address 19th century reality and is not suitable for the needs of a 21st century Canada. Is there a multi-partisan point that we've crossed, with the Parti Québécois, the Bloc Québécois, and various people speaking out for a proportional system?
I have one quick comment to follow that, and then a question for you, Mr. Broadbent.
With regard to stability, we've heard evidence that in the last 55 years in developed countries, it's been almost equal between proportional and first-past-the-post countries in terms of stability. In fact, proportional ones are slightly more stable. There are these notions of unstable coalitions. In Canada's history, when parties have had to share power, we've produced our most progressive and enduring policies. Pensions, health care, the flag—and the list goes on—have all come out when parties have had to put a little water in their wine.
I have a question about a positive vote as a positive choice when voters walk into the ballot box and don't have to go down a list of negative options of “I really don't like that person, or that party, or that leader. Which is the best choice for me to disrupt them?”, as opposed to “What do I want?” I'm imagining someone buying a cellphone, and the store says, “There are all these choices, but you only get two in your particular city, so pick one of these two. You can't have any of the rest.” The store wouldn't last long. I don't know why we continue with these false choices.
I want to get back to how 46% did not vote for their first choice in the last election. What do you think the long-term effect has been for Canada in terms of voter enthusiasm, in terms of hopefulness, and in terms of the ways parties respond and create platforms for voters under that scenario?
My thanks to the three witnesses who are with us today.
Mr. Charbonneau, I am going to let you continue your remarks, given that my question is somewhat in the same vein as you mentioned.
This is the first day when I have taken part in the work of this committee. I have just come from my constituency. Funnily enough, I can tell you that, despite all the activities I have taken part in this summer, no one has talked to me about electoral reform. I am hearing all these great discussions about it. I am hearing a lot about cases where counties have moved from first-past-the-post voting to proportional voting, particularly in New Zealand. As you rightly mentioned, people in that country thought about the matter for a long time. It took them exactly 10 years to change their way of voting.
When I look at the results, I have the impression that the debate we are currently having is a false one, contrary to what is suggested. We are told that, by changing the method of voting, more people will become interested in politics and therefore more people will go to the polls. We are told that the turnout rate may well go up. But in the countries where the method of voting was changed most recently, that basically did not happen. In New Zealand, the participation rate was 85% when the country made the change and went to 88% at the following election. But, at the most recent election in 2014, the participation rate was 76.9%. So, rather than having the impression that people will be more interested in politics if the method of voting changes, we have to take a closer look at the studies that have been done on people’s lack of interest. The reason why people do not show up to polling stations has more to do with a lack of time and interest.
I would like to hear your comments on the process that was put in place in New Zealand before they made the change. You have mentioned it already. Could you continue with your comments?
Well, that may explain why you quoted him saying two opposite things. I can't see how one can change one's mind about factual statements regarding the opinions of authority figures. Twelve years ago you cited referenda and said this meets with his values; now you say, in this committee, that his values lie elsewhere. While your opinions may have changed, I submit that in fact his record is unchangeable, due to the fact that he's dead, and that seems a bit unfair.
I noticed that back 12 years ago you also indicated—and here I'm quoting from an article you wrote in Policy Options—that what you thought was the best system was a “citizen-created referendum question”, and you based it on the citizens' assembly model in British Columbia. Now we have this idea that somehow broad consultations or a deliberative process are an alternative to getting the people to sign off, whereas with British Columbia that was seen as being a first step in a two-stage process, something that I thought was a good idea and that you did too, back then.
I wanted, actually, to ask you about this point: you said that referenda are divisive, and to make your point, you cited the Brexit referendum. I would just point out to you that if we're trying to make valid analogies here, the analogy would be with the British government making the decision to exit the European Union without bothering to consult the people, because in fact we're talking about the government not having a referendum and deciding to change our electoral system as if the Conservative government in Britain had decided to exit the EU without consulting the people. That would have been illegitimate.
You say that referenda are divisive, and I look back at our three referenda in Canada and see a different story. In 1992, an issue that was on the verge of breaking the country apart—the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the fallout from it—was resolved via a referendum, in which Quebeckers and a majority in the rest of the country voted against that new proposal. It seems that was preferable to the government's pushing it through just because it had the support of the majority of parties—all the parties, in fact, at the time.
In 1942 we had a plebiscite on conscription. While it revealed a deep division, it let us deal with that division. I think that is preferable to the introduction of conscription without a referendum in 1917 and the riots that this action produced in Quebec City and elsewhere, but especially in Quebec City.
In 1898 we had a referendum on whether the federal government should prohibit alcohol, and that revealed a deep division: Quebec was against it, and the rest of the country was in favour. The result was to let it be dealt with by provincial governments.
Therefore, if there are divisions, surely an advisory referendum, which is the only kind we have in Canada, reveals the problem. Is that not preferable to pushing through an electoral system that may or may not actually have the support of the people, with no way other than polls of demonstrating whether they support it, and pushing it through regardless of whether the polls say they support it just because in the last election a number of the parties indicated that they thought electoral reform—not a specific reform, just electoral reform in general—was a good idea?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I have a quick comment to make before I ask my questions.
I think it would be a good idea to remind everyone that the previous Conservative government amended the Canada Elections Act. It made voting more difficult and less accessible. Canadians abroad also lost their right to vote. In addition, a referendum was never considered.
Mr. Charbonneau, I wanted to tell you that we do take our work very seriously here. The Liberal government has committed to changing the voting system, and we, in the NDP, are strongly in favour of that change. In fact, it would be more fair for Canadians, especially since votes would no longer be lost.
Our work here, in committee, consists in showing leadership and submitting proposals in order to change the system. The Conservative Party defends the status quo, but I believe the parties around the table represent 63% of the electorate. Those people voted for parties that wanted to change the voting system and improve our democracy.
Mr. Broadbent, there are Westminster-type institutions, but there are very few countries in the world that operate based on the “first-takes-all” system, which creates these distortions that are so often talked about. The heart of the Westminster model is clearly the United Kingdom. We have recently seen the devolution of powers in Northern Ireland and the creation of regional Parliaments in Wales and in Scotland. Yet in all those cases, people had access to a mixed proportional system. In Northern Ireland, that was even one of the conditions to the devolution of powers. So those people had to make the effort to sit down and work together.
How do you think we could move in the same direction as our British, Scottish or Welsh cousins?
My understanding is that there certainly was a town hall being held and there was an admission fee being charged. To the Liberal Party's credit, when attention was drawn to it, they did pull the ad from their website.
Subsequent to that, we've had reports of people being turned away from town halls because they weren't pre-registered.
We had an opinion piece appear in The Vancouver Sun—and I'm not going to name the MP, because I don't feel that I want to make this personal in any way—about a town hall that was held in that area, and it indicated the majority of the people who had spoken during the open mike portion had been in favour of having a referendum before any changes. Then it went on to indicate that the member was asked repeatedly by speakers if he would go back to the and tell him that people of his riding think they should be consulted by referendum before our electoral system, which has served us well for centuries, is overturned and replaced by something else. Then he goes on to say, “We didn't get an answer.“
There have been a number of things—and I could point to others, but we only have so much time—that would call these into question to some degree.
You stated in your opening remarks, Professor Dawood, that:
Electoral reform differs from the passage of ordinary legislation because it sets out the very ground rules by which political power is attained. For this reason, the process of electoral reform must be held to a higher standard of democratic legitimacy.
You also had indicated in a paper that you wrote for the McGill Law Journal, and I quote here again:
If it were possible for the government to unilaterally reform democratic institutions, then it could unilaterally reform them in an anti-democratic direction as well.
In a paper you wrote—an editorial, I guess, for Policy Options earlier this year—you said:
...a change to the electoral system should not simply be pushed through by whichever political party happens to have a majority.
This is all to make the point, and you had indicated this as well, that there needs to be something that involves citizens beyond simply a majority party in Parliament deciding to push through a change.
My question is, first of all, do you believe that's an important value, and that it must involve citizens in some way beyond this town hall process and beyond simply a number of politicians proposing some option? Would you agree that citizens need to be involved in this process in some way, whether it be a referendum, whether it be a citizens' assembly, or whatever it might be?
Let me pick up on the dictatorial aspect of it.
There have been, in academic literature on what has been going on since World War II, observations about the parliamentary system increasing centralization into the office of the prime minister, not just in our system in Canada but in the U.K. and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
Our system does lend itself to that, especially with first past the post and the kind of belligerent politics, frankly, that the Westminster model sets up, with the government on one side and the opposition on the other, as opposed to the concave kinds of structure that other democratic systems have, whereby you may sit together side by side instead of in opposition.
The point I'm getting at is that on the point made by Mr. Harper, I'm inclined to agree with its poetic exaggeration of dictatorship. We have many other principles—the Charter of Rights, and so on—but in terms of exercising political will, we do have that: the Prime Minister, in our system, has excessive power.
One advantage of electoral reform of the kind that most people who have appeared before this committee have advocated—which I have advocated, which Mr. Charbonneau has advocated—is that we'll get to a more consensual form of politics, and the Prime Minister, frankly, won't have the same direct power. He or she will likely have to deal in a consensus-building way with at least one other party in order to govern.
In that same article, if it's the one by Mr. Harper and Mr. Flanagan that I remember reading, they advocated a form of PR. They were coming down on the side of PR because it mitigates the centralizing power of a prime minister, as well as for other reasons, and I think that is desirable.
I'll add what I said before. I praised the present for this initiative, and I hope he sees the implications of really following through with the kind of consensual form of government that could emerge from a recommendation by this committee that would reduce the over-centralizing power that goes to our Prime Minister in the present system.