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ERRE Committee Report

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Supplemental Report of the Liberal Members of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform

This supplementary report reflects the views of the following Liberal Members of Parliament (“We”) who served on the Special Committee on Electoral Reform (the “Committee”) during its five month consultation with Canadians from coast to coast to coast: John Aldag, Matt DeCourcey, Sherry Romanado, Ruby Sahota, and Francis Scarpaleggia. We believe Canadians are far from being adequately engaged with the electoral reform discussion, this despite mention of the issue in multiple Party platforms as well as in the government's first Throne Speech, and in spite of sustained and substantial outreach efforts by the Committee and the Minister of Democratic Institutions through her own independent consultations.‎

There was a large divergence of opinion on almost all aspects of the issue that the Committee studied with only the need for more education, diversity, youth engagement and accessibility having no opposing views expressed by the witnesses.

In all other matters regarding the various systems and variations on systems proposed, we found no consensus on a single specific electoral system.  While a respectable number of people did present to the Committee, polling has shown that only a small proportion (3%) of Canadians indicated they were aware of the committee proceedings. The e-consultation that was directed by the committee, which took place from August 19th to October 7th, had a total of just over 22,000 respondents. However, the results showed that over 64% of the respondents were from Ontario and British Columbia, while Quebec with 24% of our national population had a participation rate of only 7.5%. Additionally, 89% of participants were Anglophone, with only 5% being primarily Francophone. The respondents were 65% male, 32% female; those over 65 years of age comprise 28% of the results but were only 16% of the Canadian population. The report itself states that the results of the e-consultation are not a representative sample of the Canadian population. Further complicating matters, given the Committee’s emphasis on broadening access to democratic expression, the fact that 95.4% of all respondents indicated they had voted “on every occasion that [they] have been eligible to vote,” it appears that a self-selection bias inadvertently excluded those who were not already engaged in the political process.

After careful consideration of the evidence that we heard and read, we contend that the recommendations posed in the Majority Report (MR) regarding alternative electoral systems are rushed, and are too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged.

Our position is that the timeline on electoral reform as proposed in the MR is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline.

Gallagher Index

We believe the utility of the Gallagher Index, referenced in the Majority Report (MR), was not sufficiently borne out in testimony. This Index was only discussed by one of the 196 witnesses who presented before the Committee, Professor Byron Weber Becker. It is worth noting that the creator of the Gallagher Index, Professor Michael Gallagher, had previously testified before the Committee, yet failed to discuss his own Index.

Furthermore, in contradiction to the majority of witness testimony and Principle 5 of the Committee’s mandate, Professor Becker sacrificed local representation in favour of an unsubstantiated increase in proportional representation.

Throughout the Committee’s work, the importance of local representation and the fundamental connection between an elector and their representative was clearly highlighted. It was evident through both the witness testimony provided, as well as open mic sessions, that Canadians place significant value in accessibility and connection to their local Members of Parliament (MP), and that any changes to the federal electoral system should serve to preserve this connection.

We appreciated the models designed by Professor Becker in demonstrating the Gallagher Index’ utility and the impacts of various systems on proportional outcomes, but believe that the implications of achieving a score of 5 or less on the Gallagher Index, as recommended in the MR, would need to be further studied, understood, and presented to Canadians in a comprehensive educational process before being implemented. Furthermore, the implications of reaching a score of 5 or less on Canada’s governance ecosystem need to be better understood as per Recommendation number 11 in the MR, and how the electoral changes would  affect:

  • The size of the House of Commons and the need to add a considerable number of new MPs in order to achieve a score of 5 or less on the Gallagher Index.
  • The geographic distribution of ridings and the possible need to expand already large rural ridings;
  • Types of riding redistribution: restructuring the House of Commons’ current 338 seats into a combination of single-member and multi-member districts and/or adding additional multi-member seats to Parliament;
  • Potential creation of two classes of MPs under rural-urban models which would see directly-elected rural MPs and urban MPs elected from Party lists; and
  • Rural areas being excluded from gains of increased proportionality.

Of note is the fact that the models proposed required significant increases in the number of MPs in order to enhance proportionality. Indeed, an addition of 53 MPs to Parliament was considered a “Lite” option. We believe that Canadians should be educated and consulted on the breadth of these changes before any dramatic reforms are made to the electoral system. According to Professor Becker’s brief to the Committee, there are no fewer than 5 varying electoral systems that could be considered to meet the target of 5% in the Gallagher Index. The Gallagher Index is used to measure the disproportionality of an electoral outcome; that is, the difference between the percentage of votes received, and the percentage of seats a party gets in the resulting legislature. The Index involves taking the square root of half the sum of the squares of the difference between percent of vote and percent of seats for each of the political parties. The Index weighs the deviations by their own value, creating a responsive index, ranging from 0 to 100. The lower the Index value the lower the disproportionality and vice versa.

The MR recommends that Canada’s electoral system be determined by the following formula. We believe most Canadians would not want their future electoral system decided solely on the basis of a complex mathematical equation.

The Gallagher Index

This would be difficult to explain and is a radical change that we think would be unacceptable to Canadians.

The Referendum Question

The MR Recommendation 12 subsection 1: states “that the Government holds a referendum, in which the current system is on the ballot”. We contend that the evidence gathered provides no definitive consensus regarding the favourability of this proposal. It is our belief that recommending the proposal to Canadians without further study is premature, and inconsistent with the body of evidence submitted to the Committee. It is further maintained that greater exploration of alternative consultative methods must be undertaken before the desirability of a national referendum can be understood.

Arguments Heard Against a National Referendum

We draw attention to testimony heard regarding the often divisive nature of referendum campaigns. The MR cites an important consideration: that in a regionally diverse country, more heavily-populated areas would be able to dictate Canada’s democratic system to lower populous regions including rural areas effectively minimizing the voice of millions of Canadians.

Furthermore, considerable testimony referenced instances in which referendum campaigns demonstrated a significant bias towards the status quo and were effectively used to undermine reform attempts. The “Yes” side to any referendum against the status quo must demonstrate why it is a preferable option to an established norm, while the “No” side can capitalize on anxiety, uncertainty and fear.

Chapter 9 of the MR provides an extensive analysis of a national electoral reform referendum. Based on the evidence, we cannot agree with this recommendation in good faith.

Past Experiences of Electoral Reform Referenda in Canada

Referenda on electoral reform are not new in Canada but are rare. Out of the five Canadian provinces that have studied alternative electoral systems in a contemporary context, three (British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island) held a province-wide plebiscite or referendum. In our view, these experiences substantiate concerns that referenda may not be wielded as politically neutral tools. Significant amount of testimony pointed to the conclusion that they were in fact used to undermine efforts for electoral reform in two out of the three provincial examples.

No Consensus on Referendum

Throughout the Committee’s study on electoral reform, Canadians were provided with a wide variety of consultative methods. The mixed nature of feedback received about a national electoral reform referendum however did not provide a clear indication that it was the general will of Canadians.

On September 1, 2016, Darrel Bricker of Ipsos Research testified to the Committee, with the bulk of his testimony relating to third-party polling results, including information about the favourability of a national referendum. Mr. Bricker began by remarking that a neutral question about a national referendum indicated that 49% of Canadians were in favour, while 51% were opposed to the idea. When the question was engineered to reflect positively on a referendum, 55% of people indicated a supportive stance. This reinforced a commonly-accepted conclusion: that polling results can be influenced by how the question is framed.

This leads to a concern with material presented in the MR regarding the Conservative Party of Canada’s claim to have had 73,740 out of 81,389 Canadians indicate their support for a referendum in a privately conducted poll. While our Supplemental Report in no way seeks to delegitimize the consultative work of any Party, the narrow demographic range (the poll having been conducted in 59 Conservative-held federal ridings out of a national total of 338, with a self-selecting pool of participants) raises concerns about the validity of this particular metric.

This Supplemental Report further concludes that both qualitative and quantitative analyses of evidence submitted to the Committee are not reasonably reflected in the MR. Thus, this recommendation is inconsistent with the body of evidence received by the Special Committee on Electoral Reform.

Lastly, Appendix G “Classification of Briefs Submitted to the Committee” provides an aggregate collection of evidence submitted regarding a national referendum on electoral reform. Of these contributors, 28 individuals or organizations provided arguments in favour of a national referendum, while 89 provided arguments against. In summary, it is our position that a recommendation to proceed with a national referendum is inconsistent with both the evidence received, and the will of Canadians.

Timelines

We believe that, in order to reform the electoral system and get it right, we need to ensure inclusive and deliberative discussion with Canadians. We are currently 35 months away from the next federal election. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand stated in July, at his appearance before the Committee, that Elections Canada would need at least two years to technically and logistically prepare for and implement a new voting system, which would require having legislation enacted by May 2017.

In light of Recommendations 1, 12 and 13 from the MR, the process of reforming the Canadian electoral system in advance of the 2019 general election must include the introduction and passage of reform legislation, Elections Canada preparing for a new electoral system in addition to boundary redistribution, a national referendum, and an extensive public education campaign.

The Committee heard from expert witnesses, stakeholders and average Canadians who stressed the importance of the process to achieving electoral reform and that it cannot be rushed.  Thomas Axworthy explained that “a system that was perceived to be forced or rammed down the throats of the people would be one that would be behind the eight ball before it even began.”

We further draw attention to testimony indicating the process to organize a referendum would be approximately six months. Marc Mayrand has also stated in the media that technical issues would preclude anything more than a simple single option referendum from being held prior to the next election. Recommendation 12 and 13 of the MR state that a referendum can only be held after Elections Canada completes its two year redistribution process, making a referendum prior to 2019 rushed.

Increasing Participation in Our Electoral Process

Beyond reform of the electoral system, the Committee heard testimony that other changes to Canada’s democratic institutions were needed. We believe that having young Canadians register in advance of reaching voting age would help create a more informed and engaged electorate.  The historical decline of electoral participation for young Canadians, who are eligible to vote in their first election, poses a risk to the overall voter participation over the long term.

Recommendation 10 in the MR would empower young Canadians through non-partisan educational activities administered by Elections Canada. Testimony has indicated that civic education is one of the most effective ways to get young people interested in politics. Furthermore, one of the main reasons young people choose not to vote is they do not understand how political opinions affect them personally.

We are encouraged by the Government’s proactive approach regarding the importance of public education and engaging traditionally disenfranchised groups of electors through Bill C-33: An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.

This Bill will create a National List of Pre-Electors. This aspect of Bill C-33 goes further than the Committee’s Recommendation 9, allowing for pre-registration four years in advance of youth reaching voting age (rather than the recommended two). Evidence has demonstrated that once a person votes, they are more likely to vote in subsequent elections. We believe that a goal of electoral reform be to help young people make voting a habit their whole lives.  

The Governance Ecosystem

Recommendation 11 of the MR describes the necessity of a comprehensive study of the many effects of an electoral reform to Canada’s governance ecosystem and is important to highlight. This is described by the understanding that a proportional system would impact the effectiveness and efficiency of government, the House of Commons and the resources of the legislature.

While the Committee collected a significant amount of data on electoral systems in different jurisdictions, it must be emphasized that impacts of various systems on the broader Canadian governance ecosystem highlighted in Recommendation 11 are not understood. Therefore, we recommend a proper understanding of this transition must be done and explained to Canadians before change can take effect.

We maintain that the extensive process of electoral reform, as recommended in the MR, including a referendum campaign which properly educates Canadians as to alternatives to First-Past-the-Post; the necessary legislative changes to the Referendum Act, the Canada Elections Act, and other related acts; and the understanding and implementation of a new system, may take longer than the next election cycle to properly complete. A period of comprehensive and effective citizen engagement is fundamental to ensuring that Canadians properly understand and are equipped to operate under a new electoral system.

A Forum Research public opinion survey conducted between October 7th and 9th, 2016 and presented to the Committee on October 20, 2016, demonstrated a concerning lack of awareness on the part of Canadians regarding the electoral reform process. 51% of respondents stated that they were entirely unaware that a federal legislative committee was undertaking a study of electoral reform, five months after the Committee had begun its work. With this in mind, we are aware Canadians are not engaged on electoral reform and that more work must be done to ensure adequate public consultation.

In addition to having reservations about the timeline of enacting electoral reform, we are concerned that the Recommendations proposed in the MR do not take into account whether Canadians have received all the necessary information to support these recommendations.

We are of the opinion that Canadians clearly indicated that there was no desire to see the size of the House of Commons increase dramatically. Professor Brian Tanguay noted during the British Columbia electoral reform proposal, the strongest criticism was directed at increasing the size of the Legislature. This is particularly concerning as Recommendation 1 proposes unknown and possibly unintended consequences of an electoral system in order to achieve a score of 5 or less on the Gallagher Index. 

Furthermore, we have a number of reservations relating to how electoral reform effects and changes the ecosystem of Canadian governance. We hold the position that the Committee focused on an examination of electoral systems in the abstract and not their implication in the much larger ecosystem. Professor Jonathan Rose best describes our political ecosystem as a Rubik’s cube –“if you change one thing, the other things change as well”. 

For major changes to be made to our electoral system we believe that a much greater percentage of Canadians must be both aware of what changes are proposed and what impact such changes would have. As part of the engagement process we believe that both Canadians and political parties need a comprehensive understanding of the ramifications that any fundamental changes to the electoral system would have, not just on the results of the changes, but how the results would affect government as a whole.

For example, the Canadian public would need to be made aware that under several proposals that would achieve a score of 5 or less on the Gallagher Index, Parliament would be comprised of Members who are not directly accountable to the electorate, but to Party leadership. Many of the models put forth described an electoral outcome that used the present number of parties, failing to take into account the experiences of other countries that have tried such systems and have seen the creation of many single-issue or regional-based parties, and in many cases these parties are needed to form coalitions which are inevitable under such systems. This gives single-issue or regional-interest parties an influence far greater than the votes they received during a general election. For any reasonable expectation of consensus as to changes to our electoral system we believe that a much higher percentage of Canadians must be made aware of the various changes suggested so they can both comprehend and agree with whatever new system is put in place.

Given the uncertainties surrounding referendum proposal, it is our view that alternative consultation methods should be examined as feasible options. Alternatively, the idea that further parliamentary review would be sufficient and beneficial was proposed by several witnesses, and remains an option. Ultimately, it is our position that the level of engagement with the electoral reform process amongst the Canadian public was insufficient to generate a clear mandate. We further recommend that greater consultative measures be pursued in order to present an electoral reform proposal that is consistent with the will of Canadians.

Therefore we recommend:

That the Government further undertake a period of comprehensive and effective citizen engagement before proposing specific changes to the current federal voting system. We believe that this engagement process cannot be effectively completed before 2019.