Let's stop this nonsense: a referendum on electoral reform is not only necessary, it is desirable

Canada has used the same electoral system for federal elections since 1867. All the provinces also still use the same system of "First Past The Post" (FPTP). For many Canadians, this is probably the only system they even know or are aware of. However, the (new) Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is looking to change or reform this system.

Justin Trudeau announced his plan before the campaign and repeated it as an electoral promise: 2015 would be the last election under the FPTP system. Which system would replace it would have to be decided later. But the Prime Minister doesn't seem to want to submit the proposed change to a national referendum. I believe that this decision is borderline non-democratic. At the very least, it's just plain wrong for multiple reasons. I'll go over them in this post.

Before I do however, I'd like to remind the readers that I have been one of the biggest supporters of electoral reform in this country. I have made this position clear on my blog many, many times. I truly despise FPTP and I personally think proportional representation is a far superior system. So do not think that this article is written by somebody who is simply trying to find ways to kill electoral reform. It's quite the opposite. And to add to this full disclosure, I voted Liberals last October. Not that it really mattered anyway in my urban Vancouver riding!

1. Domestic as well as international precedents make holding a referendum a reasonable expectation

Some provinces have attempted to change their electoral system. British Columbia held a referendum on the question in 2005. Almost 58% of the voters said "yes" to changing the system to the Single Transferable Vote (STV). However, the government of BC had set the threshold at a ridiculously high 60%. Since it was so close, they held another referendum four years later. That time around, voters chose the status quo by more than 60%. Why the sharp shift in public opinion? Well, for starter, the questions asked were not the same in both referendum (and the question does matter!). More generally, I guess electoral reform was simply not seen as important anymore. It must be noted that the proposed system, STV, is a relatively complex one and many voters didn't take the time to actually study it.

Ontario also held a referendum in 2007. Instead of the STV, the proposed system was the mixed member proportional representation (MMP), a system inspired by the German system where two different types of MLAs are elected: some with the current system and some with a proportional system. Ontarian rejected MMP by more than 63% of the votes.

PEI also rejected the MMP in 2005.

While all these referendums were unsuccessful (well, it's debatable for the first one in BC), they show that asking voters if they want to switch system is a well established precedent in this country. And these provinces are just following in the foot steps of other international examples such as New-Zealand (MMP, accepted in 1993, confirmed in 2011) or the UK in 2011 (who rejected the Alternative Vote).

All in all, it's quite difficult to find an example of a jurisdiction who changed its electoral system in the 21st century without asking its citizens.

2. The Liberals do not have a mandate to unilaterally change the system

This is one of the main arguments I always hear. Put simply, people will argue that since the Liberals won a majority last election while promising electoral reform, then they already got the mandate they need to do so. A variation of this argument (made necessary when people are reminded that the Liberals still "only" won 39.5% of the votes) is to add the votes of the LPC, NDP and Green (all in favour of reforming the system, although not necessarily with the same preferred alternative), we get over 62% of the voters who already supposedly "approved" an electoral reform.

This argument is absolute nonsense. It makes me genuinely mad when I hear or read it. And I also think a lot of the people using it are hypocrites. For instance, I'd like to see what they'd say if the Parti Québécois was to hold a "élection référendaire" where the PQ would interpret winning a majority of seats as a "OUI" to separate from Canada simply because it was one of their promises, along with what they'd do in education or public finance. And yes, I'm well aware that this would be illegal based on the ruling of the Supreme Court, but I'm talking about political legitimacy here, not legal one.

An election is not a referendum on every promise of the winning party. On top of that, electoral reform was never a major issue during the previous federal election. I dare you to find a poll where voters cited it as a major one.

A majority (or plurality, depending on whether the option "no opinion" is offered) also thinks the government should indeed keeps its promise to change the system. At the same time, Canadians seem almost perfectly divided regarding the need of a referendum. It's interesting to note, however, that only Liberal supporters (and, surprisingly, Bloc voters) think a referendum is not necessary. Even NDP voters (who we can think would usually support electoral reform) think asking Canadians is required. A different poll, conducted a couple of months ago, showed strong support for holding a referendum.

It's also important to note that even if you accept the principle that the Liberals have won a mandate to change the system, they never said which alternative they'd choose. It wasn't part of the electoral promise. And depending on whether they choose the STV, MMP or the Alternative Vote, it can have dramatic impacts of the outcome of the next election. Therefore, it's only fair to at least ask Canadians which alternative they prefer. On a personal note, I'd vote YES to the STV or MMP without any hesitation but I'd have to think about it if we were offered the Alternative Vote as this system might make the results even less proportional.

3. It creates a dangerous precedent

The electoral system is an essential part of the Canadian system. So much that some people argue the government can't change the system on its own and that it's similar to a Constitutional change. I won't enter this debate, but let's remember the outrage of many over the attempts by the previous PM Stephen Harper of reforming the Senate unilaterally. While he indeed didn't have the legal right to do so, let's realize that, for all intents and purposes, changes to the Senate would have far smaller consequences than changing the electoral system.

If Justin Trudeau changes the system unilaterally, what would prevent the next Prime Minister to do the same? Do we really want to have such a fundamental part of our democratic system at the mercy of the next guy winning a majority of the seats (with, most likely) a plurality of the votes?

At the very least, such big changes should require a super majority of the House of Commons. You don't want one party with 39.5% of the votes being able to rewrite the rules of the game. While the Conservatives will most likely never accept to change the electoral system, we should at least have a consensus among the other parties. I could tolerate the system to be changed if 65 or 70% of the MPs were to vote in favour. I'd still consider a referendum a much more democratic solution. And one that would guarantee the alternative not to be changed in 4 years for instance.

4. It's just plain wrong.

Yes the Liberal government can change the system without asking us. It can even do it without the support of the other parties if the current commission doesn't lead to a consensus opinion (which is quite likely if you ask me. I believe the Liberals will stick to the Alternative Vote/Instant Run-Off they favoured while the NDP will want proportional representation and the Conservatives won't want to change anything). But it simply shouldn't.

Justin Trudeau won the last election fair and square. The achievement is all the more impressive given that he started the campaign in third place. He ran a very good campaign. And a mostly positive one. He made some bold promises. So why would he now stop and be a coward? Why would he now start imposing a reform on people if he truly believes they might not want it?

I understand why many supporters of electoral reform don't want a referendum. We've seen that it has systematically failed in previous experiences in this country. This is why Justin Trudeau even said last week that "a referendum is a good way not to get electoral reform". While I commend the Prime Minister for not forgetting about this promise (as opposed to Jean Charest in Quebec in 2003 who, after promising a reform, kinda realized that the current system wasn't that bad), I feel truly disappointed in hearing the Prime Minister literally admitting that this is the best way to force this reform on Canadians.

In particular, I think he's forgetting one very important fact: no major party campaigned for the "YES" during the lost referendums in this country. I was already in BC when the STV got defeated. The referendum was held the same day as the general election. Which means this issue was never really put forward during the campaign. Both the BC Liberals and NDP didn't want to get actively involved in the campaign, including when asked during the debate. Given that the proposed system wasn't the wasn't the easiest one, it was pretty much impossible for the "YES" to win. Same thing in Ontario with an easier system.

What I'm saying here is that the situation could and would be very different if we were to hold a referendum just on this, with the Liberals (and I guess the NDP and Green) actively involved and trying to convince people. If people really want electoral reform, then asking them shouldn't be an issue.

Do not mix it with the next election though. This is an issue important enough that we should vote on it alone. And preferably before the next election. We still have time to do it the right way. Yes it might be objectively difficult to win this kind of referendums as many voters might not be fully informed (something that was very apparent in the reasons why BC voters rejected the STV) and therefore choosing the known status quo. But the Liberal government should see this as an opportunity to campaign and convince people, not as a reason to ignore people and decide for them.

I have wanted electoral reform for years, but I also want it done the right way. And this means a winning referendum. I was devastated when BC voters rejected the STV in 2009. That remains truly one of the worst moments I've had while being involved or following politics (side note: I've been on the losing side of every single referendum or plebiscite in BC since I moved here in 2008). I still think a referendum is the only way to go.