The Government’s only legitimate option is Proportional Representation (PR)

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In his election promise and on behalf of his party, Justin Trudeau pledged “We will make every vote count.” Politicians who oppose this promise now try to claim it is not legitimate.

”Democracy is not about politicians, it’s about the people” stated Expert Witness, Marcia Carroll, Executive Director – The PEI Council of People with Disabilities at the Oct. 6 ERRE Committee meeting.

Many Canadians strongly feel that the 2015 was the Referendum.

Taken together, the election promises of the Liberal, NDP and Green parties “to make every vote count,” the 63% of Canadians who voted for them, the results of academic research, expert testimony, the weight of pro-reform citizen feedback, and the consistent recommendations of previous commission and studies in favour of proportional representation, constitute a powerful case for change. They give the government a clear mandate – indeed a duty – to act and bring in a proportional representation voting system.

Canadians want a system that respects our intentions. If we cast 30% of our ballots for a party’s candidates, 30% of our MPs from that party deserve seats in the House of Commons.

The Government is moving forward with its promise in a unique way. Last summer, in a show of good faith, the Liberal Government broke with the tradition that allowed them a majority on the Committee and created a special Parliamentary task force reflecting the way Canadians voted. This provides an innovative opportunity to see how proportional representation treats citizens more fairly. Providing the Committee respects the recommendations of the experts and opinions of Canadians, it will deliver a strong mandate to the Government for a new electoral system based on proportional representation.

Since its inception, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform has heard from over 150 Expert Witnesses. To date, of the 99 experts who expressed a views on changing the electoral system, 89 were supportive of proportional representation. Only five supported the Alternative Vote – a system based on the use of ranked ballots in single-member ridings.

Canadians armed with invitations from their MPs, participated in hundreds of electoral reform townhalls. Summer heat and vacation time in Canada did not keep citizens away. Citizens participated en masse to express their views – over 200 in Peterborough, over 300 in Waterloo Region, 250 in Victoria, over 300 in Whitehorse…. Minister Monsef complemented the MP townhalls with her own “Engaged In Democracy” events. Meanwhile, Canadians, on their own volition, initiated a slew of citizen-lead community dialogues in church basements, community centres and Tim Hortons across the country.

Fair Vote Canada has received feedback on approximately 70% of the townhalls. The message at these events was resoundingly clear: only a system of proportional representation will fix the problems that citizens have identified with Canada’s antiquated voting system.

In addition to those who participated in the process, hundreds of thousands of Canadians have expressed their opinion for a fairer system under the banner of the Every Voter Counts Alliance that pulls together Women’s groups including the YWCA and the Federation of University Women, student unions, Canada’s largest labour unions, civil society groups and environmental groups.

It would be an act of defiance for the Government to reject the recommendations of the ERRE, the only body that fairly represents how Canadians voted. Anything less than a proportional system would be seen as a self-serving, cynical move.

Canada and the provinces have already conducted thirteen commissions and studies that have all recommended proportional representation. In fact, this issue has been more extensively studied in Canada than anywhere else.

Canadians are ready for real democratic change. They know that in winner-take-all voting systems like first-past-the-post or the Alternative Vote (Australia’s single-member ranked ballot system), voters are not equal: voter intention is not respected because riding boundaries act like silos to effectively disenfranchise voters. In 2015, 52% (over 9,000,000) voters could not elect a representative aligned with their values. Antagonism between regions is exacerbated, a minority of voters can manufacture ‘majorities’, voters in swing ridings have more power than voters in strongholds and gains for one party unfairly increases while it decreases for others.

The process promised and set-up by the Liberals is the first step in delivering on their election promises.

Much of the discussion from the media on electoral reform has focused on issues of process and legitimacy rather than the actual substance of reform and the design of an electoral system best suited to Canadians’ needs and values. The need for legitimacy is obvious when it comes to electoral reform, and we salute all those who seek to apply the legitimacy test to both the process and outcome of that process.

In describing why most of the media has boycotted the electoral reform consultations, a Senior Political Reporter from the National Post tweeted ‘cuz they’re repetitive news-free fora!’. The Fifth Estate may be regarded as an integral part of democracy but how disappointing for citizens to find out democracy is not an integral part of the media.

However, Canadians should be concerned that the media has opted to fill their pages with opinion pieces on electoral reform rather than reporting on the testimony of experts. How are Canadians supposed to make decisions with a void of factual information? How, under such conditions, could a referendum possibly be a viable standard for legitimacy in matters of electoral reform?

We agree that it would not be legitimate for the government to push through a reform based on its own partisan interests especially when they are benefactors of the unjust system that rewarded them a majority of seats in the house with only 39% of the popular vote. That too is obvious. However, if the government were to bring in a proposal for proportional representation (PR) in collaboration with two or more of the opposition parties, this argument ceases to apply.

Canadians who have participated in the process thus far are those who care deeply about democracy. The existence of a number of voters who are passionate about the issue, heard of the Town Hall or ERRE meeting in their area, and were able to arrange both the time and the way to get there, reflect voters who feel severely disenfranchised by the current electoral system and should be reason enough for reforming it.

Where representative democracy provides a variety of ways to study, analyze and deliberate, referenda provide an opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question that may or may not be related to what citizens really want.

A referendum does not help to answer fundamental questions such as the following: How much importance you attach to having a local MP? Do you think votes should be reflected fairly and accurately into seats? Would you prefer to have one MP who may or may not be aligned with your values or would you like a team of MPs to choose from? Would increasing your riding size be a problem? Would you like a system that would encourage more women to run? Would you be comfortable voting only for a party or would you like to vote for all your MPs?

Every one of these questions is linked to values Canadians would like to see in a new voting system and deserves careful consideration. Every answer has implications for how a proportional system for Canada should be designed. These nuanced questions cannot be answered in a yes/no referendum in which the answer are all or nothing.

Pierre Trudeau did not invoke a referendum for our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and no one asked Canadians to cast a ballot to allow women and Indigenous peoples a vote. It was the right thing to do, as voter equality is the right thing to do.

The Government has a mandate and a duty to act in the best interests of all Canadians.

When the Committee travelled to PEI to hear from Leonard Russell, former Chair of the  PEI-Charlottetown – Commission on P.E.I.’s Electoral Future, he shocked committee members when he revealed what many suspected: that the parties who designed PEI’s referendum did not want electoral reform and set the process up to fail. It was described as the elephant in the room and MPs added that they believe the same could be said of the process in BC. Many worry that the same elephant will rear its head once again in the federal process. Government politicians must be brave enough to follow through on the mandate that has been provided by the citizens of this country.

We expect the ERRE Committee to recommend a new system in December and the government will present the legislation for that system in May 2017. The timeline provides enough time for Elections Canada to do their work. Based on the information collected and available, their only option is a recommendation for proportional representation.

Once that recommendation has been made, it will be incumbent on the Minister to carry that recommendation forward and for the Government to respect and support the recommendation. Leadership will be required to educate, champion and promote the recommendation.

As Prof. Dennis Pilon boldly stated in his ERRE testimony on July 28:

I would argue that this committee’s job is to move forward and just recommend that the government change our voting system to a proportional system. The only real barrier is political will. The government has a majority, and we have parties that represent a majority of Canadians whose parties supported this issue. I think there are plenty of reasons for the government to move forward, and here I would argue that the government shouldn’t really worry about critics, because I think the critics’ arguments are mostly politically self-interested. We’ve had a number of commentators suggest that there will be public outrage if there’s not a referendum, but frankly, the only people who are outraged are the ones who are writing such editorials.

In the 2015 election, the majority of Canadian voters cast their ballots for parties that promised to improve Canada’s democracy. It is now time for the government to be brave and honest enough to implement Voter Equality as promised and on time.


If you would like to read the comprehensive brief Fair Vote Canada recently submitted to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, please visit our website: http://www.fairvote.ca/category/fvc-erre-submissions/.

Fair Vote Canada is a national, grassroots, multi-partisan citizens organization advocating for a fair and proportional voting system since 2001.  We are powered by passionate volunteers and funded by individual donations from Canadians.


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