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Fair Vote Canada is calling on elected federal politicians to recuse themselves from the business of electoral reform to the extent possible due to the conflict of interest they find themselves in. 

The political conflict of interest has always been obvious. Asking politicians to change the electoral system after winning government or their individual seats under the current electoral system is like inviting the turkey to write the menu for Thanksgiving dinner. Why would politicians ever wish to change the system that got them elected in the first place? 

As Fair Vote Canada Executive Director Anita Nickerson points out, “Canadian citizens have been beating their head against the wall for over 100 years trying to get electoral reform enacted with no success because every party and its caucus quickly sours on electoral reform once elected to form government with as little as 33% of the popular vote — the level of support achieved by the current federal government. We’ve seen the story play out in much the same way at the provincial level, most recently in Quebec.” 

Recently coming to the public’s attention following a recent CBC report is a second, more conventional, conflict of interest having to do with MPs’ pensions. According to the CBC

“Dozens of members of Parliament could lose access to the generous MP pension plan if they lose their seats in an early election because they would not have the required six years of service.”

The disincentive that this represents is highly significant, amounting at a minimum to just over $32,000 per year starting at age 65. Small wonder that MPs elected for the first time in 2015 (of which there were a great number following the Liberal resurgence in that year), should have been at best lukewarm about bringing in electoral reforms in time for the 2019 election. 

FVC President Réal Lavergne asks the following question. “If we expect the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister to recuse themselves from the We Charity discussions or any other issue where there exists a financial conflict of interest, should that not apply to all MPs whose pensions are likely to be affected by financial considerations associated with electoral reform? The answer is obvious and confronts politicians and governments alike with an ethical dilemma.”

The remedy is equally obvious: governments need to find an appropriate mechanism to hand the power to recommend electoral reforms over to citizens themselves. This requires careful reflection. Referendums have been used in the past, as a way of consulting citizens, but referendums don’t lend themselves to the sort of extensive study and deliberation that is needed to forge a cross-partisan consensus on a complicated subject like electoral reform. Referendums are divisive, encourage citizens to vote along partisan lines, and can be manipulated by the forces of the status quo. 

The alternative would be to adopt a form of citizens’ assembly of the type that was used in the past in both BC and Ontario. Fair Vote Canada is calling for a robust, fully funded national citizens’ assembly on electoral reform to consider all possible options, including the status quo, the addition of ranked ballots to our existing system, or the adoption of some form of proportional representation. 

According to Nickerson, this would not be the end of it. Politicians would still need to enact any changes proposed by a citizens’ assembly, but it would be an important first step in establishing a non-partisan consensus. “We can’t afford another 100 years under a voting system whose deficiencies are now well known. The problem is not a lack of understanding so much as a lack of political will.” 

There is no need to wait until after the next election. A citizens’ assembly can be launched at any time, and because it would be run independently of the government, it could very well start now and conclude its proceedings after the next election if necessary. All that is needed now is for the various parties to harmonize their efforts to agree on the terms of reference and launch the process.

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