Should voting in Canada be mandatory? What other voting systems exist around the world? Which one would be best for Canada?
Around 175 East End residents had an opportunity to consider these questions, and more, at a Liberal-led electoral reform town hall last week.
The October 12 meeting at St. Brigid’s School was part of a series of Canada-wide information-based community consultations about the country’s voting system, a system that the Liberal government has vowed to reform before the next federal election in 2019. The first round of community consultations wraps up this week in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
Hosted by Beaches-East York Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the panel featured Jane Hilderman, the executive director of Samara Canada, a charity dedicated to citizen engagement, York University electoral reform expert Dennis Pilon, and Ajax MP Mark Holland, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of democratic reform.
Many in the audience appeared eager to turf the current “first past the post” system.
Holland said that view was consistent with what he’s heard from other parties in parliament and throughout the series of public consultations.
“It’s telling that each of the critics from the other parties … every single one of them has said the system we have today is not the best for Canada,” said Holland.
Earlier this year, following pressure from other parties, the Liberals took the unusual step of giving up their majority on the government committee tasked with studying electoral reform.
“It’s the first time in Canadian history (a majority government) has given up its majority,” said Holland, adding that the Bloc and the Greens were also given status on the committee. The committee spent 2016 hearing from experts and arranging public consultations. A parliamentary report from the committee is expected to be tabled in December before another round of public consultation takes place.
Samara Canada’s Hilderman noted that town halls like this are often preaching to the choir – the types of people who turn out on a Wednesday night to talk electoral reform are typically people who vote and who are interested in the political system.
To that end, the discussion centered around several options for voting, the nuances of ranked ballots and proportional representation, whether or not Canada should make voting mandatory like Australia, and whether there should be a referendum on the issue. (To read about different voting options visit www.samaracanada.com/samara-in-the-classroom/electoral-reform/introduction.)
“It’s our objective to change the voting system (before 2019),” Holland said, noting that to delay would be to take away “urgency and attention” on an issue that’s been on and off the table for decades.
Pilon said the classic arguments cited for keeping first past the post – local representation, stable, a clear line of accountability – are not compelling to him, saying that the system disenfranchises and distorts the electorate.
“If an election is supposed to be a mirror of the electorate, then our system is a funhouse mirror,” said Pilon.
But audience member Mike Ulford, who is part of a group opposing proportional representation, said “first past the post works perfectly well and has a good connection between Ottawa and the ridings.”
He says instead of overhauling the whole system we could tweak first past the post to address some of its flaws.
The new options “create more problems than they solve,” he said, noting that with a new system there is a higher likelihood of coalition governments, which could mean political gridlock.
“I’m a Liberal,” he said, noting his group has a number of Liberals involved. “It’s hard to find higher-up Liberals who are expressing these doubts because they are reluctant to be disloyal…
“Some of us are open to change but think the whole process has been rushed through too fast,” he said.
Ulford said he wishes his party had not included electoral reform in its election platform.
“That is a problem,” he said. “However, the promise to do away with first past the post was one of like 200 campaign promises … it was way under the radar for most people. I wish Trudeau hadn’t done that, because I really like Trudeau and support the team.”
He said he has been to a few of these electoral reform meetings and believes people who share his view are “intimidated by the process” and don’t speak up because they feel the discussion is one-sided.
And while he thinks it is a good thing that these consultations are taking place, more needs to be done to engage everyday Canadians, he said.
“A lot of people don’t know this is happening,” he said.