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National Opinion Centre

Federal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc created quite a stir last week when he said that the government had no plans for a referendum on electoral reform. Pundits from coast to coast took to their pens to argue about the legitimacy of such a move. The Conservatives threatened to block any bill not based on a referendum while a representative of Fair Vote Canada told the Globe and Mail that he was fine with no referendum as long as the government implemented proportional representation.

Isn’t it time somebody yelled “STOP!”? We don’t even have a proposal on the table and already a discussion on electoral reform is in danger of being transformed into a debate on referendums.

Of course, process is important and I appreciate the irony of a government not holding a vote on how we hold votes. I also recognize that Parliament has made some pretty monumental decisions in the past without holding referendums.

But nobody is going to win the hearts and minds of Canadians by framing this as a discussion about referendums. Most Canadians don’t give much thought to how they elect their Member of Parliament. They care about things like our fragile economy, climate change, terrorism, poverty, the plight of our Indigenous Peoples or maybe a pressing community issue.

The challenge for those wanting to talk about electoral reform is to demonstrate to ordinary Canadians that the measure they are advocating will help future governments deal more effectively with these issues.

That’s a tall order, and it involves a discussion that is much more complicated than a debate about referendums. But let me make a few suggestions on how to frame the discussion.

Our challenges are serious. We need governments that are able to make tough choices and rally their citizens. Can a majority government that received less than 40% of the popular vote do the job as effectively as one that has the blessing of a majority of voters?

For those advocating some type of ranked balloting system, the answer is clearly no. They could argue that their system ensures that every Member of Parliament receives a majority of votes either directly or, in some circumstances, because they were the second or even third choice of certain voters.

But proponents would have to answer those critics who argue that, under this system, people who vote for the least popular candidates effectively get to vote two or even three times.

Ranked balloting would also likely mean the continuing election of mainstream political parties. If we want to solve Canada’s thorny issues, isn’t it time we allow new and different voices into the House of Commons? If that’s one of the goals, advocates of electoral reform would have to explain how exactly smaller parties would be involved in decision-making.

Many might highlight the role of minority governments, or even coalitions, in forcing different parties to work together. They will need to explain, however, how future minority governments would work differently than the recent ones elected in both Ottawa and at Queen’s Park. Rather than becoming bastions of co-operation and compromise, the House of Commons and the Ontario legislature became dens of acrimonious bickering and partisan game playing, unable to deal with pressing issues (I was the government house leader during the Ontario experience).

Canada is less familiar with coalition governments. But here again, those proponents will have to explain how such arrangements would function. Would several parties working together within a single government really do a better job at addressing our nation’s challenges? Or would we see one or two small, regional or single-issue parties hold the government of the day hostage?

And what about local representation? Those arguing for reform need to explain how any new system would preserve the important role that current MPs play in advocating for local concerns.

These are all tough questions. They require us to think about government decision-making, the role of individual members of Parliament, and how politics functions in 21st-century Canada. It may also involve us broadening the discussion to include other aspects of our political system and culture. Not the simple stuff of a good, old-fashioned, debate about process. It’s not surprising that so many critics of how the government is trying to consult on this issue have scrupulously avoided trying to address any of them.

Despite the fact I was elected three times under the first-past-the-post system, I remain open to the prospect of electoral reform. But I also remember Ontario’s attempts to change the system in 2007, with the help of a referendum. It failed dismally for several reasons. The primary one, however, was because nobody ever bothered to explain to voters what exactly the problem was that we were trying to solve.

John Milloy is a former Ontario cabinet minister who served as MPP for Kitchener Centre from 2003 to 2014.  Prior to that, he worked on Parliament Hill, including five years in the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He is currently the Co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics and Assistant Professor of Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural Practitioner in Residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at: jmilloy@wlu.ca or follow him on twitter at: @John_Milloy.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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