National Newswatch

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government was accused Wednesday of stacking the deck in the Liberal party's favour as it finally made good on a promise to create a special parliamentary committee on electoral reform.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef insisted the government remains open to considering any and all alternatives to the existing first-past-the-post voting system.

But with the committee to be dominated by Liberals, opposition parties suspect it's geared to propose a ranked ballot system — an alternative favoured by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and which critics maintain would primarily benefit the Liberals.

"The Liberals have chosen to maintain their false majority on the committee, stack the decks," said NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen.

Cullen had proposed that the governing party surrender its usual committee majority for this particular committee, instead allotting membership in proportion to the share of the popular vote won by each party with a seat in the House of Commons.

With that rejected, Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said it's more important than ever that the government agree to hold a referendum to give Canadians the final say on any new voting system.

"The question is, who gets to make that change to our basic democracy, to our fundamental democracy? It is not one government and one political party that has a majority. That's not right," she said.

Monsef did not categorically rule out a referendum, but said such talk is "putting the cart before the horse." The government's immediate priority, she said, is using other tools to engage and consult Canadians on the kind of voting system they'd prefer.

Among other things, the committee is to invite all 338 MPs to hold townhalls to hear the views of their constituents and report back on the results by Oct. 1.

"This is not about advancing a skewed partisan interest but about giving greater and more representative voices to all Canadians to express their values, needs and aspirations in elections," Monsef said. 

The 10-member committee is to consist of six Liberal MPs, three Conservatives and one New Democrat. One member of the Bloc Quebecois and the Green party's lone MP, Leader Elizabeth May, will be also be members but without the right to vote or move motions.

A motion to create the committee, tabled in the Commons, specifies that it is to study "viable alternative voting systems, such as preferential ballots and proportional representation" as well as mandatory voting and online voting, and to present its final report no later than December 2016.

The committee is the first step towards keeping Trudeau's promise that last fall's election would be the last conducted under first-past-the-post, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, often with considerably less than majority support.

That system has been widely criticized for routinely creating "false majorities" — including Trudeau's last fall — where a party wins a majority of seats in the Commons despite getting less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. It's also criticized for under-representing small parties, over-representing regionally based parties, encouraging hyper-partisanship and exacerbating regional tensions.

"In a multi-party democracy like Canada, first-past-the-post distorts the will of the electorate. It's part of why too many Canadians don't engage in or care about politics," Monsef said.

"We deserve broad, representative politics that lead to decisions that are in the best interests of Canadians, elections that inspire Canadians to vote, governments that respond to the needs of Canadians, representation that reflects our diverse political views and stable governments that Canadians can rely upon."

The motion creating the committee motion says a proposed alternative voting system must reflect five principles, ensuring that it will:

— Increase Canadians' confidence that "their democratic will, as expressed by their votes, will be fairly translated" and that it will reduce distortion between a party's share of the popular vote and the number of seats it wins in Commons.

— Encourage voting, foster greater civility and collaboration among parties, and enhance social cohesion and inclusion of under-represented groups.

— Avoid "undue complexity" in the voting process.

— Ensure reliable and verifiable election results.

— Maintain accountability between MPs and their local communities.

Time is a factor. Elections Canada has said it will need at least two years to tool up for a new system before the next election in October 2019.

"The timeline is incredibly tight to get this through," Cullen said, adding that it could be late June before the committee  actually gets down to work.

And he complained that the town halls would have to be held in summer, when Canadians traditionally are little engaged with politics of any kind.

Joan Bryden , The Canadian Press

Click here for more political news headlines