|Liberal ministers Dominic Leblanc and Maryam Monsef at presser today.|
Already, the opposition is criticizing the Liberals for "stacking the deck" in the governing party's favour by appointing a majority of Liberals to it.
The opposition has a point. The Liberals have total control over what the committee decides to recommend once this "consultation process" ends December 1st.
So far, many Liberals including Justin Trudeau, himself, have been making noise in favour of changing to a preferential balloting or instant runoff voting system. Such a move would change the way Canadians vote in federal elections from marking one 'X' next to their one preferred candidate, to voters ranking candidates from top preference on down, starting with "1," followed by "2," and so on.
There are many positives to such a new system. No longer would voters be forced to hold their noses and "vote strategically" in elections, meaning reject their first choice in favour of their least hated choice in order to stop a candidate they truly detest. Many progressives agonized over which party to choose in the last election because of the current first-past-the-post system.
With preferential voting, progressives could be free to vote Green or NDP in constituencies where those parties have little chance of topping the polls. Then they could possibly pick the Liberals as their second or third choice. If no candidates receive over 50% of the vote in the first round, the candidates with the least support are dropped off the count, and the subsequent preferences of those voters are re-allocated until one candidate gets over that 50% threshold.
Such a system would force political parties to appeal to the widest number of Canadians as possible in order to win not only as many top preferences as possible, but also subsequent second and third choices. Parties that play only to their narrow base and ignore the vast swath of mainstream voters, like the Harper Conservatives did for ten years, would find themselves quickly defeated once the majority of voters team up against them.
This would likely lead to a major change in tone during elections. Instead of parties viciously attacking each other in order to secure a mere plurality of support, those parties would probably start to team up or go easy on each other as they'd be gunning for each others' supporters. Parties or candidates might even make deals with each other before election day in order to try to secure second preferences to get over the top.
But the big downside of preferential balloting is it would shut out non-mainstream viewpoints from Parliament even worse than the current system. Under the current system, at least it's possible that smaller parties can win seats with relatively low percentages of the vote. Under preferential balloting, it would be all the more difficult as those candidates would have to rely on second and third preferences from more mainstream voters in order to possibly win.
The result would likely be a Parliament made up of only very moderate, mainstream parties. Critics of instant runoff claim it's just a scam to elect as many Liberals as possible. They too have a point. In truth, it only seems that Liberals like the idea of switching to preferential balloting from first-past-the-post.
If this special parliamentary committee simply rubber stamps Justin Trudeau's preferred new system, it will be a political travesty that could backfire big time on the ruling party. Voters tend to frown on political parties that try to manipulate democratic systems to their own benefit. Even if the proposed change has some merit, voters are likely to not only reject it, but also reject the party implementing it if the public deems the reform process to be fundamentally unfair.
That could easily happen with this process, particularly since all opposition parties and voting reform advocates like Fair Vote Canada are likely to be dead set against moving to preferential balloting.
For me, if we're going to go to the trouble of changing voting systems, we should do the right thing and embrace some form of proportional representation. Such a change would finally ensure that party representation in the House of Commons aligns with party support among voters, unlike the current system which distorts that support. PR would ensure that laws have the support of parties representing the majority of Canadians instead of just the biggest plurality.
When new democracies have emerged in the world in recent decades, a PR voting system has been put in place precisely because it minimizes the chances of extremists taking power with as little as 30% of the vote. Nowhere do they implement first-past-the-post in such new democracies, nor do they implement preferential balloting.
Having said all this, it seems unlikely that Trudeau's committee will recommend a PR option. Any such system would likely need a lot of work to get it right, taking into account the need for regional and local representation. Contrary to the propaganda spouted by many PR opponents, PR does allow for locally elected legislators. A mixed member proportional system that utilized open party lists (meaning, the voters could decide who from a party list would be elected to Parliament, not the parties themselves) would be a welcome change. So would some form of Single Transferable Vote, or STV, which allows for local representation through multi-member constituencies.
However, I'm not holding my breath this will ever happen in Canada. Before Trudeau promised to revisit our first-past-the-post system in the 2015 election, I had thought this issue was resolved. Every referendum on this subject in recent years has resulted in affirming the status quo. Even a referendum in the UK on preferential balloting was crushed with 69% voting to keep first-past-the-post. Furthermore, the issue of electoral reform tends to bore the crap out of the public. Few seem to care much about changing away from first-past-the-post. Even the NDP when in power always keeps the current voting system in place.
But the Trudeau Liberals seem intent on moving forward on this issue. They've got control over what the committee will recommend. Should the committee simply propose preferential balloting and the government moves unilaterally to change Canada's voting system in such a profound way, it will cause a big and well-deserved backlash.
Should the Liberals bend to opposition demands and hold a referendum on any change, such a backlash could be avoided. But such a referendum is also likely to end in defeat for the proposed change.
Regardless, it will be very interesting to see how this issue continues to move forward.