Elec­toral re­form could heat up

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Chan­tal Hébert Chan­tal Hébert is a na­tional affairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

Justin Trudeau’s govern­ment will not lack for hard choices to make be­tween now and the sum­mer ad­journ­ment of Par­lia­ment. In most cases though, the road from plat­form prom­ise to ac­tual leg­is­la­tion will be if not free of bumps at least pretty straight­for­ward.

A govern­ment that holds a ma­jor­ity in the House of Com­mons needs not fear be­ing top­pled by the op­po­si­tion over a red-ink bud­get. A rul­ing party that has the power to take con­trol of the Se­nate out of op­po­si­tion hands will have only it­self to blame if it can­not make the up­per house func­tion to its leg­isla­tive ad­van­tage.

While the Lib­eral ca­pac­ity to se­cure pro­vin­cial co-op­er­a­tion on health care, pen­sion re­form, cli­mate change and med­i­cally as­sisted sui­cide will be tested, Trudeau does not lack for al­lies at the first min­is­ters’ ta­ble.

Even on the di­vi­sive pipe­line file, there is a reg­u­la­tory process in place that will, in the short term, pro­vide the govern­ment with some breath­ing room.

By com­par­i­son, elec­toral re­form is an out­lier. Trudeau has promised to de­liver a dif­fer­ent vot­ing sys­tem in time for the 2019 elec­tion so speed is pre­sum­ably of the essence. But there is no ready-made process to de­liver as ma­jor an elec­toral re­form in a man­ner that in­spires con­fi­dence in its le­git­i­macy.

The only con­sen­sus so far is that a gov­ern­ing party sup­ported by a mi­nor­ity of vot­ers should not use its par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity to uni­lat­er­ally change the way MPs are elected. In its post-elec­tion state­ments the govern­ment has im­plied that it sees the need to look be­yond its own ranks for sup­port for an al­ter­na­tive to the first-past-the­p­ost sys­tem.

That still leaves a vo­cal cho­rus led by but not ex­clu­sively made up of Con­ser­va­tives to ar­gue that noth­ing short of a ref­er­en­dum would suf­fice to le­git­imize the in­tro­duc­tion of a dif­fer­ent vot­ing sys­tem.

In sup­port of their case, the pro-ref­er­en­dum ad­vo­cates point to the provinces that un­der­took sim­i­lar re­forms.

Their plans were con­tin­gent on se­cur­ing the ap­proval of a sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity of the elec­torate.

There are good rea­sons to think twice be­fore go­ing down the road to a na­tional ref­er­en­dum but the fact that no prov­ince man­aged to earn enough pop­u­lar sup­port to achieve elec­toral re­form is not one of them.

A more se­ri­ous ar­gu­ment lies in the his­tory of na­tional ref­er­en­dums in Canada. It is short but any­thing but sweet.

The last time the fed­eral govern­ment held a full-fledged ref­er­en­dum goes back to the Se­cond World War. It dealt with whether mil­i­tary ser­vice should be made manda­tory.

A ma­jor­ity in the rest of Canada voted yes while a ma­jor­ity in Que­bec voted no.

The sub­se­quent im­po­si­tion of con­scrip­tion did last­ing dam­age to the Que­bec-Canada re­la­tion­ship.

It was to avoid re­open­ing those old wounds that the 1992 ref­er­en­dum on the Char­lot­te­town con­sti­tu­tional ac­cord was con­ducted by the fed­eral govern­ment in the rest of Canada and sep­a­rately, un­der the aus­pices of the Que­bec govern­ment, in that prov­ince.

Had the ac­cord passed in the other provinces and not in Que­bec rather than be re­jected across the board, Canada would have had an acute unity cri­sis on its hands.

The no­tion that one re­gion could im­pose its will on an­other will al­most inevitably resur­face in the con­text of a fu­ture fed­eral ref­er­en­dum.

At first glance, elec­toral re­form is hardly as di­vi­sive an is­sue as con­scrip­tion or con­sti­tu­tional change.

In­deed a poll re­cently con­ducted by Aba­cus found that a full third of Cana­di­ans have no strong feel­ings about it.

But if a poll had been taken on the terms of con­sti­tu­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Que­bec early on in the Meech process it would prob­a­bly have come up with a sim­i­lar mix of be­nign in­dif­fer­ence and pas­sive ac­cep­tance.

As op­posed to vot­ers in gen­eral, most mem­bers of Canada’s political class tend to care pas­sion­ately about any re­form li­able to af­fect their elec­tion prospects. Cana­di­ans got a to­ken of that when a Con­ser­va­tive move to take away the par­ties’ per-vote sub­sidy acted as an ac­cel­er­ant for the par­lia­men­tary cri­sis that al­most cost Stephen Harper his se­cond mi­nor­ity govern­ment in 2008.

The only cer­tainty about the elec­toral re­form de­bate over the Lib­eral elec­toral prom­ise is that its tem­per­a­ture will rise steadily over time, es­pe­cially if it is brought to the front burner of a na­tional ref­er­en­dum.

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