Electoral reform process – Are Canadians really “in charge”?
By Peter Ewart
The Federal Liberal government is proposing to form an All-Party Parliamentary Committee to identify and study what it terms “viable alternatives” to the current first-past-the-post electoral system. After consultation with Canadians over the next few months, this Committee will then report its recommendations to the House of Commons by December 1, 2016.
In this regard, the Ministry of Democratic Institutions, which will be spearheading the process, has issued the curious statement that “It’s time to remind Canadians that they are in charge” (1).
But are Canadians truly “in charge”? By appearing to rule out a national referendum on any electoral change, the Liberal government has indicated Canadians will not be the final decision-makers. Rather it will be the Parliamentary Committee, made up of representatives of the federal political parties, who will put forward the recommendations, and Parliament itself will make the final decision.
In a genuine democracy, sovereign power flows from the people. It follows from that principle that the people should be the decision-makers regarding any fundamental changes to the electoral system, rather than political parties which tend to have their own factional, vested interests.
The composition of the Parliamentary Committee itself can scarcely be called democratic. The Liberals received just 39% of the vote in the last federal election, but are awarding themselves a majority on the Committee (6 out of the 10 voting members).
Even the premises the Liberals are operating on are biased. For example, claiming that the 2015 election will be “the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post system.” Or claiming that somehow, despite receiving only 39% of the vote, they now have a mandate from all Canadians to make such a change (2). Why not let Canadians decide? Why not have an open process where nothing is prejudged?
By disempowering Canadian voters, the Liberals are ensuring that it will be the political parties in Parliament, not the people, who will ultimately choose the next electoral system. In other words, the parties will be setting the rules for themselves.
There are alternatives to such a flawed and biased process. For example, in British Columbia, the Campbell government in 2005 initiated the Citizens’ Assembly which was made up of BC voters randomly chosen from across the province. This took the process out of the hands of the political parties in the Legislature and gave final say to British Columbians in two referenda.
If it was not for the required 60% threshold, BC would have changed its electoral system to the Single Transferable Vote system, one that to a certain extent gave more power to voters and weakened that of the political parties.
Irrespective of that outcome, the BC Citizens’ Assembly process, unlike the proposed federal government process, was much more democratic and consistent with the principle that sovereign power flows from the people.
All of this controversy over electoral reform is taking place in the context of a country and a world where global monopolies are amassing more and more power and where the power of people to make political and economic decisions is being diminished through supra-national arrangements such as NAFTA, TPP, IMF, the European Union, and other mechanisms, as well as a cartel-like party system that disempowers the electorate.
It is clear that, contrary to the declarations of the Ministry of Democratic Institutions, Canadians are definitely not in charge. In fact, the Liberal government’s electoral reform process only reinforces this marginalization.
Furthermore, this dysfunctional process is just one symptom of the larger problem of political and economic disempowerment of the citizenry in an increasingly globalized and corporatized world.
We need democratic processes that open the way for solutions to this disempowerment, not feathering the nests of certain political parties.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: email@example.com
- “Backgrounder: Motion to propose all-party parliamentary committee on electoral reform.” Government of Canada. May 11, 2016. http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=1063799
- McParland, Kelly. “Liberals want ‘exhaustive’, ‘inclusive’ electoral reform, but no referendum thanks.” National Post. May 11, 2016. http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/kelly-mcparland-liberals-want-exhaustive-inclusive-electoral-reform-but-no-referendum-thanks