There is a responsible path forward — Electoral Reform

In February, I wrote to my MP (Marwan Tabbara, Liberal) about electoral reform. He replied explaining that the Liberals abandoned their promise because:

1. Their preferred option was a ranked ballot. But they never wanted to lead in that directions because they “would have been accused, not without merit, as acting out of self-interest and of trying to rig the system”.

2. Didn’t pursue Proportional Representation because it didn’t receive enough support — despite the fact that the Liberal designed system of consultation received 80% and 90% supportive feedback for this option.

I replied, pointing out to him that:

1. If the Liberals were not going to lead towards a ranked ballot, it was never going to happen from the start.

2. If the Liberals don’t consider 80% and 90% support for PR (through a system they designed) as enough to pursue that option, it was never going to happen from the start.

3. If neither of those things were ever going to happen, the only remaining possibility is that they expected first-past-the-post to remain from the start.

This means that the Prime Minister’s promise that “2015 will be the last Federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post” was meant to mislead Canadians… from the start.

I’m sure, given that his own logic proves that this promise was meant to mislead from the very beginning, that he’ll be among the Liberal MPs who vote in favour of the NDP’s bill to this effect.

I hope everyone will write to their MP and encourage them to do the same.

Here is my complete e-mail correspondence with Mr. Tabbara:

From: Jonathan Cassels
Sent: February 8, 2017 12:49 AM
To: Tabbara, Marwan—M.P.; Trudeau, Justin—Député; Gould, Karina—M.P.
Subject: There is a responsible path forward — Electoral Reform

Dear Mr. Tabbara,

I am addressing this letter to you because you are the MP for my riding, but I am also sending this to other MPs who I believe may have an interest and may like the opportunity to respond (I very much hope they do).

Perhaps I should begin by mentioning that I am a constituent of Kitchener South and Hespeler, and also the initiator of a petition supporting electoral reform which has over 75,000 signatures. I understand it’s the largest petition ever on Parliament’s website, and many of the initial signers and promoters of that petition are people I know personally, who live here in your riding. I’m asking these questions for myself, but am sure the answers will be of interest to others.

I am writing to you to express my dismay with the sudden Liberal reversal on the issue of electoral reform. I supported the Liberal party in 2015 largely because of your promises on this subject, and I am unsatisfied with the explanations your party is putting forward to justify this change. I am hoping you can answer some questions about these explanations.

My first question is about the Prime Minister’s claim that a lack of consensus has stalled this issue. It seems to me that the stalling force isn’t a lack of consensus, it’s a lack of leadership. You and your party were elected to lead on the issues in your platform. Electoral reform was one of those issues. The most obvious way to lead on an issue like this is to make a proposal for how you believe electoral reform should work, which is something your party has never done. Without this effort, the Prime Minister’s comments have all the appearances of an attempt to blame Canadians for failing to follow, on an issue your party chose never to lead on. My question is, did your party truly believe that consensus would form without any attempt from the government to foster it?

My second questions also concerns comments made by the Prime Minister. In Parliament on Monday the Prime Minister said that we can’t proceed with electoral reform because “there were very many strongly held divergent views” on the subject. My question is what, specifically, are those “many divergent views”? Almost 65% of Canadians voted for parties which included electoral reform in their platform, and when the electoral reform committee elicited the input of Canadians, anywhere from 70%-90% of them (it varied with the method of feedback) were in favour of Proportional Representation. There are, of course, different types of Proportional Representation, but I have yet to meet a supporter of Single-Transferable-Vote, for example, which would not support a Mixed-Member-Proportional system if that was what was available. Almost without exception, these groups would happily support one another’s proposals, yet the Prime Minister made it sound like there’s a blood feud between the ” very many divergent” groups he mentioned. So, knowing that all the supporters of proportional representation (which appears to be a majority of Canadians) could be easily reconciled to one another, what exactly were the “very many strongly held divergent views” the Prime Minister mentioned?

Finally, some months ago, someone asked the then Minister for Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, a question equivalent to; Why do we need electoral reform when the current system “has served this country for 150 years and advances a number of democratic values that Canadians hold dear, such as strong local representation, stability and accountability”. Her answer was that “first-past-the-post is an antiquated system” and that “we require an electoral system that provides a strong link between the democratic will of Canadians and election results”. And yet, now, that very quote which Minister Monsef answered so eloquently was spouted verbatim by her replacement, Karina Gould, she said the current system “has served this country for 150 years and advances a number of democratic values that Canadians hold dear, such as strong local representation, stability and accountability”. My question on this is, what changed? What happened in the intervening months which justifies moving from “we require a [new] electoral system”, to using the exact question she was addressing to support the status quo?

In fact, that’s the core of all my questions. What has changed between the time the Prime Minister first promised this change and today? Because it was clear from the start it would be a political fight. That didn’t change. It was clear from the there were numerous opinions on the subject. That didn’t change. It was clear from the start that electoral reform was supported by most Canadians. That didn’t change. The only thing which I can think of which changed is that the Liberal party went from a position where they would benefit from electoral reform, to one in which they may (in the short term) be hurt by it. Is there a less self-serving explanation than that?

My hope is that, while your party claims that there is no responsible path forward on electoral reform; your answers might show a responsible path forward for Canadians to continue to support the Liberal party. Whether or not that is the case will depend upon your answers.

I eagerly await your reply.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Cassels
A well informed citizen

PS. I’ll be disappointed if all I receive in response to this is a form letter. I’ve seen the form letters other constituents have got from their MPs and they do not answer these questions. I realize that this letter is longer than most, and will take somewhat more time to reply in kind, but I have spent a great deal of my time getting Canadians engaged over an issue which the Prime Minister seems to believe they can’t be engaged on. Just yesterday, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, said argued that it is “incumbant upon all political leaders” to foster exactly that type of political engagement. I think a thorough and direct response to the questions in this letter is exactly the type of fostering of engagement she was referring to. That in mind, I have no doubt you will live up to her definition of what a political leader should be. Thx.

On 9 February 2017 at 18:05, Marwan.Tabbara@parl.gc.ca wrote:

Thanks for your email, Jonathan.

I, too, am disappointed by our inability to move forward on the method of voting issue in the Electoral Reform file. I know this will disappoint many residents in the riding and in particular some who may have cast their ballot focused on this issue.

At the University of Guelph I studied different systems of voting around the world and graduated with a degree in political science. When I became a candidate in August 2015, I was excited about the prospect of putting that learning to use in fulfilling the platform commitment to change the way we vote.

One of the first stakeholder groups I met with after I was elected was Fair Vote Canada and the first Petition I presented in the House of Commons was a Fair Vote Canada Petition to undertake public consultations across Canada and amend the Canada Elections Act to ensure that the share of seats held by each political party closely reflect the popular vote.

I am not in Cabinet, and therefore cannot begin to detail everything that went into the decision to reverse our position on changing the way we vote, since I am not privy to those discussions.

It is clear that governments often must and do legislate without necessarily achieving consensus on an issue. While changing the way we vote does not require the kind of overwhelming majority support that constitutional change requires, I do believe it is within one or two steps below that threshold in requiring consensus. We have always been clear that major reforms to the electoral system, changes of this magnitude, should only be made if they have the broad support of Canadians. The support of a large and passionate minority of involved citizens would not be an adequate substitute for that broad consensus.

You suggest that we should have exercised leadership to help form a consensus. If we had led by advocating for our favourite alternative—ranked ballot or AV—we would have been accused, not without merit, as acting out of self-interest and of trying to rig the system in favour of being in government in perpetuity.

We took the only course really open to us, which was ministerial consultations, local town halls, and the creation of an all-party committee. The results, of course, were that those who were interested and involved enough to have an educated position on the issue—the large and passionate minority—came out in significant numbers and advocated for proportional representation. The parliamentary committee was split and the report didn’t provide at any clear position.

We made an attempt to determine the leanings of the people of Canada using modern psychographic segmentation techniques. Tens of millions of personally addressed postcards were sent out asking people to go online and answer a set of questions. Those questions were not intended to bluntly force people to decide among a set of options, but rather to determine how they felt about the features and likely outcomes of various voting systems. MyDemocracy.ca was destructively and effectively portrayed by opposition messaging as a useless and inept effort. Fewer than 400,000 people answered. I don’t know what analysis has been done with those responses.

I also note that parties of all stripes have failed to achieve this kind of reform in other Canadian jurisdictions. Referenda have typically resulted in defeat of reform. More recently local governments have been empowered to change the way citizens vote in municipal elections in Ontario. There has been no movement in that direction, due to lack of interest and/or possibly due to satisfaction with the current voting system.

I think you can imagine how embarrassing it is for our Prime Minister and our party and its MPs to climb down from such a definite election platform commitment. Clearly, it is politically damaging. Anyone can see that the political cost would have made this a difficult decision. Mr. Trudeau must have bad dreams of the next election derisively featuring insanely frequent opposition commercials showing videos of his statements of commitment to 2015 being the last election for first past the post. Disappointing a large, engaged and passionate minority is not something politicians do eagerly.

I accept the Prime Minister’s and the Cabinet’s explanation that they were looking at the broader picture. I believe that they were of the opinion that new challenges in the international trading and political environment and implementation of many other platform commitments would be impeded by further focus on changing how we vote, since there wasn’t a clear, common and well-supported path forward on electoral reform. I believe they saw this file as having the potential to disrupt all the other items on the government’s program.

I still would like to have an electoral system that better reflects the votes of Canadians, and I hope that we can eventually get there. For reformers, I think the lesson is that there should be a strategy shift to helping Canadians achieve a comfort level with alternative voting systems by achieving implementation at the local municipal and then provincial levels, before returning to the Canada-wide effort.

Marwan

From: Jonathan Cassels
Date: Friday, February 10, 2017
Subject: There is a responsible path forward — Electoral Reform
To: Marwan.Tabbara@parl.gc.ca

Thanks for your response Marwan,

I wasn’t aware of your past work on electoral reform, I thank you for that. But I am still struggling to find coherence in your explanation.

I think it’s laudable that the Liberal party did not want to unilaterally bring its own preferred option into effect. However, a ranked ballot was the least popular electoral reform possibility among Canadians from the start. Perhaps Canadians might have rallied around it, if it had been advocated for strongly. However, if, as you say, the Liberals were never willing to lead in that respect, then it’s clear that no consensus (or even broad support) was ever going to form around it.

Proportional Representation, on the other hand, was the most popular option from the start. In 2015, 65% of Canadians voted for parties with electoral reform in their platform. In the consultations (largely designed by the Liberal Party) 80% and 90% of respondents preferred this option. If you do some basic arithmetic using those numbers, it suggests (at least the possibility) that a majority of Canadians support a proportional system. You claim to know that only a “passionate minority” of Canadians support this option. But there’s no data to support that. No polling. No referendum. No vote. And while the data we do have doesn’t prove majority support, it seems to justify at least putting the question to Canadians in a way which allows that support to be measured (something MyDemocracy.ca never did). The simple fact is that, unless you want to argue that 91% (as opposed to the 90% it received) of feedback needed to be supportive to justify moving forward, proportional representation cleared every reasonable hurdle. If the Liberals were not willing to proceed any further after the responses they received, then they would never have supported this possibility.

The problem is, there’s nothing left. If the Liberals weren’t going to lead on a ranked ballot, then you knew that would not happen from the start. If the Liberals weren’t going to pursue proportional representation any further, even when their own consultative process received as much as 90% feedback in favour of it, then they knew they would not allow that to happen from the start. The only alternative to those is the status quo. And the status quo is first-past-the-post. And if you knew the two possibilities which are not first-past-the-post could not happen from the start;

Then the Prime Minister’s promise that “2015 will be the last Federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post” was meant to mislead Canadians… from the start.

This logic is inescapable Marwan, and it all comes from your own statements on the issue. You’ve proven that the government meant to mislead Canadians. If I’m not mistaken, the opposition has introduced a motion into the house making this exact statement. It was debated this most recent Thursday, and is up for a vote this coming Tuesday. I trust, based on your own statements here which prove the motion to be correct in all respects, that you’ll be voting in favour of that motion, and add your voice to those asking that the government apologize publicly for abandoning this decision.

Respecfully,

Jonathan Cassels
An informed citizen

2 comments to There is a responsible path forward — Electoral Reform

  • I am a long time FV member from Guelph. We have strategically been engaging in a Rank Ballot (because Justin likes Ranked Ballots) Proportional System that Byron Weber Becker named LPR. It has a composite Gallagher index of 4.1 – so it is moderately proportional.

    See details at

    http://www.allvotescount.ca

  • Dianne Everson

    Mydemocracy.ca questionnaire was the most inane and biased questionnaire I have seen in 50 years of voting.

    The Liberals wasted a lot of time and taxpayers money on the cross country tour and committee to pretend Canadians would be heard.

    This was a simple promise,clearly stated and then broken without good reason. PR groups were able and willing to provide an easy understandable system for the PM to implement.
    Trudeau lied. There is no other way to put it. Liberals have lost my vote, but also a chance to reflect Canada, and have turned many young people trying to care about politics into cynical non voters. Shame on him.