On Referenda, Consultations, and Postcards

I was quoted in Luisa D’Amato’s column on 28 June 2016:

The Record logoD’Amato: Despite Brexit, we need a referendum on electoral reform (Mirror):

Bob Jonkman, co-chair of the Waterloo Region chapter of Fair Vote Canada, says there is barely time to put a new system in place, let alone ask people what they think of it

Ms. D’Amato and I had a 20 minute conversation and that’s only a brief and under-representative quote of what we spoke about. Among other things, I expressed my opinion that a referendum on Electoral Reform isn’t necessary because:

  1. Parliament (and provincial legislatures) may change the electoral system with a vote in parliament, as they have done for every other electoral reform issue such as giving the vote to women (1917-1918) or First Nations people (1960!). The Conservatives changed the rules for elections in the Fair Elections Act (2014), and nobody uttered a peep about a referendum.
  2. A referendum on electoral reform is not a constitutional requirement. The only issue that affects constitutionality is seat allocation to the provinces, and that requirement is easily met by not extending electoral boundaries across provincial lines. (We didn’t discuss it, but there have been many electoral boundary changes, notably before the 2015 election, which didn’t go to a referendum and were perfectly constitutional)
  3. That an effective and equal vote is a right, and that the First-Past-The-Post system violates that right, and rights issues are never decided by referenda.

I spoke of the rarity of referenda in Canada, that the only national referenda have been on issues like prohibition (I thought that was in the 1930’s, but it was in 1898), and the separation of Quebec (1992). Ms. D’Amato pointed out that we had a municipal referendum on fluoridation, and pointed out the many provincial referenda on electoral reform.

We talked about the 2007 referendum in Ontario — that example is a great reason to avoid referenda on these topics. Although the McGuinty Liberals made it an election promise in 2003, the Citizens’ Assembly wasn’t formed until 2006, leaving them only six months to become experts in voting systems and make a recommendation. Elections Ontario did not have enough information documents available; Fair Vote Waterloo members went door-to-door, and we ran out. Elections Ontario themselves were prohibited from giving out information on the proposed voting system (because informing voters was considered “biased”), and when voters went to the polls in October most didn’t even know there was a referendum on.

I expressed dismay that it took the Federal Liberal government eight months to form the current All-party Parliamentary Committee, that the Committee’s proposal is due on 1 December (and consultations need to wrapped up by 1 October), that the time it would take to move a bill through parliament could be as much as year, what with debate, multiple reading, and senate approval, and that Elections Canada will need a year to re-tool for a new electoral system.

And that whole conversation was distilled down to the one sentence.

Someone subsequently wrote:

Philosophically the public should be consulted on this issue, but not without widespread public education about Proportional Representation (PR). First educate the public, then hold a vote.

Dear Minister Monsef and members of the electoral reform committee, I want a proportional system so every vote will count in 2019.

Send a postcard to the All-party Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform

And they are being consulted. This is what our postcards are for: to send our opinions to the All-party Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform. While it may help to send another postcard to your local MP, I’m told they just forward them to the Committee. If anyone reading hasn’t sent a postcard yet, pick one up at one of the festivals this summer, or let the FairvoteWRC Executive know at executive@fairvotewrc.ca and we’ll get you one. Or several, if you have friends. You all have friends, right?

Although the public should be consulted, it’s not in anyone’s best interest for the public to make the decision. We saw the results of the four provincial referenda on electoral reform (BC held two), the outcome of the fluoridation referendum that completely ignored best public health care practices to the detriment of all Waterloo residents, and the Brexit referendum that was decided by people with no knowledge of global economics or foreign policy (I’ve read that some people thought the “Leave” option was to make the Muslims leave the UK).

The only way a referendum might work is in three parts:

  1. Do we want to change the current system (and that’s already been decided in the 2015 election by the 63% of voters casting a ballot for a party supporting electoral reform);
  2. after extensive study and education, asking which one of these voting systems (maybe STV, MMP, P3) should be used;
  3. after two or three election cycles asking if that system should be changed (and if “yes”, then start the whole process over again).

Reality Check: Can the Liberals call a referendum on electoral reform?

Jean-Pierre Kingsley: You can only hold a federal referendum in Canada on a constitutional matter. And changing the electoral system is not a constitutional matter.

But Canada’s electoral system does not allow a referendum on this question. There would have to be a new bill passed in parliament to modify existing referendum legislation, and that will take months to pass, never mind the time taken for the referendum itself.

Besides, Canada has a representative democracy, where we elect representatives (our MPs) to study these matters and make the best decision for their constituents. But that doesn’t stop me from letting my MP know what would be best for this constituent!


Portions of this article originally appeared on the Fair Vote Waterloo Discussion Mailing List. Sign up and join the discussion!

2 comments to On Referenda, Consultations, and Postcards

  • Marc Mayrand, Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, April 21, 2016 :
    ” The Referendum Act is outdated. It has not been changed since 1992, which was the last time we had a national referendum. In that regard, it is very much out of sync with the Elections Act, particularly around political financing. For example, unions and corporations could contribute to referendum committees. I think that may come as a shock. There is no limit on contributions by any entities. Again, that may come as a shock, but the legislation still stands.”

    • Perhaps Marc Mayrand wants to update the Referendum Act to bring union and corporate donations in line with the rules for general elections, but I’m not convinced that he wants to allow referenda on non-constitutional matters.

      Do you have a link for that quote in context?