An Act to amend the Referendum Act

This bill was last introduced in the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session, which ended in May 2004.

This bill was previously introduced in the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session.


Lorne Nystrom  NDP

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)


Not active, as of Oct. 7, 2002
(This bill did not become law.)


All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Referendum ActPrivate Members' Business

February 17th, 2003 / 11:45 a.m.
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Progressive Conservative

Loyola Hearn Progressive Conservative St. John's West, NL

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand and say a few words on Bill C-216. I wish to congratulate my friend from the NDP for bringing this issue before the House, not because I necessarily agree with him although I could be persuaded, but because this is an issue that should be debated thoroughly in the House, to see if a better way can be found of reforming Parliament and the electoral system.

I have a concern about proportional representation. We would look at the percentage of votes that various parties get and those parties would have a number of members according to the number of votes those parties received. That sounds tremendous and it would be hard to argue against because that would truly be proportional representation. However to do that fairly is another story.

I will give members an example. The great province of Newfoundland and Labrador is the best example to use because we have only seven seats. In my province, the NDP and the Canadian Alliance seldom receive over 10% of the vote. Consequently, they receive no seats whatsoever. There are seven seats and a party needs about 15% of the vote to get one seat. If a party were to receive 15% of the vote, from which riding would the member be selected from? In all seven ridings the Liberals, the Conservatives or whomever, usually win with a large percentage of the vote. But because some other party received 15% in the total vote, that would mean it had to have a member.

I am not sure of the semantics involved because it is extremely complicated. Before we go off saying this is the way to do it we had better work out a system that does not deprive the majority of people in any one riding who voted from having the person they selected as their true representative of that riding otherwise it would be unfair to the riding involved. It might be unfair to the province and it might be unfair to the country, but it would certainly be unfair to the people who actually selected that person. We must work out a system that will get around that.

There are several good things that could come out of the suggestion made by my hon. colleague. There are some possibilities for electoral reform and they include: making the Senate an elected body; appointing an independent ethics counsellor responsible to Parliament and not the Prime Minister; making members of Parliament the central decision makers in Ottawa once again, which we certainly cannot say we are today; requiring ministers to be directly accountable to Parliament for their budgets and the conduct of their departments; and enhancing citizen participation by the way of referenda on major public issues.

All of these issues have been debated over the last couple of years with most people saying this is the way to go, but we are doing little to implement such good ideas. The bill, which has been put forth by my hon. colleague, would perhaps spur things on to improving things considerably.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, at its conference in August of last year in Edmonton, adopted a major parliamentary reform document covering many of the issues mentioned by various parties. It certainly concerns the Canadian Alliance because it was developed in conjunction with a number of people who sit in that party. If people were to openly admit the truth, they would say that we are very close on such policies.

We might ask ourselves why we are not as close on other issues. That is a good question which has to be answered one of these days.

There are a couple of sections in that policy document, one on parliamentary reform and one on citizen involvement. On parliamentary reform some of the things talked about are free votes, confidence votes, party discipline, commons committees and proper representation and control, code of ethics in Parliament to discipline parliamentarians, legislative federalism, power of the purse, relationship between Parliament and the courts, Senate reform, government by regulation, and the list goes on.

Regardless of how much we talk about it, regardless of the document we brought forth, regardless of the cooperation of the Canadian Alliance with us in relation to these policies, regardless of bills brought forward by my colleague and members of the NDP, and regardless of the position of the Bloc, unless we change government we would not get it done. The Bloc and the Canadian Alliance are perhaps the two parties that are already benefiting perhaps from proportional representation because most of their votes are in selected areas in the country and they tend to elect members according to the percentage of the vote, more so than other parties that are spread out or have a wider base of support across the country.

Regardless of how much we talk about electoral reform, unless we change government we would not get it done because instead of trying to reform Parliament to be more open, the present government is just entrenching. We never had a better example than what is happening today.

In a few minutes time the government House leader will stand to invoke closure on a bill that we will be talking about for a few hours today. That goes against everything anybody in the House should stand for. We already agreed a little earlier to take from the budget large sums to go toward the gun registry. It is such an embarrassment. Now from the back door the government opens up the doors again. We cannot go on with that charade.

It is about time that we drew to the attention of the people of the country the financial cruelty that has been perpetrated upon them by the government opposite. In light of that, to create part of that awareness, I move:

That this House do now adjourn.

Referendum ActPrivate Members' Business

February 17th, 2003 / 11:15 a.m.
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Halifax West Nova Scotia


Geoff Regan LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in debate on Bill C-216 which would amend the Referendum Act, but the bill really does not deal with the main topic of my hon. friend's speech, which was proportional representation.

I want to talk about the bill itself, which is about the Referendum Act, but I first want to respond to some of the member's comments about PR, as he calls it.

I want to suggest to my hon. friend that it is actually self-serving for the NDP to be supporting and calling for this kind of system which obviously would benefit it, but would it benefit Canada? I want to suggest that the system we have had for so many years has provided great stability in Canada.

When NDP members talk about proportional representation or about changing the electoral system at all, I wonder why they refuse to consider, for example, the ordinal system where there would be a series of runoff elections, as they do in France and in many other countries around the world.

My hon. colleague talked about the fact that many countries have PR. He did not mention the fact that many countries have the ordinal system where there are runoff elections. If anything is going to give people control over the result of their elections, surely it is the runoff system where they have to make the difficult choice of deciding which candidate to vote for when the candidate of their choice is out. That is remarkably similar to the process of being in government, the process of making decisions when we have people from across this country with different concerns and points of view and we have to find consensus and compromise.

Through being exposed to that kind of a process, of making those difficult choices, people would understand more and more, although I think many of them already do, but they would understand even better how government must work and how we must reconcile differences across our country and throughout different parts of our culture and our society. I suggest that my hon. friends maybe could look at the ordinal system and consider that when they talk about electoral reform.

However the bill is not so much about PR. It is really about referenda. What the bill proposes is the inclusion in the Referendum Act of a reference to electoral reform. This means that if the governor in council considers that it is in the public interest to consult the Canadian electorate on a question relating to the Constitution of Canada, or the reform of the electoral system of Canada, the governor in council could submit that question in a referendum. That is what the bill does; nothing more, nothing less.

This addition would not make it mandatory to hold a referendum in order to effect an electoral reform. It simply would impose certain obligations on the government in cases where it decides to submit to the electorate a question concerning electoral reform. The Referendum Act sets forth the rules that apply to constitutional referenda. For example, it provides for the organization and registration of registered referendum committees responsible for receiving contributions and incurring expenses. It authorizes the allocation of free broadcasting time and the possibility of holding the referendum only in certain provinces. These same rules would apply for electoral reform.

Referenda in Canada, including those conducted under the Referendum Act, are consultative and do not have the force of law. Hence, the House would have to examine and pass a bill even if a referendum were held on a given question.

To summarize, adding electoral reform to the Referendum Act would not mean that a referendum would have to be held in order to effect electoral reform. Such a referendum would not be binding. This change simply would impose certain rules to be followed if the Canadian people were asked a question concerning electoral reform. It is not about PR.

Bill C-216 adds nothing more to the current situation.

The government or Parliament can always propose holding a referendum on a specific question, and there is absolutely no need to amend the Referendum Act to do this.

In the past, Parliament has proposed holding referenda when necessary. For example, there was one on the prohibition of alcohol in 1898 and one on conscription in 1942.

The government can establish specific procedures depending on the question it intends to put to a referendum.

It is not necessary to subject each possible referendum relating to the electoral system to the same requirements as referenda on changes to the Constitution.

If we had to decide on whether to subject electoral reform to the rules set out in the Referendum Act, we would have to ask ourselves the following question: why add only electoral reform?

In fact, several subjects are just as worthy. For example, what about questions on abortion, capital punishment or immigration?

If all these questions are put to a referendum, should they not be subject to the same rules?

It seems to me that the addition of electoral reform or anything else to this act should be considered in the light of what the amendment contributes in terms of benefits and real impact. Surely we do not want a purely cosmetic change. As I indicated, this amendment would not have the effect of making referendums on electoral matters mandatory and Parliament remains free to propose the holding of referenda. Consequently, the amendment would have little practical effects.

In addition, while adding questions relating to electoral reform to the Referendum Act would impose a framework for holding a referendum on that question, there would be little advantage to this since Parliament can easily provide for rules to govern the holding of a referendum.

What is more, it is not clear that we want all the mechanisms of the Referendum Act to apply to a given popular consultation. For example, in a given situation it may be desirable not to resort to referendum committees to oversee referendum expenses. In certain cases, Parliament may want the outcome of a consultation to automatically change the law, and this would not allow that to happen. The benefits of an amendment like that would therefore appear to be marginal like this one or non-existent.

Electoral reform projects are generally approached in the spirit of co-operation among the parties. Generally speaking, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has been able to take account of the interests of political parties, lobby groups and various regions of Canada when reviewing this type of bill. That is why Parliament remains a preferred instrument for dealing with electoral reform.

Electoral modifications have given consideration to a whole range of issues. Complex questions with numerous ramifications are often raised. It is my belief that parliamentarians in committee can more easily balance the various elements associated with the proposal than can the public faced with the question that must be answered yes or no, which may not be the answer they really want to give. They may want to give a more complicated or complete answer.

That being said, no one can deny that the Canadian electorate is the ultimate judge of the policies adopted by the government and Parliament. People sanction the work done by MPs and the government as a whole on the occasion of general elections.

For those reasons I do not support the bill, and I would like to add that electoral reform is at the heart of representative democracy. I want to reaffirm that the government is a firm believer in co-operation and a non-partisan approach to electoral issues.

Referendum ActPrivate Members' Business

February 17th, 2003 / 11:05 a.m.
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Lorne Nystrom NDP Regina—Qu'Appelle, SK

moved that Bill C-216, an act to amend the Referendum Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I have before the House of Commons today an amendment to the Referendum Act.

Hon. members may recall that a number of years ago, in the early 1990s, the House of Commons passed the Referendum Act to have a national referendum on the question of the Charlottetown accord and the Constitution. In our country we have had three national referenda. We have had a referendum on prohibition, a referendum on the whole question of conscription, and then in 1992 a referendum on the issue of constitutional reform. The question put to people at that time was defeated overwhelmingly across the country.

Today I am introducing an amendment to the Referendum Act, because the act we now have in the House of Commons covers only referenda on constitutional matters. My amendment is to amend the Referendum Act so that we can actually have a referendum on the whole question of electoral change or electoral reform. The reason for this is that I am a very strong advocate of changing our electoral system to bring in a system of proportional representation. I believe that before we would bring in a system of proportional representation, we should actually consult the people of the country to see if they want it.

Under the federal laws and statutes, the House of Commons by itself can change the electoral system any time it wants, because it only affects the federal law. If we look around the world we will see that most countries in the world do not have our electoral system; they do not have a first past the post system. In fact, of democracies with more than 10 million people, it is only Canada and the United States that have a pure first past the post system. In the last election in the United States in the year 2000, Al Gore actually received 550,000 more votes than George Bush, but George Bush is President of the United States.

India still has the first past the post system. This country has a first past the post system. Even Britain, the mother of our parliamentary system, now has a measure of PR in the Welsh parliament and the Scottish parliament and they elect all of their members of parliament to the European Community, to the parliament in Strasbourg, through a system of proportional representation.

I believe we have to change our electoral system. The last time the House of Commons had a vote on PR was in 1922. Changing our system to the PR system is not likely to happen on a top down basis from parliamentarians; it will happen on a bottom up basis, from the people up.

We now have for the first time ever a national organization promoting proportional representation or electoral reform. That organization is Fair Vote Canada. Fair Vote Canada now has supporters from all political parties in the House. There are members of the Alliance who are in favour of changing the electoral system to bring in a measure of PR. There are members of the Liberal Party sitting in Parliament, only a few at this stage, who are in favour of changing the electoral system and bringing in PR. There are members of the Conservative Party who believe in changing the political system and bringing in proportional representation.

There are many Bloc Quebecois members who favour changing our electoral system to one based on proportional representation. I remember well that former Quebec premier and leader of the Parti Québecois René Lévesque was in favour of a new electoral system in Quebec.

Back in 1999 at a national convention our party passed a resolution to bring in a measure of PR.

We have the beginning of a national movement, a national movement that is very diverse and includes members of the trade union movement and members of the political left in Canada as well as members of the political right, including the Canadian Taxpayers Federation led by Walter Robinson, and others who favour changing the electoral system.

Why do I suggest that we have a system of PR in Canada? I believe that every vote should count, that no vote should be wasted. If we look at the parliaments we elect, we will see that the Parliament of Canada does not reflect how people actually vote. In the last campaign, the Liberal Party received around 50% of the votes in this country and yet it has almost 60% of the seats in the House of Commons.

In Ontario, out of 103 seats about 100 Liberals were elected in November 2000. One would think that about 95% of Ontarians voted Liberal, and yet the Liberal Party is almost a minority party in Ontario. It received 50% of the votes. Half of Ontarians get very few representatives here in the House of Commons.

The same thing is true of western Canada, where 75% to 80% of westerners in the House of Commons are members of the Alliance Party. Yet the Canadian Alliance in the last campaign received fewer than half of the votes in western Canada, representing a minority of western Canadians.

I can go through every Parliament like this.

I remember well the Parliament that began in 1997, after the June election. A comparison could be made between the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP. In that election, the Bloc Quebecois got 11% of the vote, as did the NDP, but in the Parliament of Canada there were 21 NDP members and 44 Bloc members. The same thing happened with the Conservative and Reform parties, which had about the same number of votes nationally, but in the House there were 20 Conservative MPs and between 50 and 60 Reform MPs under the leadership of Preston Manning.

There are all these distortions in the electoral system, so that when people get up the morning after an election the Parliament they have elected does not reflect how they voted. In fact, there are many examples in Canada where the governing party actually received fewer votes than the leading opposition party. Today we have two governments that received fewer votes than the leading opposition party. In my own province, Saskatchewan, the NDP government led by Roy Romanow, which I of course supported, received 38% of the vote last time while the opposition party, the Saskatchewan Party, received 39% of the vote.

In the Province of Quebec exactly the same situation exists. The Parti Québecois now forms a majority government in the Province of Quebec, yet in the last provincial election, the Liberals under Jean Charest received more votes than the Parti Québecois. The Parti Québecois now forms the Government of Quebec, however.

We have these distortions all the way across the system. That happens regardless of the party. I think we should change the electoral system. I have said before that there are hardly any other countries in the world that now have a pure first past the post system. That is why a change has to happen here.

Under proportional representation, every vote counts and no vote is wasted. Today the majority of Canadians vote for losing candidates. People vote for people who do not win. If there were a PR system, a person could vote for the Canadian Alliance in Newfoundland and the vote would count. If a person were to vote for the NDP in Alberta, the vote would count. If a person were to vote for the Liberal Party on the prairies in western Canada, the vote would count. Right across the piece, people's voices and people's points of view would be heard here in the Parliament of Canada in a truly democratic system.

Why has this never happened? Because the first past the post system is a very self-serving system for the government, regardless of the political party, regardless of what level of government we have in Canada. The change can be made only by the grassroots, by the people of this country.

I would hope that there would be a number of MPs who would rise in the House and talk about the need for electoral reform. I challenge any member of Parliament to go out on the street in any part of this country. He or she will find that the Canadian people are losing faith in our political system. In fact, in many ways we are sleepwalking toward a crisis in democracy.

I can remember when voter turnout was 75% or 80%. In 1997 the voter turnout went down to 67% and then down to 60% in the last election campaign. People are losing faith in Parliament and their politicians. People believe that politicians do not listen and do not hear. They believe that they elect politicians to do one thing and then something else happens. Part of the responsibility for that is the failure of our electoral system to provide the Canadian people with the kind of government they want and deserve.

The other thing is that under PR people can vote for their first choice and have their first choice count. There are a lot of Canadians in our present system who cast what I call a strategic vote. They are upset with the government and they vote for the leading opposition party. Or they live in a part of the country where the party they prefer does not have a chance of winning, so they vote for their second choice. Under proportional representation, people vote for their first choice and their first choice wins.

Another thing about PR is that it would also force all political parties to have a national vision. We have in Canada now five different regional parties, really, that are strong in different parts of the country. That includes the government, which is very strong in the Province of Ontario and to a lesser degree in the Province of Quebec, but not very strong when it comes to western Canada.

Under PR every vote is equal. For the NDP under PR a vote in Chicoutimi is worth as much as a vote in Regina. For the Liberal Party under PR a vote in Kamsack, Saskatchewan, is worth as much as a vote in downtown Toronto. It would force all parties to have a national vision and appeal to Canadians right across the board, regardless of their previous voting patterns and their previous voting history. This is another argument for proportional representation.

The main thing is that we would elect a Parliament where everybody is equal, where everybody's vote counts, and where nobody's vote is wasted.

Why do I today bring in a bill to amend the Referendum Act? I believe that for a major change of this sort the people should speak. In fact, we have a precedent for this. In New Zealand a number of years ago when that country moved from the first past the post system to the system of proportional representation, not just one but two referenda were held. The first referendum was on the principle of PR. The question put to New Zealanders was whether they wanted to bring in a system based on proportional representation or to stick with the status quo, which was first past the post. New Zealanders then voted to bring in a system based on proportional representation.

The second referendum in New Zealand allowed the people of the country, through a direct vote in a referendum, to choose the kind of proportional representation they wanted in their electoral system. They chose what was called the mixed member proportional, a system that is based on the German model, which is the reality in some 13 countries in the world.

I think what we should do is allow the Canadian people, through a referendum, to decide whether or not they want to keep the status quo or bring in a system of proportional representation.

For the last four or five years I have had a private member's bill before the House of Commons which would strike an all party committee to hold public hearings across the country and to come up with some recommendations as to the most appropriate system of PR for the country. Parliament would decide on the most appropriate model for Canada and then a national referendum would be held so the Canadian people could decide whether they wanted this new model of PR or the status quo of the first past the post system. Therefore we need to change the Referendum Act to allow the people to have a national vote on the subject.

The time has come when we should be striking a national committee to look at electoral reform. My vision of PR is one that is based on the German model. Residents of Germany get two votes in a campaign. Half the members are elected riding by riding. People still have their local member of parliament to look after their unemployment insurance needs, wheat board needs, immigration needs and so on. The other half of the members of parliament are elected on a list that each party presents.

It is from that list in Germany and in the other 12 countries that use the mixed member proportional where they draw names to make sure the parliament is representative.

If one party, for example in Ontario, with almost all the seats, gets only half the votes then the other parties would get almost all the members in the west so that the representation from Ontario would be proportional in accordance with the votes that are cast. Therefore they would have the best of both worlds. They would have a local member of Parliament and they would have proportionality. I think that is a truly democratic system.

I am looking forward to hearing the debate this morning. I hope members on all sides of the House will give this a great deal of support. It would give Canadians a chance, in a true democratic way, to pass judgment on the kind of electoral system we want to represent us in the future.

Referendum ActRoutine Proceedings

October 7th, 2002 / 3:10 p.m.
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Lorne Nystrom NDP Regina—Qu'Appelle, SK

moved for leave to introduce Bill C-216, an act to amend the Referendum Act.

Mr. Speaker,it is a very sensible act. The bill would amend the Referendum Act to allow a referendum to be held on any question relating to the reform of the electoral system and here I thinking about the introduction of proportional representation where the people would have the final say in the kind of system we want in this country.

(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)