Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much for inviting me to this committee. Like many Canadians, I've been following your crash course on electoral systems with great interest. As a political scientist who finds the topic as fascinating as it is complex, I've been really impressed with the facility with which the committee has understood the nuances of electoral systems as well as methods of representation. As you're quickly realizing, it's complex, and a bit like doing a Rubik's cube, in that if you change one thing, the other things change as well. However, unlike a Rubik's cube, there is no right answer. This is important, because if I were to summarize electoral systems in one word, I would say “contingency”.
Your steep learning curve in some ways makes sense, because you've heard from many of the experts on the subject. Therein lies an important conundrum. While I have no doubt you will master the details of electoral systems, I wonder about the Canadian public. How will they learn, and what is it they need to learn? I want to discuss the public learning component of electoral reform from my experience as academic director of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. I want to stress the importance of that in the overall strategy of engagement.
The other thing I want to do is briefly talk about the large electoral signposts and hope you keep that in mind so you're not distracted by the red herrings along the way.
Public learning is really the flip side of democratic engagement. This reform exercise has created an ideal opportunity for a national conversation. We all want citizens to be engaged, but true engagement cannot occur without a solid foundation of knowledge. We know that among citizens the variation is very high, and as Professor Pilon just mentioned, the average is very low. Discussions should be about rational reason-giving, not emotional position-taking, and the former requires knowledge. Rational reason-giving was the basis of both the Ontario and the B.C. citizens' assemblies. That's how they worked. They understood that you could not choose an appropriate system without first understanding what principles were important to them.
Canadians are not being asked to design a new electoral system, so I would humbly say there's no reason for them to argue for one or another. In my mind, that's the work of this committee. Where Canadians have an important role to play is to tell this committee and members of Parliament what values and principles are important to them and how these are evident in various systems.
Your committee has been given five guiding principles, which I think are instructive but not as clear as they might be. I might suggest refinement about what they mean, or at least to make sure you're using the language in the same way as others.
For example, some of the principles your committee is working under are about outcomes, things like “integrity” and “legitimacy”. These are not created by a system but are a product of them. Others are goals that a system should embody, such as “effectiveness” and “inclusiveness”, whereas others relate to the mechanics of the system, to how it works, such as “local representation”. Your principle of “accessibility” suggests the principle of simplicity with its language that “the proposed measure would avoid undue complexity”. Simplicity, I might add, was one of the principles chosen by the Ontario citizens' assembly. If I can paraphrase Albert Einstein, a good electoral system should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.
There are other principles not listed that have been used by other studies. Voter choice, chosen by both the Ontario and B.C. citizens' assembly, was an important one for citizens, but curiously does not appear as frequently in the academic literature as the others. This suggests that citizens think about electoral systems differently from experts. That's worth remembering as you hear from experts about their opinions on what's important.
Other studies have also refined what “effectiveness” really means. Does it mean effective parties, as British Columbia and Ontario defined it? Does it mean effective Parliament, as the Ontario assembly refined it? Or does it mean effective government, as defined by both the Law Reform Commission and the New Brunswick commission?
I would suggest that it will be really important for you to clarify these terms so that both MPs and citizens are clear on what it is they value and whether they're talking about the same thing.
In the Ontario citizens' assembly process, $6 million was devoted to educating voters. A strong, robust educational campaign is more than advertising, of course. This government has taken the useful first step of producing a consultation guide. I would take exception to one of your previous witnesses, who characterized your process as an “elite pleasure industry”.
I actually think this matters. If so, surely more is needed, both to persuade the public and provide basic education about how these principles resonate and to inform citizens once this committee reports in December. Frankly, this will be even more significant if and when a referendum occurs.
Let me shift gears quickly and talk about electoral systems. You've heard a lot about them. I think one way to think about them is the big debate in which they occur. Scholars like to talk about whether they are causes—they create greater participation, they create more parties, they create different kinds of parties—or whether they are effects—they're a product of a political culture or a product of regionalism or perhaps an institutional context.
In reality, they are both. Electoral systems both illuminate and reflect.
In the literature, we classify electoral systems using these two large categories that might help in your deliberations: output and mechanics. For output, we're thinking about proportional versus non-proportional systems, the big categories. To determine what serves our needs best, we need to go back to our principles. Do we want a system that increases the chance of a strong majority government? Do we want increased diversity in Parliament? Do we want an increased number of political parties? Those are all questions that force us to go back to those principles.
The second approach is to think about mechanics. How does the electoral system work, and what is its relationship to the output? When scholars discuss mechanics, they're usually talking about three things.
The first is how voters would mark their preferences. Do they rank them or do they make a choice? Ranking offers greater choice, but it might surprise you that sometimes ranking doesn't affect the outcome of the choice. A categorical choice is simple but may not reflect preferences accurately.
The second issue you're facing in mechanics is how many representatives you want per district. One allows for simple accountability, but it can't be proportional. As you increase the number in each district, you increase, perhaps, proportionality, but you perhaps may sacrifice the connection between the representatives and constituents. Moreover, you may sacrifice local representation. These are trade-offs that need to be carefully weighed.
The third element of the mechanics is the formula, and you've talked about this in the last few days. The formula is basically how you decide who won. The plurality formula is simple, as you know. A majority formula ensures that there's legitimacy. A proportional system ensures that vote share equals seat share, but may sacrifice local representation. A mixed system offers what some might say is the best of both worlds, but it does create two classes of MPs.
I want to reinforce the model of the Ontario and B.C. citizens' assemblies. They were based on deliberation, not consultation. It's not enough to ask people for their opinions when doing so may only reinforce their existing beliefs. There needs to be an honest and robust public learning campaign that establishes connections between these principles and others and how they correspond to the kind of representation you want.
The conversation here and in the public has put, I would argue, the electoral cart before the horse. It has emphasized the product of those values, the electoral system, and not their trade-offs.
Let me leave you with a final thought. While Professor Pilon and others have argued that there is no one perfect system, I want to quote Richard Katz, who argued that there is a perfect system. He argued that the best electoral system, depends on “who you are, where you are, and where you want to go.”
At this stage, rather than focusing on systems, I hope you give these three some significant thought.