Evidence of meeting #12 for Electoral Reform in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was voters.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Dennis Pilon  Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, York University, As an Individual
Jonathan Rose  Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual
Maryantonett Flumian  President, Institute on Governance

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Does AV allow that to happen, alternative voting?

11:40 a.m.

Prof. Dennis Pilon

The alternative vote does not. The alternative vote has many of the same problems that first past the post has.

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Okay.

How am I doing for time, Chair?

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia

You have 35 seconds.

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Ms. Flumian, I have a question on conventions. You raised this point.

Hugo Cyr was in front of us yesterday talking about shifting some of the conventions around government shutting Parliament down through prorogation, dissolution, and all of those things. Could we imagine reforming those as well—updating them, making them more democratic—so that one party in power couldn't simply pull the fire alarm and get out of Dodge if they're threatened?

11:45 a.m.

President, Institute on Governance

Maryantonett Flumian

I think you have to. I think part of what you're commenting on here would also be about which ones in particular should be the subject of study immediately. By the way, it would also go a long way, I think, if the government were encouraged to put them up publicly in plain language so that all parliamentarians, who may not be constitutional experts on the subject of conventions, would understand them. They'd understand the rationale for them and the constraints they place, but also the possibilities that they offer.

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia

Thank you.

Mr. Thériault has the floor.

11:45 a.m.

Bloc

Luc Thériault Bloc Montcalm, QC

I will try to be as brief as possible and then I would like to hear your comments.

Quebec history has shown us that ordinary citizens, beyond the insiders in political parties and elsewhere, believe in justice. They understand that value and it matters to them. The principle of fairness is what should guide deliberations in every way and in all areas of the country.

We hear a lot about deciding on governance but very little about a fundamental institution in a parliamentary democracy, specifically the legislative branch. In the Quebec experience there are two points that keep coming up in discussions, other than the mechanics of the electoral system: criticism of the way of doing things in politics and party lines.

In a democracy, the legislature is the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy. What clearly frustrates people is seeing their government members stay in their seats when they should be rising and defending the electoral platform on which they were elected. I do not mean my colleagues, here; this goes beyond your terms. We will agree that a government represents the entire population. The government was elected with 38% of votes. Therefore it should listen to the official opposition and amend its legislation. Moreover, the government was still elected on the premise that it would implement its platform.

There is very little mention of the fact that no system prevents people from voting for the representative of their choice. Under the current system, we would agree that the Green Party could form government if people voted for it. The problem would arise after that, specifically at the step of forming the executive, not at the time of election.

Beyond the executive, I would like you to comment on the legislative. Things need to change at that level as well.

11:45 a.m.

Prof. Dennis Pilon

Who are you directing the question to?

11:45 a.m.

Bloc

Luc Thériault Bloc Montcalm, QC

I would like to hear your thoughts on what I just said.

July 28th, 2016 / 11:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia

You have a minute and a half left.

11:45 a.m.

President, Institute on Governance

Maryantonett Flumian

Quickly, I think there are a couple of elements in what you said that need to be highlighted.

As I've said earlier, I think it's an ecosystem; therefore, conventions, which are constitutional in our world and evolve over time, play an important role, and people need to understand them. Legislation is important. The role of the three orders of government is important.

However, behaviour is equally important. That's what's driving Canadians nuts. A party system that controls and is almost oppressive, it seems, to those on the outside looking in, in forcing how people must vote is part of what people are trying to fix. If we think that the answer to that question is the electoral voting mechanism, then by all means address it. However, if you're asking me how you might structure a conversation with Canadians, and therefore a report, I'd go to here. I'd start with values.

You have to start with values because then you can have a conversation about whether they are or are not reflected in the system that we currently have. You have to deal somehow with the bias of incumbency of the system we currently have.

If you paint a picture of the fact that we should evolve, then your next question is going to be whether you evolve at warp speed or incrementally.

I think everybody agrees that there is something about this ecosystem that's not working, but I don't think the conversation with Canadians should be about the specific technicalities. It should be about what outcomes you want. If we all come to the conclusion that we want to increase voter turnout but we change a system in a way that confuses them overly much, it will drive down voter turnout and create greater apathy in the system. How do you combat that?

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia

Thank you.

We'll go to Ms. May now.

11:50 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Thank you.

Again I thank all the panellists. As a committee, we won't be back together again for hearing witnesses until August 22, so I'd say that the three of you are taking us out with a bang of really good discussion.

I want to go back to something that's in your paper, Professor Pilon. We're talking about constitutional conventions, and we're talking about the actual Constitution. I'm grateful every day that I went to law school, which helps me.

I read the paragraph here about the British North America Act and the instruction we had from the mother ship that we were to use the voting system from Westminster, parliamentary democracy, and that the power was conveyed to Parliament to change our voting system. Then you say that because the matters in sections 40 and 41 of the original BNA Act have been superseded by other acts, they are therefore spent'. Could you just explain that?

We no longer have it in our Constitution, but what I understand you're saying is that when we got the British North America Act, Great Britain told us, “You are to have Parliament fix your voting system.”

11:50 a.m.

Prof. Dennis Pilon

I think that's a misreading of sections 40 and 41. I don't think that one aspect is spent.

For the parts of sections 40 and 41 that detail specific things that have been superseded, of course, those aspects are spent, but the intention of it clearly says that electoral matters are in the hands of Parliament, and that still stands, in my view, constitutionally.

You have to understand that Great Britain imposed various voting systems on different countries. Ireland is a good example. They imposed STV because they wanted to keep the different Irish groups apart, and then they would be weaker in resisting British rule. You see all those kinds of choices around the world. Now, it just turned out that it worked for the Irish and they liked it, so they kept it. It's one of those things that didn't work out.

However, in the Canadian context, Britain didn't do that. Probably the biggest influence on our voting system was the pre-Canadian voting systems that we'd already used in the united Province of Canada and the various colonies, so in that sense the politicians were just carrying on with what they did before.

Where people go wrong is in saying that our Constitution says that we should have a constitution similar to Britain's, so that means first past the post. Of course it doesn't, because while Britain used first past the post in 1867, they certainly weren't set on single-member ridings. There were multi-member ridings. They used the cumulative vote and the limited vote for different elections. They used STV for university elections, and all of this to the House of Commons.

If we're using the mother ship as our influence, then there are plenty of examples of their experimenting with different voting systems.

11:50 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

I sense that Maryantonett Flumian wants to join in this discussion, and I want to give you that.

11:50 a.m.

President, Institute on Governance

Maryantonett Flumian

I would support that description. Our model of governance has evolved from the model of responsible government that we evolved to before the BNA Act, and that system has evolved continuously. There are some provisions in the Constitution that speak to it. The rest is convention and how we choose to legislate—and behaviours.

11:50 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Professor Rose, please feel free to jump in and disagree if you do, but it seems that the consensus of the three panellists is that the instructions we have in the Constitution of Canada are that it's for Parliament to choose a voting system, and that the one we were initially bequeathed is not cast in stone.

11:50 a.m.

Prof. Jonathan Rose

You're going to hear from constitutional experts later, so I'll, in part, defer to them, but we do have evidence about the answer to that question, and that's the Senate reference case.

It said that section 44 of the Constitution, which allowed Parliament to make exclusive laws about the Senate and the House of Commons, was not sufficient to make a change, because it altered two things: it affected the fundamental nature and role of the Senate and it affected the constitutional architecture.

To answer your question, we need to know about whatever hypothetical voting system would change those two things.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia

Thank you.

Go ahead, Ms. Romanado.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Sherry Romanado Liberal Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne, QC

Thank you very much.

Madam Flumian, could you suggest the best way to implement a new voting system? You've mentioned that we are in an ecosystem, and if we change the voting system, it will affect other elements, whether it's online voting or increasing voter turnout. Could you walk us through how we might implement this?

11:55 a.m.

President, Institute on Governance

Maryantonett Flumian

It's hard to tell you how to implement something before you tell me what you're proposing to implement, but if I look at it as a conversation with Canadians that ends in implementation, I've given you some of the elements already. If one of the things we're trying to do is draw more people into the act of democratic governance, and to use this drawing them in to make our democratic institutions more robust and resilient as they're evolving, then you have to come up with something about how you're going to position those trade-offs within a new voting system.

We would need to have one or two options to look at. Sometimes it's in playing out the options that you see what the effects, wanted or unappreciated, are going to be. I think that's a second conversation. We'd be happy to come back once you have that, but just to pick something out of the air would be hard to do. Understanding that, you also have to understand how quickly that could be turned into an administrative regime that could actually be implemented.

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia

Go ahead, Professor Pilon.

11:55 a.m.

Prof. Dennis Pilon

We've had 10 successful voting system reforms at the provincial level. We have a lot of experience introducing different voting systems, and we've had experimentation at the local level. My book looks at 18 countries across 150 years, citing every instance of voting system reform in western industrialized countries, so we don't lack for models of implementation.

There definitely are some dos and don'ts. On the positive side, you have to recognize that there will be a bumpy road to implementation. There will be a learning curve. As a former election administrator, I can tell you to swamp the polls with people who can actually help voters. That's where you run into the problems. As people adjust to a new system, they are going to need help. To have bodies on the ground, ramp up the budget for the first couple of elections and hire people to help. This way, you will not have serious problems.

11:55 a.m.

President, Institute on Governance

Maryantonett Flumian

Let's not forget that we want to get them to the polls first.