So those are two topics I'd be happy to answer questions on.
For today's opening remarks, I thought I'd stick very strictly to a text I've titled “Ten Quick Thoughts on Electoral Reform in Ten Minutes”. I didn't add that they were not particularly original thoughts, but you may be thinking that.
Point one is that there's no perfect electoral system. Different countries have relatively strong, healthy democracies under a variety of electoral systems. By international standards and comparisons, Canada has a relatively healthy democracy. The design and choice of an electoral system must reflect the geography, history, traditions, and changing social, economic, and political realities of a particular country. Borrowing from elsewhere must be done cautiously, because it is difficult to predict how different models will work in the Canadian context.
Two, there are two main questions involved with electoral reform. What problem, or problems, are we seeking to address, and what principles and values are we seeking to see reflected in the design of a new electoral system? On both these points, reasonable people can disagree on both the principles and values that should guide reform and the real-world consequences of a particular substitute model.
Three, electoral reform is often presented as a response to the public frustration and disillusionment with politics, politicians, and governments. There is a malaise, not a crisis of democracy, in my opinion, within the Canadian political system, but the first past the post electoral system is not the principal cause of what is a multi-dimensional problem. Adoption of a new electoral system would contribute only marginally to a reduction in public discontent.
Four, a related issue raised by the current electoral reform debate is whether it is realistic in a large, complicated, pluralistic, and dynamic country to expect omnibus national political parties to capture and to give meaningful political expression to the diverse values, interests, demands, and needs that exist in Canada. Has the era of national brokerage political parties passed? Does the future entail a proliferation of parties that structure their appeals to voters on a narrower, less inclusive basis? Should electoral reform support a trend towards more specialized parties? It's definitely clear from comparative examples that some models of proportional representation would lead to more political fragmentation in the form of a greater number of fringe parties.
Five, composing a list of principles and values that should guide the design of an electoral system is actually relatively easy. However, such a list is almost always general and vague. Finding agreement on what the principles and values mean in practice is one of the difficult steps in the reform process. Moreover, such design criteria will to some extent clash, so it is not possible to maximize the achievement of each of those values and principles. Instead, trade-offs must be made, but this can only be done subjectively and impressionistically.
Six, a constructive debate over electoral reform must avoid reduction into simplistic false dichotomies that encourage proponents of different models to talk past one another. For example, the choice is often presented as between a majoritarian model versus some form of proportional representation. In fact there are working models out there that seek to find the sweet spot where some of the advantages and fewer of the disadvantages of each type of the PR model are realized.
Seven, national party representation versus individual local representation is another such dichotomy that's often presented. My past research on regional ministers, on party caucuses, and even on the Senate, tells me that there's more regional representation happening within the Canadian political system than is popularly imagined. The problem is that such representation occurs behind closed doors, so it is not generally recognized by the public as taking place.
In my view, therefore, preserving the personal factor in any electoral system is absolutely crucial. By the “personal factor”, I mean the maintenance and even enhancement of the role of the local MP in being responsive to and representing her or his constituency in Ottawa. Service to the community is the main motivation that causes people to stand for public office initially. Serving constituents is often the most satisfying job for MPs. Even if a majority of Canadians are hard-pressed at times to name their local MP, they are nonetheless strongly attached to the idea of a local representative who is elected by and answers to their community.
Eight, the word “legitimacy” comes up frequently in electoral reform debate. This is a contentious notion. It involves both a substantive and a procedural aspect. Put simply, legitimacy requires decisions that are based on widely held values and made through appropriate and widely accepted procedures. In other words, legitimacy is more than just levels of approval in a poll, an election, or a referendum. A decision based on sound evidence and careful analysis should have legitimacy even if it fails a popularity test, especially in the short term.
Nine, from the standpoint of legitimacy, electoral reform poses a dilemma. Political parties represented in Parliament and around this table are asked to select the rules of the game in which they are players. In an era of widespread public cynicism, there will inevitably be perceptions that each of the parties will make a self-interested calculation to choose their preferred electoral system. It is conceivable, however, that a party or parties could genuinely believe that a particular model not only will be to their political advantage but also that it will best serve the current and future needs of the country. In terms of public support and legitimacy, it would definitely help if agreement on a particular electoral system would be achieved among two or more parties on this committee.
Ten, mobilizing informed public consent and support for electoral reform will be difficult. Most Canadians take the electoral system for granted. They are reasonably clear on what values and principles they wish to see reflected in the electoral system, but they lack information on the technical matters related to the design of the system. In communicating about the electoral system, it is important for reasons of credibility, and to avoid future disappointment, not to exaggerate either the problems of the current system or the benefits of alternative models.
In summary, a decision on a new electoral system involves a consideration of multiple values, a series of potential purposes or aims, and a significant measure of uncertainty about how a particular model will work in practice. There is no way that even the smartest and best-informed Canadians, including the members of this committee, can hold all the relevant considerations in their mind at one point in time and make a comprehensive decision weighing all the factors.
In terms of practical reasoning, therefore, I would recommend that each member, and Canadians generally, select three or four values and aims that they consider to be the most important. Then you might consider constructing a matrix that ranks two or three electoral system options against this limited number of criteria. In regard to the long paper I mentioned, you can just watch people's eyes glaze over when you go through multiple lists of advantages and disadvantages. I think simplification is necessary.
Finally, I'll conclude by saying that I'm skeptical about the urgency of electoral reform and the capacity of any system to deliver all the multiple benefits that various sincere proponents of other models claim. In my opinion, if there must be a replacement for first past the post, the choice is most likely between an alternative vote model and a mixed-member proportional model based on regions.
Electoral reform could wait until after the 2019 election. A committee report and a concrete government proposal could become part of the next election campaign. Meanwhile, there's much else to be done on a democratic reform agenda.