Thank you, Mr. Chair, honourable members of this committee, the various team members, and of course members of the media.
I am delighted to join you here today on this traditional Algonquin territory, and to thank you for the opportunity to be your first witness.
I am pleased to be here on Eid, an important celebration for Muslims around the world. I'll take this opportunity to wish Eid Mubarak to Canadians in this country celebrating Eid. I promise my family members who are watching this at home that I will be home very soon.
As you mentioned, Mr. Chair, I have the great privilege of working with members of the Privy Council. Isabelle Mondou, assistant secretary and counsel to the Clerk, is here to assist with any technical questions.
I want to thank the members of my small but mighty team for devoting their time and talent to this important initiative we have all undertaken, and to express my deep appreciation to each of you. I know that the work that each of you has taken on is quite a commitment. I suspect there are many important private and public demands on your time. Despite this, you have committed to undertaking a comprehensive examination of electoral reform options. To each of you, I would like to express my sincere thanks and gratitude on behalf of the government.
Mr. Chair, the establishment of this committee in its current form and specific membership is the result of collaboration among political parties and represents the embracing of ideas that come not just from the government, but political opposition parties as well. This was the result of listening to Canadians and acting on what we heard from political parties. I believe this spirit of collaboration should be a hallmark of the work that all of us will do together on this file. Electoral reform, to be successfully achieved, needs to be built on co-operation among political parties, and have the broad support of Canadians.
I am reminded of a piece of advice that a former cabinet minister received as he assumed his place in cabinet, by the then-deputy prime minister, Herb Gray, that if you insist on having all of your views prevail all of the time, and if your colleagues also insist that all of their views need to prevail all of the time, then no one will achieve anything any of the time.
I believe the Honourable Herb Gray provided wise counsel. In moving forward, I believe the views and perspectives of all parties and of all Canadians will be important in informing the eventual approach that we adopt. This is not to suggest that electoral reform should not cause much debate or discussion. Each of us, as parliamentarians, has a responsibility to provide Canadians with a variety of perspectives on how we may move forward on this, and indeed on any public policy issue. Providing Canadians with vigorous study and debate is key to this process, and not doing so would be a disservice and unlikely to achieve fundamental reform.
I trust that the perspectives each of you bring to this table will be shaped by the testimony you hear from experts, political practitioners, and everyday Canadians. Those perspectives, I suspect, will also be based on deeply held political views each of us hold, and which inform the policies and the platforms that each of our parties stand for.
Mr. Chair, I believe the committee will work best when the members debate ideas brought forward within the context of these values, political and personal, that each of us and our respective parties hold. This may not always be the easy way, but I do believe that it is this kind of collaboration that holds the greatest potential for meaningful change.
I am also hopeful, Mr. Chair, that the product of your deliberation goes beyond the tabling of five minority reports outlining individual party positions, but rather represents the development towards a compromise that seeks to reflect our own views and those of our colleagues, as well as all Canadians.
In providing additional comments this afternoon, Mr. Chair, I'd like to touch on four topics, including, first, why I believe it's important to move to a system other than first past the post; second, the values that I believe should help shape any alternative system; third, how we go about consulting Canadians; and fourth and finally, the issue of obtaining the support of Canadians and moving forward with any specific changes.
Some have pointed out that Canada is a mature, successful democracy whose citizens enjoy a high standard of living and a level of political freedom that is the envy of the world. They question why we would consider changing such a successful democracy. Although I accept the premise of that thought, I do not agree with the conclusion. Simply pointing out that something works is not a reason not to try to make it better. First past the post is an antiquated system designed to meet the realities of 19th century Canada and not designed to operate within our multi-party democracy.
We require an electoral system that provides a stronger link between the democratic will of Canadians and election results. As pointed out by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, during the course of the 20th century, a number of countries have opted to move away from first past the post, from Australia in 1918 to New Zealand in 1993. More tellingly, few democracies in the modern era have gone the other way and adopted first past the post as their electoral model. There are good reasons for this: first past the post is a voting system that generates disparities between votes gained and the number of seats secured.
Since 1960 we've had 10 elections that resulted in majority governments, but only in one case, in 1984, did the winning party receive more than 50% of the vote. Under first past the post, parties achieving similar or same percentages of the vote may not always garner a similar number of seats. Look at the election in 1997 as an example, in which the Reform Party garnered 18.7% of the vote and received 60 seats, whereas the Progressive Conservatives garnered 18.8% of the vote—virtually the same—but received only 20 seats. The Reform Party garnered the same percentage, but 40 less seats. In the previous election, in 1993 the Progressive Conservatives won 16% of the vote but only two seats; meanwhile, the Bloc Québécois received 13.5% of the popular vote and 54 seats. First past the post tends to favour parties with regional, rather than national, appeal.
First past the post also regularly elects MPs for whom the majority of constituents did not vote. In the most recent election, less than 40% of those elected—including me—were supported by a majority of their constituents.
Beyond this, Mr. Chair, Canadians have indicated that they want change in their electoral system. In the last election, 63% of Canadians voted for parties that clearly stated they wanted an alternative to first past the post, and Canadians expect us to keep our promises.
As I have said in the House on many occasions as the Minister of Democratic Institutions, I've come to this process with an open mind, prepared to be convinced by persuasive and respectful arguments on what type of electoral system would best replace first past the post, recognizing that no system is perfect.
I believe that our discussions and those of Canadians need to be shaped by the guiding principles set out in the committee's mandate. They reflect our sense of fairness and inclusion as Canadians. The reality is that a variety of systems could satisfy each of the principles in different ways, depending on the values, choices, and priorities of Canadians.
I'll take a moment if I may to remind everyone of the principles adopted by the House in establishing the committee. They are as follows: first, restoring the effectiveness and legitimacy of the voting system by reducing distortions and strengthening the link between voter intention and electoral results; second, encouraging greater engagement and participation in the democratic process, including fostering civility, consensus building, and social cohesion; third, supporting accessibility and inclusiveness for all eligible voters and avoiding undue complexity in the voting process; fourth, safeguarding the integrity of our voting system; and fifth, taking into consideration the accountability of local representation.
Mr. Chair, these concepts of legitimacy, engagement, inclusion, integrity, and local representation belong to all of us. They provide a meaningful and accessible starting point for a national dialogue on electoral reform. They are meant to spark debate and deliberations. These principles are not meant to be prescriptive or limiting. Their purpose is to serve as an invitation to this conversation and not a conclusion.
I believe the principles give all of us, including the committee trusted with this work, a common frame of reference that enables Canadians to participate in a sustained conversation about their priorities, to ask thoughtful questions, and truly to listen to one another. We have to start there before examining the technicalities of various electoral systems.
I'll take this moment to pause and express my delight. We have run out of seats, and it appears that more chairs are being placed in this room. This is a good sign.
As I've said on many occasions, Mr. Chair, the government is not prepared to proceed without the broad support of Canadians. To achieve that support, it is critical that our nation be engaged in the process of developing solutions to the challenges of our electoral system.
It is our responsibility to provide resources that allow as many Canadians as possible to learn about the various options of electoral reform, to learn about the complexities involved, to consider the possible impacts of any changes, and to provide an informed opinion on how the government should proceed.
This engagement process needs to be crafted in a way that reaches out to all Canadians and not just to the usual suspects, some of whom are in this room right now.
A key purpose of electoral reform should be to engage Canadians who have historically not been involved in our democratic institutions. We need to reach out to those who often face greater barriers within the electoral processes. They include new Canadians, indigenous persons, people of modest economic means, young Canadians, those living in rural and remote communities, those with disabilities and exceptionalities, and others whose voices have been silent in the past.
To accomplish this, we need to use new and creative tools in addition to those we have employed in the past. This includes the important work being done by this committee, but also community town halls, academic symposia, surveying, and importantly, social media, as that is how many Canadians, especially those under the age of 45, interact and carry out discussions. In 2016, Facebook, Twitter, and similar platforms are not a frivolous novelty, but a primary tool to engage with each other and with private and public institutions, and an important resource we cannot overlook.
With that in mind, it's important that the committee will also duly be considering other reforms noted in the motion—online and mandatory voting—in the work that it does between now and December 1, 2016. Online voting and similar reforms that embrace the technological advances we have today should be seen as ways to increase participation by removing barriers that may exist for some Canadians. For others, these may simply represent preferred forms of engagement in the process. At all times, though, there should always be a balance between the security and the integrity of the voting process. Mandatory voting, similarly, reflects a concept that some view as a means to a more participatory democracy, and as such is practised in varying forms in 22 countries around the world. My hope is that the committee and the experts you will hear from will consider the merits of all sides of this conversation. I know we will collectively benefit from that work.
Speaking of those very conversations, I would like to take a moment to speak about resources for Canadians hoping to engage in, and even host, these conversations. To support the national dialogue on electoral reform, we have developed a dialogue guide that is intended to help potential organizers with the planning, coordination, and reporting of these events. Keeping in mind the need to engage more than the usual suspects, this guide is intended for any Canadian in any community in any part of the country who may wish to use it. I'm tabling a copy of this resource with members of the committee today and will be making it available to the public electronically as well. I believe a copy of it is being circulated as we speak.
This guide is not meant to be prescriptive or to compete with the committee's work, but rather to provide citizens, organizations, and MPs, if they wish, with a resource for their consideration. Furthermore, when Canadians have these conversations, I trust that the committee will welcome hearing from them so that Canadians will know that their views and efforts are directly contributing to the deliberations and report of the committee.
I see you leafing through it already. That is a good sign, too.
I'll also be announcing further details of the complementary outreach plans that my parliamentary secretary, Mark Holland, and I will be putting in place over the summer and early fall to meet with Canadians across this great nation. Please encourage those who are interested to keep an eye on the canada.ca/democracy web page, where they can find and download the dialogue guide and engage with further resources and find up-to-date information and news on upcoming events, join the conversation on social media, and learn how every Canadian can have their voice heard in this process.
Mr. Chair, I'd like to make it clear that whatever method we use to enact electoral change, this government is committed to moving forward with a modernized electoral system only with the broad support of Canadians.
As part of this committee's mandate, you have been directed to study and advise on additional methods for obtaining the views of Canadians. As I've said in the past, Mr. Chair, although I recognize that a referendum is one way of seeking clarity from Canadians, I remain to be convinced that it is the best way. Referenda do not easily lend themselves to people effectively deciding complex issues. They can, and often have, led to deep divisions among Canadian and within other societies, divisions that have not been easily overcome. Although everyone has the ability to vote in a referendum, almost half of eligible voters have not done so in the recent referenda on electoral reform. I believe we can do better. A democracy that is comfortable with half its population not voting is a democracy in need of renewal and reform.
A study conducted by Statistics Canada after the 2011 election confirmed that many groups—sometimes the most marginalized—do not participate in elections. The study found that those under the age of 45 vote in lower numbers than those over 45; those with a high school diploma vote in lower numbers than those educated in college or university; that single parents vote in lower numbers than married people; and that those who immigrated to Canada in the last five years, or even 15 years, vote in lower numbers than those who are Canadian born; those who rent their homes vote in lower numbers than those who own their home; those who live in rural areas vote in lower numbers than those who live in cities; and that those who are unemployed vote in lower numbers than those who are employed.
Mr. Chair, we can imagine that it could be similar in the context of a referendum. My apprehension about a referendum is the possibility that it will provide an incomplete picture of what Canadians want. I believe we need to do better than that, and I look to the committee to examine various methods for engagement and to provide its advice on the ways to determine the will of Canadians.
Canadian history is full of examples of fundamental changes being made to our electoral system through legislation approved by Parliament, including in 1874 when Canada adopted the secret ballot. In 1918 we began to expand and extend the franchise to women. In 1920 we created the office of the Chief Electoral Officer. In 1960 we extended the franchise to indigenous peoples here in Canada. In 1970 we extended the franchise to young adults—those between the ages of 18 and 21—and in 1996 we introduced the permanent voters list.
These changes reflect the nature of a representative democracy, and although some were controversial in their time, in retrospect they all seem like obvious reforms undertaken by the Parliament of Canada.
Mr. Chair, Canada is a very special country with one of the most admirable records of embracing democratic processes to elect its leaders and to periodically and peacefully and seamlessly transfer power from one party to another. Our democratic reform initiative is about making our system—which has many strengths—better, and to improve what we currently have. We know that here in Canada better is always possible.
This electoral reform initiative is about continuing a process that has seen us make significant and positive changes over the past 149 years, including the expansion of the franchise to indigenous persons and to women, protecting the integrity of the process, and responding to the evolving reality of a changing world.
As colleagues who serve in this institution, I ask for your help, for your guidance, and for your advice as we strive to modernize our electoral system; to provide opportunities for those who have not participated in the past; and to explore how modern technology can enhance the democratic process. Together we can and will make our vibrant democracy even stronger and give every citizen the opportunity to shape our future.
I'm very much looking forward to working with this committee and am thankful for the opportunity to speak with members today, Mr. Chair. I'd be happy to answer any questions that members may have.