Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation. I look forward to having a chance to speak with you.
Electoral systems do not change often or easily, nor should they. The electoral system is a part of the fundamental rules of the game in a democracy. These rules are institutions that enable citizens to understand and predict how their democracy will function. In essence, they help make democracy user-friendly.
However, some institutions can and should change over time. They should adapt to evolving norms and expectations, to shifting demographics, and to new priorities, technologies, practices, and approaches to democratic governance. While Canada's first-past-the-post system has served the country well since Confederation, I believe that a change to a proportional system would better serve us in the 21st century and beyond. However, whichever system we choose, the way we choose it also very important.
In the next few minutes I'm going to discuss two things: which system we should adopt and how we should adopt it. I study democratic deliberation and the psychology of political decision-making, so I'm approaching my remarks as a democratic theorist and as a student of Canadian politics. However, I'm also a citizen who believes that while we've done quite well as a country, we can do better.
Let me start with how we should adopt a new system. Electoral reform is not merely a technical exercise, it's a political exercise and a normative exercise. Choosing a system is about power, inclusion, and how we want to live together.
Because no electoral system is neutral, because political parties are affected by it, and because we disagree about which is the best one for us, only a thorough, open, and sustained democratic process will provide the necessary legitimacy for whichever system is chosen. Accordingly, the process of choosing a system must be separated from the process of ratifying that choice. More specifically, politicians who will be directly affected by the system should not be in charge of choosing it since they face a direct conflict of interest. The electoral system belongs to the people to whom the polity belongs, that is, all of us.
I strongly recommend that we initiate a national citizens' assembly on electoral reform, similar to that which was held in British Columbia in 2004 and in Ontario in 2006. The assembly should be tasked with learning about electoral systems, deliberating over which is best for Canada, and then making a specific recommendation.
Now, for ratifying the proposal, the controversial bit, either a free vote in Parliament or a referendum is necessary. I prefer a citizens' assembly followed by a vote in Parliament. A parliamentary vote would be quicker and less costly than a referendum. More importantly, provided Parliament merely ratifies the recommended system without amendment, I believe this would meet the threshold of democratic legitimacy that requires that the system chosen is a product of disinterested individuals acting in the public good and not of partisan political bias or engineering.
That said, a referendum, provided it follows a citizens' assembly, that is extremely well resourced and includes a robust and sustained public education campaign might also meet the threshold. However, when run poorly, and referendums often are, referendums risk undermining their democratic intent through low and unrepresentative turnout, public misinformation campaigns by partisan interests, and structural biases that creep into decision-making.
To summarize, a citizens' assembly, if properly resourced and run and followed by a free vote in Parliament, would be a wise and democratically legitimate approach to choosing an electoral system. It would help us pick an appropriate system for Canada and would take the choice out of the hands of politicians who might benefit from that choice, perhaps at the expense of their opponents. Not only would this approach be democratically legitimate and effective, it would be politically expedient for a government or for a committee that finds itself in a tricky position.
Now, which system do I think we should choose? I believe a mixed member proportional system is best for Canada. MMP allows for direct local representation and lives up to the commitment many Canadians have to fairness understood as a proportional translation of votes into seats. Now, this is a value choice. It rests on a conception of fairness related to the idea that each vote should have a high likelihood of contributing to electing a member of Parliament while also allowing smaller parties to win seats in the House of Commons.
MMP would address what many see as a serious problem. Under first past the post, governments win majorities with around 40% of the vote and often with the support of a mere 25% to 27% of the eligible voters. Such outcomes offer weak electoral mandates that raise questions in the long run about democratic legitimacy.
Properly designed, MMP would allow Canada to have the best of two worlds, the local representation and an effective House of Commons that we have in our first past the post and fairer electoral outcomes and representation offered by proportional systems.
In conclusion, we have a once in a generation opportunity to choose an electoral system that represents the values that many Canadians cherish. I believe that choice ought to be MMP. However, the way we choose a system is at least as important, indeed, perhaps more important. A citizens' assembly is necessary for this choice, followed either by a free parliamentary vote or an extremely well-run referendum.