Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
In 2003 and 2004, I had the pleasure of co-chairing the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy, together with Mr. Lorne McGuigan, who unfortunately could not be here today. Of course over the years we have kept an attentive eye on these issues, but it is really interesting to come back to these matters 12 years later. I thank you very much for this invitation.
The commission was made up of eight citizens that I would describe as ordinary people, more or less. There were people who had active political experience and others who did not, but none of us were experts on electoral systems, certainly. We learned a lot as we went along. Fortunately, we were able to benefit from the support of Mr. Bill Cross and his team; Ms. Everitt was a member of that team, and I am happy to see her again. To study these questions, we benefited from strong support from the scientific and academic community. We held several working sessions to train the members of the commission, but also to share this information with the population.
In the beginning, the members of the commission were rather skeptical as to the necessity of changing the electoral system in some major way. That said, we were also interested in several other issues. I'll get back to that. Of course, we learned as we went along. The issue is complex. Voting is a sensitive and important topic for the population. After having heard all sorts of viewpoints and analyses, we finally recommended a mixed proportional representation system. We also made other recommendations, naturally.
What led us to change our position, to some degree, on the matter?
The discrepancy between the number of votes and the number of seats obtained in the Legislative Assembly or in Parliament is very obvious. Sometimes it is considerable. It really is a major flaw in our electoral system that needs to be addressed, whatever our convictions are in other respects.
Moreover, over the decades there has been a decrease in voter turnout at elections, and this is concerning.
Women are also chronically under-represented, still today. That was an important concern for the members of the commission.
As for the low level of representativeness of the Legislative Assembly, we talked about women, but third parties are also a concern, other minorities. The fact that a legislative assembly is not really representative is problematic.
Those are the main factors that led us to think and change our position in favour of a mixed proportional system. That is the system we recommended.
Which issues were most important for the commission in this process?
Certain systems, such the single transferable vote, are very appealing. For citizens it is powerful, extraordinary, but in practice, it's a revolution. It can also have consequences on the stability of governments. Contrary to what British Columbia did at the same time, we did not opt for that system, despite the fact that it was really attractive to citizens. Government stability was a factor we took into consideration. There are more ways than one to further that stability, such as the single party and coalitions. Political coalitions are not a part of our culture, but they work very well in some other countries.
As for the issues, the Legislative Assembly needs to be more representative. The quality of governance depends on it, as many studies have shown in other circumstances.
We also wanted to find ways to increase the engagement of citizens, that is to say encourage them to take a greater part in the governance of our province.
As for the idea of a referendum, it was appealing in the beginning, but it lost some appeal as our discussions progressed. Referendums can be extremely dangerous tools. Look at Brexit, for example. The commission became increasingly less favourable to referendums, as they can pose a significant threat to democracy, except when they concern more innocuous questions, less sensitive issues that are less emotionally charged, more neutral or less complex. However, generally speaking, when it comes to our democracy, they are not a panacea, quite the opposite.
Of course, these are my personal opinions. Here we are 12 years later, and I think that change is even more necessary federally than it was, or than at the provincial level. The risk of regionalization of the vote, particularly, the partisan regionalization of the vote, is very great. We are really playing with fire. Up till now, we have been lucky and there have not been any historical accidents, as I like to call them, but it is very clear that our current system makes us vulnerable to this type of risk.
The risk of an unrepresentative federal government or of an unrepresentative Parliament, be it geographically, ideologically or demographically, is even greater within a system like the one we have. So changes are needed to our electoral system, especially at the federal level, but also at the provincial level. That seems very clear.
In New Brunswick, if you add the votes obtained during the last election, the Conservative Party and the NDP, if I remember correctly, obtained 43% of the votes, and yet those parties have no representatives in the Parliament of Canada. The discrepancy between the percentage of the vote and the number of seats is clear, whatever the allegiance. This is very clear. We have seen situations in this province where a party that obtained fewer votes than another formed government. That does not respect the will of the population, obviously, and it is clearly dangerous in several regards.
In Canada, a party could govern without any representation from a given region, or with very weak representation. A party could easily govern without a region being represented, or with very weak representation. That is not healthy. That the two most populous regions dominate the federal government while the other regions are practically absent is really not healthy, and it is dangerous for Canada.
Some form of proportional representation is really the only way to ensure better regional, ideological, and demographic representation, as well as better representation of the various interests, whatever they may be, within the Parliament of Canada.
I also spoke about the representation of Canadian values in Parliament. It is in the interest of all of us that the various tendencies be represented, so as to avoid that at a certain point in our history, for all sorts of reasons that may also depend on circumstances, some minority current in Canadian values forms power. This could lead to an upheaval in the values and functioning of our country. These situations could happen easily enough.
As for the representation of women and third parties, our current system is not very conducive to that. In fact, I do not believe there is any government in Canada, either federally or provincially, that has more than a third of women members, despite some very great efforts. This is a very clear signal that changes have to be made at that level.
I also want to talk about minorities, and I will use Nova Scotia as an example, where the Acadian community has launched a court case. I don't know at which court level this is taking place. With the redistribution of electoral ridings, the Acadian community is now in the minority everywhere, and so it runs a very high risk of not having any representatives in the provincial Legislative Assembly. I think our representation system has to be sensitive to minority issues.
We could also talk about the first nations. I think we have to find innovative representation models in order to ensure that those communities, those minorities, are well represented within the Parliament of Canada or legislative assemblies.
In New Brunswick we have developed various formulas, which we call superimposed electoral maps, in the school environment. There are models that exist to represent the communities well, so that they will be represented in the decision-making structures, whatever they may be.
Another major element is the need to encourage citizen participation and improve the credibility of the electoral process. That is extremely important.
The funding of political parties is a matter of capital importance. On the issue of public funding, you have only to look at what is happening south of the border, in the United States. We don't want to wind up with that type of system. From a democratic point of view, there are incredible risks. We have to take advantage of the exercise being conducted by this committee to examine the funding of political parties.
It is also extremely important to recognize the importance of the role Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer play. The Chief Electoral Officer has to have the tools he or she needs to carry out extremely rigorous monitoring, otherwise the credibility of the electoral process will suffer, with all of the cynicism and disaffection this implies.
I think the time has come also to start using electronic tools. We have to encourage voter turnout. In a lot of cases, it can be difficult to vote.
We also have to think about the possibility of reducing the voting age. This is being discussed in New Brunswick at this time. I think that young people as of 16 years of age are just as well informed and perhaps better informed than those who are older than that. I think we have to look at that issue.
I'd like to get back to the issue of referendums. From a democratic point of view, they are very risky. We have to be careful. The risks are enormous. We must not fall into this trap as they can be very appealing on the surface, but they harbour enormous risks.
In conclusion, we first have to determine the objectives we wish to reach. The discussions should clarify what our objectives are. In this regard, several models can be of assistance.