Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Members of the committee, thank you very much. I'm honoured and delighted to be invited to address this august committee and to discuss the merits and demerits of electoral reform. Your work is very important. It's extremely valuable and it comes at a good time in our history.
You're going to find that I'm quite at odds with my colleague. Where he sees vices, I see virtues. I want to say from the outset that I'm not against electoral reform. I had the opportunity of speaking to a committee of the Ontario legislature in May where I argued that the province's municipal election laws should be amended to allow parties to be funded and to operate freely within the parameters of provincial electoral laws.
Sometimes electoral reform is necessary in order to create a legislative assembly or a city council that will offer better government and better governance. However, I am against reforms that are poorly thought out, ideas borrowed from completely different jurisdictions that will bring Canadians to the edge of the precipice. Advocates of electoral reform urge Canadians not to look down, to take a leap. I'm positively shocked sometimes at how their predictions and conjectures about the consequences of the changes to our electoral system are vague. They have clearly forgotten the old dictum that doctors learn from their earliest studies: first, do no harm.
Electing members of Parliament is not just a question of getting the right kind of demographic representation or a perfect match of votes to results. The purpose of elections is also to give Parliament a good chance of supporting an effective, functioning cabinet that can get on with the work of managing a government, an effective one that can capture perhaps not all the votes or even a majority of the votes, but will capture the zeitgeist of the times and respond to it.
There are two tests for elections and they are not divorced from one another.
Before going further, I'd like to, if I may, Mr. Chair, share my answers to the questions that have been asked.
I haven't seen any evidence that any other voting system would do a better job than the current one of meeting those two criteria.
The current system will be 225 years old next year. It has stood the test of time. It has shown itself to be flexible by accommodating ideas and new dynamic movements. It has conveyed the will of generations of Canadians to Parliament. It has allowed for changing governments in power, as well as regular turnover within the ranks of the House of Commons. It is stable and accepted by the vast majority of Canadians.
Our national parties have done a good job collectively in keeping this country together. Collectively over time they have delivered good, stable government that was broadly representative of the people. Why get rid of something that has worked well in favour of a complicated system few understand, or of a system that would reward small regional or sectoral interests by giving them the balance of power or the opportunity to hold governments hostage at any given turn? This country is hard enough to govern as it is. Our national parties have been the crossroads of ideas in our country, and the system that has allowed them to flourish should be allowed to continue.
I am opposed to mandatory voting. I don't think that someone who hasn't considered the issues or who doesn't care enough about them should be forced to vote. What would be the point? Forcing people to do something they don't want to do isn't a good habit to get into in a liberal society.
We know who does not vote: people who are younger, who earn less, who are less educated in terms of schooling and in terms of democracy. A Statistics Canada study in 2011 asked people why they do not vote. We can talk about the solutions, but let me give you some of the figures.
There were 1.3% of respondents who said it was because of religious beliefs. There were 3.7% who said it was because they were not on the voters' list. That can be fixed. There were 3.8% who said they forgot to vote. That could be fixed a little bit, too.
There were 7.6% who said they didn't like the issues or the candidates. That's your fault. There were 8.5% who said they were ill or disabled. That's something that maybe can be fixed. Elections Canada has done a good job.
There were 10% who said they were out of town or away. That can be fixed. There were 11.4% who said “other”. Maybe among those people, some did not think that their vote counted. Eleven per cent out of 40% gives you about 4% of the population.
There were 22.9% who said they were too busy. There were 28% who said they were not interested.
You have a real problem here that I think can be addressed with good programs. Many programs already exist. It's just a matter of doing a better job. Again, that's a 2011 survey. Changing the electoral system will not change these attitudes.
The third point is that I do support continued research on online voting and its eventual adoption once we are all assured that it is accurate and foolproof.
I'd like our parliamentary system to function better. Let me be clear. I want it to have better representation and greater legitimacy. It is incumbent upon parliamentarians to make that ideal a reality and to work within an electoral system that has allowed for the election of stable governments responsive to the issues facing Canadians.
Parties should put forward more female and minority candidates. But you don't need to change the system to make that happen.
If you want Parliament to be more representative of the people, I would invite you to consider the Senate. Remember, it was created to balance out the electoral distortions of the House of Commons. Mostly, we've allowed our governments to make a hash of this noble institution. I don't want it to be elected, and I don't want it to be equal. It has all the attributes to be effective without frustrating the will of the duly elected members of the House of Commons. Imagine an upper house that contains representatives of segments in our society that don't make it to the House of Commons. There should be members of the Green Party and the NDP in the Senate, recognized as such.
I'm delighted that this Parliament has a record number of people from the first nations. There are many other minorities that are represented now in the House of Commons, but there are so many who have no representation in Ottawa, yet the lever is right there and it could be pulled with the next vacancy. The age of retirement guarantees turnover. I urge you to consider this idea.
The problem is politics, not the system. All it takes is goodwill and enlightened politics. There is no need to change the system.
You've been asked to examine the issue of engagement. There is no evidence that alternative systems favour participation more than others, except in two cases. The first one is mandatory voting. The seven jurisdictions that have adopted it typically boast a participation rate of well over 80%. If you want that, consider forced voting. The second one is something you never hear about. It's voting on Sunday, which is a typical practice in Europe. Give people a day off to vote. Vote on a Sunday when most people are not at work, dealing with kids, dealing with school, taking them to lessons, doing all the things that a normal family does during the week. Give them a chance to go vote. Of course, advanced polls are to be encouraged.
I'm on public record already on the idea that any proposal coming out of the government should be put to a referendum. I want to address the issue of the referendum. I made the argument in the Toronto Star two days after the throne speech was read. Last month I published a study on the precedents of electoral reform in this country, and it was published by the Fraser Institute. My point was that there's a very rich history of electoral reform in this country, which has established a series of precedents. My argument is that the same principle has to be followed for any electoral reform this government proposes.
In 1981 the Supreme Court of Canada was faced with a particular problem: the federal government wanted to make massive changes to the Constitution, but there was no clear recipe for how to do it. The issue was referred to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the existence of constitutional conventions in Canada. A majority of the justices found that the Government of Canada's plan violated those conventions by trying to act unilaterally. The key point from the Supreme Court's statement was that precedents and constitutional conventions mattered. They are important because they capture a certain idea of political culture and practice.
In the context of the British system, which works without constitutional text and is therefore instructed only by past actions, the British expert Sir Ivor Jennings argued that constitutional conventions “provide the flesh which clothes the dry bones of the law; they make the legal constitution work; they keep it in touch with the growth of ideas”. Jennings articulated a set of questions to test the validity of constitutional conventions. For him, three conditions had to be met in order to do so, and together they became known as the Jennings test. What were those three questions? Question one, were there precedents? Question two, did the actors in the precedents believe that they were bound by a rule? Question three, would there be a constitutional reason for the rule?
The Supreme Court applied the Jennings test, and it judged that there did exist a convention that Ottawa, the provinces, and even the British Parliament had lived up to in order to change the Constitution in the past. The court concluded that the government needed a substantial measure “of provincial consent”, and the rest is history.
I put it to you that the Jennings test applies to this situation. The voting system in practice in Canada is not enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution Act does specify that members of Parliament must be elected, but says nothing about what system is to be used to choose winners. There is, moreover, no constitutional amending formula that applies to any changes to the way Canadians vote. However, there are precedents and conventions about how elections are determined, and they have been part of the Canadian political culture for centuries. The Jennings test for conventions thus applies.
First, on the issue of precedents, over the past decades four provincial governments, P.E.I., Ontario, New Brunswick, and British Columbia, committed to put the question to the people. In New Brunswick in 2006, the PC government lead by Premier Lord promised a plebiscite on electoral reform, but it was never held because the government was defeated. There will be a second referendum, again on electoral reform, in Prince Edward Island this fall.
On the second issue, all the key actors believed that they were bound by a rule, in Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty declared in 2004:
We're going to the citizens of Ontario. We believe the issue of electoral reform is so fundamental, so basic, that we're asking the people of Ontario for their judgment in this matter.
Kuldip Kular, the parliamentary assistant to the Attorney General, declared:
Ontario’s electoral system belongs to Ontarians, not to elected officials or appointed commissions. So we are asking Ontarians to decide for themselves how our political system should work and how they want to elect MPPs here to Queen’s Park.
In British Columbia, Premier Campbell even established a minimum level of support for the plebiscite—it was applied elsewhere—to be accepted. For reform to be enacted, at least 60% of the valid votes had to be cast in support of any proposal and a simple majority in favour in at least 60% of all electoral districts had to be achieved. Many people argued that the threshold was too demanding. Premier Campbell defended the decision with these words:
We believe this is a fundamental and significant change, and we therefore have placed a double approval process in place. There are some who have already suggested that that is too high an approval rating. Clearly, the government disagrees with that. We believe this is a significant change. It’s a significant change that should require the kind of approval that says, indeed, a great majority of people in this province feel that they will benefit from this change....
The idea of public approval, and public approval with a supermajority, has been adopted by all other jurisdictions because it is that important. P.E.I.'s House Speaker, Gregory Deighan, put it most eloquently. “It stands to reason”, he said, that Islanders “should have a strong voice in determining how these electoral systems work because they do have a significant bearing on the...results of an election”.
Other Westminister jurisdictions over the past 25 years have also gone to the people. Australia, which has long made important changes to its electoral system without consulting the public, changed in 1992 when the Australian Capital Territory put the question to its people. It's a small jurisdiction of about 300,000 people. The 1992 referendum in the ACT, the Australian Capital Territory, was an advisory poll that was held simultaneously with the election. The question simply asked if voters preferred the traditional first past the post system or the single transferable vote system. The members of the ACT, the citizens of the ACT, voted in favour of that.
New Zealand went to the people three times, first in 1992, then in 1993, and then in 2011. In all three cases, the premier said, and I'm quoting the premier of 2008, Mr. John Key, “Finally, we’ll open our ears to New Zealanders’ views on their voting system”. Now it has passed in New Zealand. They adopted change.
Following the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party led by David Cameron and the Liberal Democratic Party led by Nick Clegg agreed on a coalition government that committed the government to holding a referendum. Prime Minister Cameron emphasized the need for a clear public mandate. In January 2011, the Prime Minister said that a referendum was necessary in order to “allow the people to decide on voting reform and that a referendum was a democratic step”.
A month later, the Prime Minister declared, “Far above our beliefs about how the voting system should work, we share a much more important belief—a belief in democracy and the voice of the people being heard”.
It's clear that the other Westminster systems have also considered electoral change. What is remarkable is that in the last 25 years governments felt compelled to allow the voters to have a say. The Canadian practice at the provincial level was thus consistent with other systems that have operated under the principles of the United Kingdom, as we say in our Constitution.
The Jennings test on validity of the conventional rule can thus be applied to the necessity of seeking popular agreement on electoral reform. To the Jennings question of what the precedents are, the record is clear. To the question of whether the leaders understood that they were under a rule, the record is also clear.
Governments have been convinced that electoral reforms could not be introduced without the express consent of the majority, in some cases, a super majority, of the electorate. National governments, such as the United Kingdom's and New Zealand's, did so. The governments of major Canadian provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia did so, as have smaller provinces such as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Progressive Conservative-dominated governments felt compelled to consult the electorate, as Liberal and Labour governments did. Minority and coalition governments have used referendums, and so too have governments with total dominance. The referendum has traditionally been the instrument used to consult voters on changes to the way their representatives are elected.
Do I have another five minutes, Mr. Chair?