Madam Speaker, I take issue with something the hon. parliamentary secretary said in his remarks. He suggested that there was a lack of consensus and that it would be irresponsible to move forward in the absence of that lack of consensus. I want to read the relevant recommendation of the report, recommendation. 12, to make the point that what he said was factually incorrect. It reads:
The Committee acknowledges that, of those who wanted change, the overwhelming majority of testimony was in favour of proportional representation...The Committee recommends that:
The Government hold a referendum, in which the current system is on the ballot;
That the referendum propose a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less; and
That the Government complete the design of the alternate electoral system that is proposed on the referendum ballot prior to the start of the referendum campaign period.
This acknowledged the fact that when there was a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, as there was among many Canadians, one would look for an alternative that had the largest amount of support. Broadly speaking, that alternative was proportionality. There are different kinds of proportionality. It is up to the government. It is the government after all that writes policy and does not try to find unanimity on issues before it pushes forward. It seeks majority consent.
Therefore, the government would have made the decision whether to go with single transferable vote, which is a form of proportionality, or multi-member proportionality, which is another form. That would have been the government's choice. The government then would have submitted that question to the Canadian voters, who would have voted either yes or no.
That is the way we determine whether a majority of Canadians support it, and a majority is what decides things. A majority would have to decide before we would go forward. Surely, a government elected with 39% of the vote is in no position to argue that a consensus is necessary for anything. There is never a consensus as to who should sit here. Occasionally one party gets more than 50%, but there is never a consensus.
The hearings of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform terminated almost exactly six months ago, December 1. A report found the support of a majority of committee members, and also the support of four out of the five parties represented on the committee, in short, something very close to a consensus.
The committee focused on producing a proposal that would allow the government to fulfill the commitment it made in the 2015 election and that it repeated in the Speech from the Throne, “that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system”, subject only to the provision that the new electoral system would have to be approved first by the Canadian people in a referendum.
Had our recommendations been followed, a new electoral system could have been designed in spring 2017, been voted on in a referendum over the summer, and if the Canadian people had given their approval, implemented in time for election 2019, and the Prime Minister would have fulfilled his election promise.
The committee recognized that Canadians were not fully unified as to which electoral system ought to be in place in Canada. However, our hearings, as well as the extensive electronic survey we conducted, and the results of a dozen national polls, made two things clear to us.
First, among Canadians who wanted to change the electoral system, which may not be a majority, there was a consensus that the change should be toward some form of proportionality.
Second, subjecting the proposed new system, once it had been designed, to a national referendum, be it a new proportional electoral system or the existing system, would cause the winning system to be regarded universally as a legitimate system under which to conduct the 2019 election.
My intention originally was to repeat the quotation I just gave from the report, recommendation 12, to make this point.
However, as we know, this recommendation was rejected by the Prime Minister, who announced on February 1 that he was unwilling to move forward on a promise that had, until that moment, been presented by him as a sacred trust. An anonymous Liberal source, speaking to CBC on February 2, explained the Prime Minister's change of heart this way. He was “was open to having his mind changed... But the more he thought about proportional representation, the more he thought it was exactly the wrong system for a big, regionally and culturally diverse country.”
He had been open to the idea of proportionality, but had been dissuaded by the facts. I am left wondering which facts would have come to light during the course of the hearings that would have made him feel this way. Perhaps he will share those with us at some future point. There is one explanation of the Prime Minister shutting the whole thing down.
Here is an explanation that I think is more robust.
I think the Prime Minister was always serious about changing the electoral system, but never serious about allowing it to change to anything other than his preferred system of ranked ballots. He said as much in question period on February 1, when he declared:
As people in this House know, I have long preferred a preferential ballot. The [NDP] wanted a proportional representation. The official opposition wanted a referendum. There is no consensus.
There is no clear path forward.
Of course, there was a consensus in favour of a referendum on proportional representation. The only thing off the table, because Canadians emphatically did not want it, was the preferential ballot. Therefore, the Prime Minister picked up his marbles and went home.
Let us now imagine an alternative universe in which the Prime Minister's remarks about an impasse actually reflected reality. What if, for the sake of argument, the committee had produced a deadlock, with the NDP and the Green producing one dissenting report, advocating a proportional system that, all things being equal, caused these two parties to win additional seats? What if the Conservative advocacy of a referendum had been successfully portrayed by the Liberals, who made no small effort to portray it this way, as simply being a way of retaining the status quo, which is, ostensibly, the electoral system that maximizes the number of seats won by Conservatives?
Under this scenario where every party is advocating its own self-interest, the Prime Minister could have posited a position of moral equivalency. He could have said that he was no worse than the other parties in advocating for an electoral system that would benefit his own party in the coming election. For the record, a study that was cited by the committee showed that preferential ballots would have generated an average of 19 additional Liberal seats based on the same voter preferences had it been applied in the elections over the past 20 years, but there would be more equivalency. The New Democrats want a system that will give them more seats. The Conservatives wanted a system that will give them more seats. The Liberals are doing the same thing.
Moving forward with the preferential ballot in time for the 2019 election under this scenario would not have seemed so morally indefensible in a world where: first, no consensus exists among Canadians as to how to move forward on electoral reform and therefore the government cannot take guidance from Canadians; second, every other political party is simply advocating its own electoral best interests; and, third, the clearest promise from the 2015 election had been that, come hell or high water, the 2019 election would be fought under some system other than first past the post. I think it was based on trying to make this scenario come to fruition that the Prime Minister so emphatically repeated over and over again over the course of the year that he made a commitment, he stood by it, and he was the kind of guy who did not abandon his commitments no matter what.
Finally, under this alternative scenario, if it were to turn out that by the time the national consultations on electoral reform were completed there was no longer enough time for the Chief Electoral Officer to implement any system that involved riding redistribution, this would have made it well-nigh impossible for any form of proportionality to be introduced as the shift to a proportional system involved riding redistribution, a process that would take about two years. Thus, the government could have announced, right about this time of year, in new legislation, that there just was not enough time to move forward with any other system than ranked ballots. The government made a sacred promise, which it said it would not break. It said that the people gave it a mandate. In 2019, it would have had a system in place that would have ensured the Liberals would be able to win a majority government with as little as 35% of the popular vote and to form a minority government with as little as 30% of the vote.
The establishment of just such a mandate to implement preferential balloting in time for the 2019 election was pretty clearly what the Prime Minister was aiming for. In anticipation that this was how things were going to work out, the Prime Minister started to lay the groundwork for arguing that. In a country like Canada, ranked ballots are superior to proportionality.
For example, this is what the Prime Minister said to students at New York University on April 21 of last year. He stated, “We want our government, our parliament, to reflect a broad range of views of Canadians. Right? Absolutely. We can all agree on that. Well, there's multiple different ways of doing that. You can have 50 different parties in the House of Commons,”—this is a nightmare scenario under a runaway form of PR, I guess—“each representing a different perspective and view and voice and make sure that that’s the way we highlight the diversity, or you can have a fewer number of political parties that do a better job of reaching out to include a broad range of voices and perspectives within their political parties. Do you want to reward difference or do you want to reward accommodation and inclusion? Now, I‘m not going to tell an answer on that, although I have my own reflections as a leader of a big-tent Liberal party that values diversity....”
In fact, viewed in this light, the promise made by the Prime Minister back when he first introduced his electoral reform proposals in June 2015 start to sound very artfully worded, artfully worded so as to allow people to think he means he is open to proportionality when in fact he was completely shut to proportionality and was going to engage later on in a bait and switch.
He said, in June 2015, that Canadians “need to know that when we cast a ballot, it counts, that when we vote, it matters, so I'm proposing that we make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election be the last federal election using first past the post. As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral reform measures such as ranked ballots and proportional representation...are fully and fairly studied and considered.”
This promise was about making every vote count. Those are the words: “making every vote count”. It is a phrase that would be repeated in the Speech from the Throne.
The phrase has one meaning in the context of proportional representation, where our vote will elect an MP from the party we prefer, which will then carry on negotiations in the House of Commons. That is something entirely different from preferential voting, where our second and third choices are ultimately what will count in building a large-tent party.
Back in June 2015, only a few observers noticed that something was amiss in this messaging. One was John Geddes, who said, following an interview with the then leader of the third party, the present Prime Minister:
The items on that short list of reform ideas can’t be assigned equal weight. ... Experts point out that those two models don’t really have much in common. Far from being variations on a single reform theme, they are entirely separate propositions, each designed to remedy a different perceived problem.
To be clear, preferential and proportionality are the two different remedies to two different problems that ought not to be presented as alternative solutions to the same problem.
He then went on to quote Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen's University who was the expert at the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform about a decade ago. Professor Rose states, “Trudeau has picked two very different models. I think it’s a bit confusing; they are not equivalents.”
Geddes then paraphrases Professor Rose, when he states:
[Professor Rose says] PR is meant mainly to solve the problem of small parties failing to gain seats that reflect their share of the overall vote. Ranked balloting, also called preferential or alternative voting, is designed, he says, to “convey legitimacy” on the ultimate winner in any constituency.
That point was caught by those two individuals, but not by most people back before the election.
The rhetorical point, which means two different things to two different audiences, was the bait. The switch was to have come after a lack of consensus had been demonstrated, the self-interest of the other parties had been revealed in the course of the special committee hearings, and the clock had run out on proportionality, allowing the Prime Minister to move forward reluctantly but determinedly to show that he would always honour his promises, even if it meant adopting a preferential system, which coincidentally would ensure his party an average of 19 extra seats in the average election.
A closer look reveals that the Prime Minister has always been deeply committed to ranked ballots, for reasons that I have already explained, and was never sincere about considering proportionality. For example, listen to this response from Kiel Dixon, in the Prime Minister's correspondence department, or what would have been the Liberal Party's correspondence department, dated December 19, 2014. There had just been a vote in the House on electoral reform, and the Prime Minister had voted against it.
Mr. Dixon writes:
[Our leader, the present prime minister] believes that it is important to take an evidence-based approach to electoral reform rather than an ideological one, and that all available options are considered. Further, he does not support proportional representation, as he very deeply believes that every Member of Parliament must represent actual Canadians and Canadian communities, not just the political party that appointed them to the House of Commons.
Further on, Mr. Dixon continues to make a comparison to the Liberal leadership race:
This leadership race was unique and one of the most open contests in Canadian history...as...the traditional “first-past-the-post” system was replaced with a preferential ballot to give Canadians a greater amount of choice. In that system, voters rank the candidates in their order of preference, and the eventual winner must receive over 50% of the votes. If used during the general election, this would ensure that MPs secured support from a majority of the constituents, and beyond his or her traditional voting base, leading to a more representative government. Options such as a Preferential Ballot system are important to also consider, so as ensuring that a variety of reforms are presented.
There it is: away back in 2014, the Prime Minister was already indicating that he had no interest in proportionality and was never willing to consider it. That was his position until he was able to muddy the waters a bit, give the impression that he might be open without ever actually stating that he was, and set up a series of markers that would allow him to move forward to a system that would give the Liberals more seats under the same preferences expressed by Canadian voters. He would change the way we express our preferences in order to ensure that the Liberals would do better in every election.
The Liberals would have done better than they did in 2011, a disastrous election for them, had it been preferential, and would have done better in a phenomenally good election like the last one in 2015. They would do better in every election, and every other party would do worse, of course. Every Canadian would see the same preferences rejigged in a way that they clearly are not willing to consider, because Canadians indicated in poll after poll in our consultations that the one system they do not want to look at is the preferential ballot.
I want to be clear in the remaining time I have that I am not actually opposed to preferential balloting in its place. I was the person who designed the system of preferential balloting that elects the Speaker of the House of Commons. I was involved in designing the system of preferential balloting that elects the leader of the Conservative Party. I designed the system of preferential balloting that elects national councillors to the Conservative Party's national council. When there is a referendum a year from now in the city of Kingston on preferential balloting for city councillors, I am inclined at this point to think that I will be supportive of it. Part of Kingston is in my riding.
That is because in all these cases, there is no party system to cause a kind of tragedy of the commons, but here is what happens when we do have a party system: certain parties, typically in the centre, will benefit and will win more seats. We will see a replication over and over again, riding after riding, of the same phenomenon. As a result, one party will come to predominate.
That is what happened in Australia when this system was adopted. It was a system that was locked in and has benefited the Liberal Party in Australia consistently for a century now, at the expense primarily of the Labour Party. It has had a marked and meaningful impact on the political fortunes of that country.
Do not misunderstand me: I love Australia. I love almost everything about that country, but this system ought not to have been adopted in 1918, as it was, by a government that saw itself being able to perpetuate itself. That is the final point.
The whole purpose of having a referendum, the whole purpose of trying to move these things outside the hands of the politicians, is that we all have a conflict of interest. We all can figure out who will benefit under this system or that system. The only solution is to move forward and have a referendum on a system that has a realistic chance of actually winning because it has a base of support that might be stronger. Anything else is a waste of time.
This is a logical way forward. It is what was proposed by the committee. I support it. I hope that all members of the House of Commons will support the committee's report when this matter comes to a vote later today.