On October 11 I attended a town hall meeting on electoral reform held in the village of Havelock, Ontario, hosted by the Minister of Democratic Institutions herself, Maryam Monsef. The agenda of the hour-long meeting included Ms Monsef or her staff speaking to the small crowd about the benefits of changing our voting system, with about half an hour allocated to listening to citizen feedback. I spoke my piece, but I came to the conclusion that Ms Monsef isn’t really interested in hearing arguments in favour of retaining our current system, and that the much-touted consultation process is designed to give cover to a Liberal reform agenda that has already been approved by the government; all that remains is the messy business of pushing the changes through Parliament. If Conservatives don’t fight this plan tooth and nail, Canada will become a virtual one-party state run in perpetuity by a Liberal-led coalition of leftist parties with a token opposition that is powerless to stop it.
Havelock is in Ms Monsef’s riding of Peterborough-Kawartha, a mostly-rural area north-east of Toronto. Although I live in the neighbouring riding of Hastings-Lennox & Addington, I attended the Havelock meeting because the three town halls hosted by my own Liberal MP Mike Bossio were held during a single week in August when I was on vacation. The Havelock town hall meeting was held at 3:30 pm on a Tuesday, which certainly made it difficult for anyone with a job, or students, or families with school-age children to attend. Indeed, of the approximately fifty people present, there appeared to be no-one under the age of 40 in the hall; most were, like me, retirees.
The first item on the agenda was “Welcome and Connecting”. Ms Monsef spent fifteen minutes smiling at the crowd and extolling the virtues of our diverse population. She went over the “Conversation Guidelines”: listen carefully and with respect; everyone gets an opportunity to speak; speak for yourself and participate as equals; respect others’ opinions; agree to disagree – with ideas, not people; and silence our cell phones. She told us that “Even though our system may be working, that’s not an excuse to not change it”, which I think was an astonishing thing for the Minister of Democratic Institutions to say when she was there to listen to us tell her whether or not we wanted the system changed. She went on to say that now was the time to have this conversation because “we’re in a time of peace and stability”, although we have arguably been in times of peace and stability since 1945 but only now has the Liberal government decided that electoral reform is urgent.
Referring to a handout given out by her staff, Ms Monsef explained that “our gathering will include a number of hosting techniques founded on the participatory and deep democracy principle that every voice matters”. Our goals, she said, were to “engage citizens in a new way, one that empowers each of us to participate in our democracy”; to “provide the opportunity for everyone to tell their story and share what is important to them”; to “offer an inclusive and respectful way for us to work together”; and to “take an Asset-based Community Development approach to consultation”, whatever that is.
She then turned the microphone over to one of her staff who spent the next fifteen minutes describing the features of the various voting systems up for discussion: first-past-the-post (FPTP), preferential voting, run-off voting, list proportional representation (both open and closed list variants), single transferrable vote, single non-transferable vote, mixed-member majority, and mixed-member proportional. There were a lot of glazed looks in the crowd as this fire-hose of information was turned on us.
Finally, the opportunity for input from the audience arrived. There were now only twenty minutes left in the program, but the discussion was to cover a number of themes, including what is right and/or wrong with the current system; what system would we prefer as an alternative to FPTP; and how should the government encourage greater “engagement” in the electoral process using techniques such as mandatory voting, on-line ballots, etc. Each one of these themes could have consumed hours of discussion, yet we were to cover them all in about twenty minutes.
The first few people to speak touched on a familiar theme; the FPTP system “disenfranchises” them because when an MP wins with less than 50% of the vote in a riding, the majority of voters are not represented. Each of these speakers favoured some form of proportional representation, although there was no consensus on a system to replace the current one.
When my turn came to speak, I said that I did not accept the premise that votes are “wasted” in the FPTP system. Every citizen in every riding is represented by an MP in Parliament, whether they voted for the current MP or not. “Maryam Monsef is the MP for Peterborough-Kawartha,” I said. “She represents all the people in this riding, whether they voted Liberal or not. And she would be a terrible MP if she only represented the people who voted for her. Every voter is represented in Parliament under the current system.”
I pointed out that in the G7 countries, three of the oldest and most stable democracies – Canada, the UK and the United States – have an FPTP system, and it works well. We risk unintended consequences when we tinker with a system that has worked for hundreds of years.
My biggest concern, I said, was that the FPTP system makes it relatively easy to “throw the bums out” when voters are disenchanted with their government and we would lose that ability under a proportional representation system. In the last election, the incumbent government of Stephen Harper was replaced by the Liberals who got only 39.5% of the popular vote. Under a system of proportional representation, it would be exceedingly rare for a Canadian political party to earn greater than 50% of the vote, and governments could only be formed by coalitions of parties. Since the political landscape in Canada consists of four left-of-centre parties and only one that is right-of-centre, it would be impossible for a right-of-centre party to ever form a government. None of the other parties would conceivably include the Conservative Party of Canada in a governing coalition.
“I know that most of you here see that as a feature, not a bug,” I said, “but think about what that means: a perpetual Liberal government propped up by other leftist parties for the foreseeable future, with no risk of ever being thrown out of office by angry voters. The only thing that would change would be which parties in the coalition got which Ministries. That is not healthy for democracy in Canada.”
At this point Ms Monsef stepped forward and took the microphone. “I would like to answer that,” she said. I was a little surprised, since I was under the impression that the purpose of the town hall was to listen to the citizens, not to be lectured by the MP. “I reject your premise that electoral change would favour the Liberal Party,” she said. “Think of the times in our history when parties from across the political spectrum have come together to accomplish important things, like granting women the right to vote.”
I replied, “We’re not talking about cooperating on specific pieces of legislation; we’re talking about who gets to live at 24 Sussex Drive, who gets to form the Cabinet, and which party gets to set the agenda.”
She said, “Under any new system, parties would have to adjust their strategies to adapt to the new rules.”
“So Conservatives would have to adapt by being less conservative and more like Liberals?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but just because the current system has five parties, doesn’t mean that new parties won’t arise and the situation won’t change. And as for your point about the other FPTP countries, I think the Brexit vote in the UK to leave the EU and the current election campaign south of the border shows that maybe they aren’t working too well.” I didn’t understand how any of that was supposed to answer my concerns. Hypothetical new parties would make the situation worse, not better. The Brexit vote had nothing to do with the UK electoral system and was an exercise in pure democracy that got an absolute majority of 53.4% of votes cast. The dysfunctional contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was not caused by FPTP voting for Members of Congress. However, the discussion then moved on to someone else. My opportunity to “tell my story” was over.
After a few more minutes talking about the various themes that had been outlined earlier, Ms Monsef concluded by praising us for showing that democracy works. She said that all MPs would submit the results of their citizen consultations to the Committee on Electoral Reform which would present its report in December. “Part of the Committee’s mandate is to gauge whether any proposal has broad support both in Parliament and in the public at large,” she said. “How they gauge that support is still open to discussion, whether it be a referendum or some other method.”
I was encouraged to hear her leave the door open to the possibility of a referendum on any proposed changes, but I’m skeptical. I think the Liberals have decided that proportional representation is coming; we just have to sort out the details. They’ll use their FPTP majority in Parliament to make it happen.
My town hall experience was very disappointing. Most of the time was spent instructing us on the need to change our electoral system and on the merits of the various alternatives. Relatively little time was spent listening to the citizens in the audience, and when I presented a defence of the FPTP system, the Minister herself intervened to explain why I was wrong.
The fix is in on electoral reform, I fear. The much-lauded public consultation process is window-dressing for a decision that has already been made. I urge Conservatives in Parliament to do everything they can to stop this juggernaut. At the very least, none of these changes should be implemented without a national referendum, one that, in the Minister’s own words, “empowers each of us to participate in our democracy”.
As the late William F. Buckley said, “a conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop’, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” The Conservative Party must do everything in its power to yell “Stop”, or we will witness the slow extinction of the conservative movement in this country. Contrary to the opinions of most people on the left, that extinction will not be an improvement on the current system.
Hastings County, Ontario