02 December 2016

When is a majority not a majority?

Proportional representation in Canada has been a long time coming. Yesterday, we crossed yet another milestone on the road to a fairer voting system. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) released its final report [PDF], which includes majority support for proportional representation.

Now, that’s a big deal. Greens and the NDP have been advocating for proportional representation for a long time. This has traditionally been seen as a fringe issue, a cause taken up by sore losers. However, the momentum has definitely picked up with the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois throwing their support behind it as well.

The ERRE committee is comprised of 12 members: 5 Liberals, 4 Conservatives, 2 NDPs, 1 Green, and 1 Bloc Québécois. This means no one party has control over the committee, and they needed to work together to reach agreement on a final report.

Miraculously, they did work together. In an inspiring display of cross-party cooperation, the committee reached majority support for proportional representation, along with support for a referendum on the issue. In fact, this is just the kind of cooperation I’d hope to see in a proportional Parliament.

The ERRE majority report gets even more specific: it rules out Party List PR. This is great, because Party Lists tend to favour extremist fringe parties a little too much.

And when it comes to the referendum question, the majority report stakes out some well-considered middle ground. It says yes to a referendum, but also includes specific criteria for the referendum question:

  1. The question should be a clear alternative between First-Past-The-Post and a specific system of proportional representation.
  2. The alternative system needs to closely match the popular vote (measured by a Gallagher index of 5 or less)
  3. The government should prepare comprehensive educational resources about the alternative system, including maps and sample ballots

Fair enough. I don’t think a referendum is necessary, but if that’s what it takes to secure cooperation from the Conservatives, so be it. In return, the Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois have thrown their support behind proportional representation — and that’s no small feat.

Enter the supplementary opinions

So the majority report is a good compromise. It gives some direction for the government to move forward on designing a referendum question and choosing an alternative system based on the criteria.

And it would be this simple, if not for the two “supplementary opinions” attached at the end of the committee’s report.

The first supplementary opinion, written by the committee’s five Liberal members, reads like something directly out of the PMO’s office. It warns against the idea of a referendum, and takes issue with the report’s design criteria for an alternative voting system.

Basically, the Liberal supplementary opinion disagrees with the core recommendations and calls for more study, which would push this decision past 2019. Effectively, they want to break their own campaign promise.

Then we have a second supplementary opinion, jointly authored by Elizabeth May and the NDP members of the committee. It builds on the design criteria of the majority report by fleshing out a couple of specific systems that would meet the requirements for a referendum question. Not bad.

But this second supplementary opinion also argues against a referendum in the first place. Furthermore, it states that if a referendum were to happen, that it should be structured differently than the majority report recommends. It calls for not one, but two alternative systems on the referendum ballot. Oh, and we should lower the voting age to 16.

Muddying the waters

So, I can understand the Liberals’ dissenting opinion. I can only assume that the other four parties weren’t able to reach full consensus. But a Conservative-NDP-Green-Bloc agreement is much to celebrate.

What bothers me more is the NDP-Green supplementary opinion. Why would they flip-flop on the referendum question?

You’ve worked hard for six months to achieve a set of recommendations that can be agreed upon by four parties. How can you, in good faith, turn around and criticize those very recommendations? And in the same document, no less!

We’re now in a situation where a majority of the ERRE committee is against a referendum, despite the “majority report” supporting one. And without a referendum, forget Conservative support for proportional representation.

This is a mess.

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