Voters in Nanaimo gathered this week, not to talk about whom to elect, but how to elect.
Federal NDP members of Parliament held a town hall meeting on electoral reform on Sunday at Vancouver Island University’s Malaspina Theatre. The forum was co-hosted by Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Sheila Malcolmson and Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen and was attended by 150 people.
Cullen is vice-chairman of the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Electoral Reform that is tasked with holding consultations and creating a report and recommendations on changing the voting system for federal elections.
Malcolmson said the government has a “strong mandate” for electoral reform.
“This was a campaign commitment of the NDP, but also a very strongly debated issue in this riding in this election, with both Liberals and Greens also campaigning on a commitment to implement a change away from first-past-the-post,” she said.
Cullen said the current plurality voting system creates false majorities that give parties more seats and more power when measured against their relative share of the vote.
“That can lead to cynicism,” he said. “That can lead to people saying, ‘it doesn’t matter what I do.’”
He noted that it also creates regions of the country – Atlantic Canada and Toronto, for example – where there are no opposition MPs at all.
Cullen outlined some alternative voting systems, including ranked ballot, single transferable vote and mixed-member proportional, adding that others will also be considered, including combinations of systems.
“There’s no model that is perfect, that will satisfy everything,” he said. “This is a question of values. What do you value most?”
He said Canada’s size and composition create challenges compared with countries that may be smaller and more homogeneous. Certain voting systems, he said, would create huge ridings in northern and rural Canada where citizens might not feel like they have local representation.
Another challenge for the committee will be to put forth a voting system that is simple enough to explain.
“Even as we’re trying to satisfy a lot of things we’re looking to satisfy, if we get too complicated, it becomes a law of diminishing returns because voters are going to be confused,” Cullen said.
He argued against a referendum on electoral reform, suggesting it would veer the debate off-topic, but said he does want to hear from Canadians whether they feel the government has a mandate to change the voting system.
“If it’s just the government voting for a new system, is that good enough, because they have a majority and they ran on something like this?” he asked. “Does legitimate mean that at least two or more parties in the House of Commons vote for it? … A consensus from all the parties? Or does it have to be a referendum?”
Citizens at Sunday’s meeting had a range of comments and questions. There was a suggestion that the timeline is too rushed. There was also doubt expressed that Canada’s adversarial House of Commons can adjust to coalition governing, a potential outcome of proportional representation.
“One of the things we heard more than anything in the election campaign was how much people wanted us to work together … to co-operate to actually get results,” Malcolmson said. “If we can build Canada’s Parliament toward something that does create that incentive and that atmosphere for co-operation, then we will have left a great legacy for the country.”
To provide feedback to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, please visit http://www.parl.gc.ca/Committees/en/ERRE.