Fair Vote Waterloo Hits the Ground Running on Electoral Reform

Repeated in the Throne Speech last month was the Liberal government’s dedication to reforming Canada’s electoral system, and ensuring that 2015 is the last election using “First Past the Post.” Some are sceptical of the government’s intentions, others doubt it’s doing to be a done deal by the government’s own 18 month deadline, but the grassroots support that made electoral reform an election priority isn’t about to let those in government forget that promise.

Sharon Sommerville, spokesperson for Fair Vote Waterloo, says that the work has been “fast and furious” since the start of the year as the group tries to keep electoral reform on the national agenda. To wit, the Waterloo Region branch of Fair Vote Canada has meetings with six area Members of Parliament over the next couple of months.

“All the MPs in our region are fairly well-versed on electoral reform, and the nature of Proportional Representation (PR),” Sommerville said by phone. Previous Fair Vote efforts to keep electoral reform front of mind have included having one meeting a year with an area MP, but the campaign went up a notch last fall when all candidates running in Waterloo Region (and Guelph for that matter) were asked to fill out surveys and received petitions about electoral reform, “knowing that it was going to be on the legislative agenda, or have the potential to be on the legislative agenda.”

The meetings with the Waterloo Region Members of Parliament begin this week with Raj Saini from Kitchener Centre and Marwan Tabbara of Kitchener South–Hespeler, and then later Fair Vote will meet with Cambridge MP Bryan May on February 29. The toughest meetings though are next week, as Fair Vote gets to together with Conservative MPs Harold Albrecht of Kitchener-Conestoga, and Michael Chong of Wellington-Halton Hills. The federal Conservatives, now Official Opposition, have been demanding of the government to hold a referendum before any electoral reform is enacted.

“We know that that was the Conservative Party position throughout the election as well,” Sommerville explained. “It’s interesting because they’re really beating that drum and there’s lots of different things they could be talking about. So when we go in to talk to Mr. Albrecht we’ll be talking about why PR’s important, and is there any room for movement for you personally now that the shoe’s on the other foot?”

“They were in government for a long time, and now that they’re in opposition, is there room to see it differently? And if they want to talk about a referendum, we’re happy to talk about that as well,” she added.

The second part of the problem is whether there’s an appetite on the government’s part to follow through on their promise. On a recent Open Sources Guelph, former Guelph MP Frank Valeriote said that Justin Trudeau was truly vested in the idea of reform, even in the months leading up to the 2015 election. Sommerville also said that she’s seen signs of genuine enthusiasm from the government, like when Minister of Small Business and Tourism (and Waterloo MP) Bardish Chagger randomly showed up at a Fair Vote Waterloo meeting last week.

“We didn’t know she was coming, she heard about the meeting and wanted to express her support for the work and came on down,” Sommerville said. “You could have blown us over with a feather, we were so shocked!” she added saying, “There’s a new attitude in this government, ‘this is your government, we’re here to work with you.'”

As for specifics, Fair Vote will of course be advocating for Proportional Representation when they meet with regional MPs. The prime minister has a personal preference for ranked ballots, but said to the Canadian Press last month that he doesn’t want discussions to get bogged down with his own ideas on the process.

“What we would say is that the ranked ballot system is not really an electoral system the way that First Past the Post or Proportional Representation is a system, it’s just a ranked ballot,” Sommerville said. “It’s a tool rather than a system, and its a tool that can be employed in First Past the Post or within the broader scope of Proportional Representation.”

Sommerville notes that presently, there is only one country that uses preferential ballots (Australia) and nearly 100 that use some form of PR. “I think you can look at that and say, ‘Is there a reason that more countries use PR or alternative vote?'” she said. “If what you want is a fair elections system, where the large majority of people elect someone they want to elect, there’s only way to do that, and it is through some form of Proportional Representation.”

Sommerville points out that the Law Commission of Canada in their 2004 report endorsed the idea of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) representation for Canada, a type of electoral reform that combines aspects of PR and preferential ballot. This was the same system that was proposed for electoral reform in Ontario, and was refused by referendum in 2007.

“That particular version had a closed list system,” Sommerville explained, saying that in an MMP system, perhaps the five seats in Waterloo Region would be divided into three constituent seats that would elected the same way they are now, but representing larger ridings; and two regional MPs, that would be elected proportionally. Using numbers from the October election, it would mean that Waterloo Region would have had three Liberal, one Conservative and one NDP MP under MMP.

“You can see how supporters of the three primary parties would all have an MP in Waterloo Region,” Sommerville said.

While Fair Vote Waterloo will be lobbying for Proportional Representation, Sommerville points out that there is no one version of PR they’ll be advocating for. In all, 90 countries use various forms of PR that “fall under three broad families,” she said. “There is lots of tweaking and lots of moving parts. You can’t just say it works ‘this way’ because it works multiple ways.”

In the meantime, Sommerville and the members of Fair Vote want to continue to work diligently with the government on electoral reform in whatever form it sends up taking. “Sixty-three per cent of Canadians voted for a party that supported electoral reform,” she said. “You can argue that that’s the mandate.”

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