Committee on electoral reform now a working model of proportional representation
by Andrew Coyne (feat. David McLaughlin)
June 5, 2016
Strictly speaking, it does not matter whether a majority of the members of the special parliamentary committee on electoral reform are Liberals, or whether a majority are drawn from the opposition parties. The committee may be tasked with consulting the public, studying different models of reform, and advising the government how to proceed, but nothing says the government has to accept its recommendations.
On the other hand, symbolism matters in politics. Whatever influence the committee has will rely less on its formal authority than its moral authority, depending on how genuinely it is seen to have consulted, how warmly its recommendations are received — and how legitimate the committee itself is perceived as being.
So it is big news that the Liberals have caved on their original plan to set up the committee on the usual model, with the parties represented in rough proportion to their share of the seats in the House of Commons, accepting instead the New Democratic Party’s proposal that they be apportioned in line with the parties’ share of the popular vote. Where before the Liberals had six of the 10 voting members, they will now have just five out of 12 (four, not counting the chairman, who votes only in case of ties).
As a practical matter, that means the Liberals cannot force the committee to adopt a given plan on the strength of their own votes alone. That was always unlikely: for a government to unilaterally alter something as fundamental as the voting system, without the support of any other party, would be so contrary to the laws of political warfare as to poison the rest of this Parliament.
While majority governments in our system more or less have the run of Parliament at most times, a really determined opposition, one that felt both that its vital interests were at stake and that it had the public’s support — for public perceptions are the ultimate arbiter of these disputes — has its own arsenal of parliamentary tactics at its disposal, and could if it chose make life extremely difficult for the government.
So the greater likelihood was always that the Liberals would have to enlist the support of at least one other major party for whatever they proposed. But the symbolism of setting up the committee with a Liberal majority was squarely at odds with that, in ways that set off all sorts of alarms: Why would you insist on the ability to act unilaterally if you did not intend to do so? The concession, then, is reassuring in like measure.
The controversy has revealed the government both at its best and its worst. If it was wise to have given ground in the end, it was stupid to have been so needlessly provocative in the first place, especially after the series of arbitrary measures the spring session has already witnessed: the repeated invocation of “time allocation” to shut down debate, the infamous “motion 6,” which would have given cabinet almost absolute control over the parliamentary agenda (thereby disarming the opposition of many of its procedural weapons) and so on.
But there is a broader symbolism to this outcome. The whole issue of electoral reform is rooted in the divergence, common under the first past the post system, between the parties’ representation in the House and their share of the popular vote. If the Liberals’ rhetoric about the current system “distorting the will of the electorate” exposed them to ridicule for having set up the committee along those same distorted lines, the committee as now designed is a working model of proportional representation, “a lab rat,” as Conservative commentator David McLaughlin has put it, “for how PR might work in the House of Commons.”
Already the possibilities are intriguing. A majority on the committee could be formed by any combination of the Liberals and the Conservatives (with three votes) or the NDP (with two) — or both the Bloc Québécois and the Greens, each of whom has one vote. Assume for the moment that the popular assumptions about each party’s position are true: the NDP and the Greens favouring PR, the Conservatives and the Bloc the status quo, while the Liberals plump for ranked ballots. Do the Liberals work out a deal with the NDP, some sort of hybrid of PR and ranked ballots? Do the Conservatives cut their own deal, perhaps with the Liberals, perhaps with the NDP, offering to vote for either’s preferred reform in return for the referendum the Tories hope will kill it?
Again, the referees will be the public. Should one party or another be seen to overplay its hand, it will presumably pay a price. If the Liberals would have a hard time proceeding without at least one other party onside, they would be equally harshly judged for walking away from the table, having so firmly committed themselves to reform. The reform-minded parties, likewise, have an incentive to compromise: for if multi-party negotiations, of a kind typical of PR systems, were to lead only to deadlock, it would hardly be an advertisement for adopting this approach to government permanently.
But if it works, well, this business of a majority of MPs having to represent a majority of the public, just might catch on…
CORRECTION: In a recent column, I cited a resolution passed at last week’s Conservative convention supporting right-to-work legislation as an example of the party’s new boldness. In fact, the resolution combined two existing clauses in the party’s policy document.