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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Electoral Reform Committee Hearings Continue

The meetings of the Parliamentary committee studying Electoral Reform resumed this week with presentations from a series of “expert” witnesses. In the first of these meetings the call for a referendum once again came to the fore and was quickly shot down by all three experts! This after Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef told the committee on July 6 that referenda are divisive and not the best way of seeking clarity on the issue, and Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand earlier having estimated the price tag would be around $300 million.

After having reviewed the synopsis of the weeks proceedings as presented by that long suffering reporter Kady O'Mally in her live blogging (as apparently the only reporter actually viewing and reporting live from the meetings, as opposed to watching on parl-view, she is to be congratulated for her perseverance and deserves our thanks) I was struck by a number of things. Firstly how much time was wasted discussing the need / possibility a referendum, mostly in response to questions from the conservative contingent. The committees mandate, so far as I can tell, was to study and recommend to parliament a system of selecting our parliamentary representatives NOT to decide upon how such a system would be implemented. The choices are complex enough without bringing up this issue which most of the expert witnesses dismissed as “not particularly good at resolving complex issues” or otherwise inadvisable.
I also noted that with a few notable exceptions the presentations and discussions were very general in nature rarely getting into the 'mechanics' of any of the options discussed. One presenter even went so far as to say that such details were unimportant. I beg to strongly disagree, the details of the chosen system, particularly should that choice be some form of MMP, is fundamental to both the outcome and the acceptance of such a system.
The discussions of STV systems seemed to get a fair bit of attention perhaps in view of the early presentation by two Irish professors promoting their system of Open List PRSTV which as I understand it combines STV with Ranked Ballot in muti-constituentcy districts. (I must dig deeper into that system!). Despite what has been touted as the liberals preferred system Ranked Ballot seems to have received very little attention from either the presenters or the committee members. Finally before I attempt to summarize Kadys summary I note that the evening video conference with the Australian and New Zealand Electoral Commission commissioners was not covered by Kady which given that their systems are one the most often referred to in discussing MMP systems is a shame. ( no shame to Kady as she had already sat through two sessions that day). I may view the video and comment if / when I get time!

Here then are a few extracts from what reporting there is on the proceedings (my bold and italics), the meeting are all available on parl-view via the committee web site at http://www.parl.gc.ca/Committees/en/ERRE/Meetings no transcripts are available so far as I can tell.

Day one (Momday) the committee heard from:-
• R. Kenneth Carty, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Colombia
• Brian Tanguay, Professor, Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University
• Nelson Wiseman, Director, Canadian Studies Program, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto

Ipolitics reports that:-
Ken Carty (professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia), who served as the director of research for the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, said the evidence from that referendum suggested a large majority of the people who cast ballots in that referendum knew nothing about the issue on which they were voting. And that evidence from Ontario’s referendum suggests the same.
Nelson Wiseman (professor at the University of Toronto) said “I would not put the issue of an alternative voting system to a referendum. It’s unnecessary; it’s a waste of money; and it will almost certainly fail. You may as well recommend not changing the system and save Canadians the cost.”
When asked about his preferred electoral system for Canada, Wiseman suggested the hybrid system used in Alberta and Manitoba between the 1920s and 1950s — with a single transferable vote system used in the cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg) and an alternative ballot in the rural areas. (As a rural resident I have previously pointed out in these pages how unsuited STV is in rural and remote areas of Canada)
“If you live in a large metropolitan area, it doesn’t matter if the MP represents Davenport or Spadina Fort-York — the issues are similar. However, if you live outside of those cities it’s very vital,”
A heated exchange of Monday’s meeting took place between Brian Tanguay (professor at Wilfred Laurier University) and Conservative MP Jason Kenney, who has remained a federal MP and member of the committee despite having announced his intention to become leader of a united Wildrose and Progressive Conservative party in Alberta. Tanguay arguing for proportional representation and Jason saying that “some of the most dysfunctional democracies in the world are in the consensual category”

Day two (Tuesday) the committee heard from:-
• Michael Marsh, Emeritus Professor, Trinity College Dublin
• Michael Gallagher, Professor of Comparative Politics, Trinity College Dublin
• Patrice Dutil, Professor, Ryerson University
• Peter Russell, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
• Tom Rogers, Electoral Commissioner, Australian Electoral Commission
• Robert Peden, Chief Electoral Officer New Zealand Electoral Commission

Extracts from Kadys live blogging follow, see http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/kady-liveblog-mps-talk-irish-electoral-reform-experience-with-dublin-professors

The Irish electoral system uses (a version of) the Single Transferable Vote, which, Gallagher tells MPs, does lead to a closer relationship between share of the vote and the composition of the Parliament itself.
It does, however, require much larger ridings, he notes – –  as multi-member constituencies are needed — and it does indeed make it distinctly less likely that one party can command a majority.
“You mustn’t expect too much from electoral system change,” he warns the committee — it won”t “transform” the basic nature of politics by instantly rendering it more civil and collaborate. Expecting that from a change to the vote count formula would be “unrealistic,” he notes.
Marsh makes a pretty good pitch for the extended, 24-36 hour vote counting process, which, by his account, turns into a marathon political reality show to which the entire country is riveted.
Kenny still banging on about referendum as per Irish changes (as he and his fellow conservatives did throughout the entire week) Marsh warns that it would take a whole lot of resources to ensure there was enough information and awareness out there.
Peter Russel:-
Minorities, he reminds MPs, can often make Parliament more meaningful. (Minority *parliaments*, that is.)
As for “false majority” , his explanation is surprisingly simple: He just gets irked when governments and leaders claim a mandate from “the people,” an assertion he describes — with preemptive apologies to the public — as “BS” .
Russell also predicts that, in a post-FPTP minority, there likely wouldn’t be constant confidence votes, simply because there would be no incentive to do so in order to force an election and win a majority for your own party. 
Kady notes that Dutil is, indeed, very pro-referendum. (One of the few)
NOTE (A third session took place in the evening with the Aussi and NZ presenters which is not covered here)

Day three (Wednesday) the committee heard from:-
• Henry Milner, Senior Researcher, Chair in Electoral Studies, Université de Montréal
• Alex Himelfarb, Clerk of the Privy Council, 2002-2006
• André Blais, Professor, Department of Political Science, Université de Montréal
• Leslie Seidle, Research Director, Institute for Research on Public Policy
• Larry LeDuc, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto
• Hugo Cyr, Dean, Faculty of Political Science and Law, Université du Québec à Montréal

Kady reports (in part) see http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/kady-liveblog-mps-talk-electoral-reform-with-former-pco-clerk-alex-himelfarb
Henry Milner gives a quick(ish) rundown of the arguments included in the much more extensive written brief he provided in advance, (which as with other similar documents does not seem to be available on line)
Kady - In his view, MMP is the only alternate to First Past The Post that ensures every voter has a person in the House to represent them, while still making every vote count.
Using Ottawa as an example. There would be six districts, he estimates, which might be larger than the existing ridings. That would mean six MPs, who would be voted for directly by the electors, and then another four seats that are divvied up according to vote share, from a list. So, everyone has their own MP, and there are four other members hanging around as at-range extras. 
Milner does not seem to be prepared to go into the details of how those lists would be assembled, which is, of course, a fairly critical element of any such system. (Exactly Kady!)
Himelfarb notes that, while he’s not going to endorse any one system, he believes that any option must ensure the voters, not the party, chooses the names on a list, which may or may not involve preferential weighting.  He confesses to a fondness for multi-member and single transferable vote systems, but he very much opposes lists created by parties — this is, he says, supposed to be about voters, not parties, so it should be open list or no list.  He also reminds MPs that “design matters.” (As I said at the top the 'mechanics' of the system chosen the details of the resign do indeed matter)
Blaikie then gives Milner the opportunity to outline the different models for putting together a list — should it be the party? Or the voters through second-round voting? Milner is actually fine with a closed-list, which is a courageous stance in this context, as noted earlier. But he’s also not opposed to the idea of having voters go through that list, although he worries that some might it find it difficult to do so.
Himelfarb, however, is very much in favour of an open list, which, he says, also makes it clear to the *candidate* that if they don’t make a special effort to “win the hearts and minds” of the voters, they may pay the price.

Following Kenney’s lead, Theriault, too, tries to get the witnesses to agree to the need for a referendum. (Nothing new here!)
Next up: Larry LeDuc, who says look at New Zealand it took three elections, two referendums and nine years, but they did *eventually* do it. (change their voting system). He seems to be a fan of process and principles over practical recommendation, and cautions the committee against delving too deeply into the details of any one possible option. (Say what!)
In conclusion, he sides with Peter Russell: the main job of an electoral system is to reflect the will of the voters. That, he says, is why he believes in list-based PR, as it both achieves that goal and is, after all, the most widely used in the world, unlike STV which is used only in Ireland and Malta. 
Ruby Sahota askes his thoughts on referendum,s he’s not implicitly opposed to the very idea of such a vote, but sees many, many, many shortcomings, including the ‘disinformation campaign’ that can result during a short, “chaotic” campaign.

Day four (Thursday) the committee heard from:-
• Dennis Pilon, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, York University
• Jonathan Rose, Associate Professor, Department of Policital Studies, Queen's University
• Maryantonett Flumian, President, Institute on Governance,

And Kady had this to report (in part) see http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/kady-liveblog-mps-talk-electoral-reform-with-political-science-professors-former-deputy-minister

First up: Dennis Pilon, who like the vast majority of witnesses to appear before the committee this week, he seems to be pretty keen on proportional representation; he also finds the arguments that insist the constitution requires a referendum to be ridiculous, and laments the increasing proliferation of such “internally inconsistent” logic appearing in the media, courtesy of the “right wing think tanks”  behind the funding.

Rose doesn’t believe it’s up to Canadians to design a new electoral system: That, he thinks, is the job of this committee. What Canadians must do is let the committee — and presumably the House and the government — what principles they believe are critical.  If the desired output is proportional representation, we must then go back to the principles to determine how to make that happen, which means asking questions about local representation and the potential tradeoffs that might have to be made.
(Kady says - Over the course of these hearings, it’s becoming clear that no one really wants to discuss tradeoffs that may occur under their preferred voting system, but that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.)  (And yet each and every system will involve such 'trade offs' and it will be important for the committee to understand such shortcomings)
Flumian thinks that turnout could be boosted by making it less of a hassle to register — and to cast a ballot — particularly, although not exclusively, for youth.  She brings up the Conservative-initiated limits on vouching – –  allowing an elector to vouch for just one other voter — and suggests that might have had a dampening effect. On online voting, Flumian enthusiastically clicks yes
“Selling a voting system is like selling a car,” Pilon observes — voters want to know the basics, not the mechanics underlying it.and most voters don’t need to have the counting system explained to the point that they could serve as an  emergency deputy returning officer in a pinch, (but you do if you wish to actually understand the system and comment upon it with any authority!)
Apparently,it’s also we-the-media who are responsible for convincing everyone that if you can’t explain the voting system in 15 seconds or fewer, it’s a write-off. (In point of fact it take many hours of study to fully understand many of the systems being proposed as I have personalty found out!)

On referendum, (more wasted time) Flumian agrees that it tends to be “a very blunt instrument,” and one that has, at least for those in the generation that currently dominates this table, been divisive and not particularly good at resolving complex issues. 
Pilon — that in the Irish system, voters get very good local representation, and can even choose between *different* representatives from the same party.  (Still have to do more research on that one)
Reid, - Given the sheer size of this country, will it not be very hard to ensure that ridings don’t become even more vast, or sacrifice true proportionality by putting a cap on the number of members?  Rose doesn’t disagree that this is one of those tradeoffs.

Thats it, I am sure it hardly touches the approximately 20 hours of presentations and discussions, for that you will have to go to http://www.parl.gc.ca/Committees/en/ERRE/Meetings and watch the video of each session. I do note that one “expert” has summarized his initial presentation on his blog at https://afhimelfarb.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/proportional-representation-fairness-representativeness-and-accountability/ which may be worth viewing. Also see Kadys brief overview of the week.

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