Friday, July 8, 2016

Electoral reforms look promising

This is an exciting time for those who want to improve how we fund or vote for political parties. Both the federal and provincial governments are initiating processes for much-needed reforms.
On the national level, one of the Liberal government’s election promises was that 2015 would be the last federal election held under the antiquated “first-past-the-post” (FPP) system. They were joined in pledges for electoral reform by the NDP and Green Party, which together means that almost two-thirds of voters chose a party with electoral reform and ending FPP in the election platform. Therefore, so long as the proposed reforms meet the approval of the elected members from those three parties, the change will have sufficient legitimacy to be implemented in time for the 2019 election, without requiring a referendum or any other such impediment.
Which only makes sense; we’ve never before needed a referendum to make our electoral system more fair, in line with the evolving social and political conscience of Canadian society. We extended the vote to women, Canada’s indigenous peoples, and other ethnic groups who had not previously been allowed to vote (Catholics, Chinese, Japanese) without a referendum, and surely extending the vote from the minority of land-owning white Protestant men to all adult citizens was a far more wide-reaching reform. Voters clearly indicated last fall, in surveys and at the ballot box, that they felt our current system does not adequately grant a fair and equal vote, so it’s time to fix that, without undue delay.
Unfortunately, the governing Liberal party has created a committee to draft this legislation which has a majority of Liberal members, meaning they have the power to push through a reform which no other party supports. And in their promise to “make every vote count”, they have even taken the extreme step of having the Green Party and Bloc on the committee, but as non-voting members! The gall is almost breathtaking. *
However, I still hold out some hope that the consultation process will convince the government that only a proper reform to a system incorporating proportional representation, and having the support of parties representing the majority of voters, can fulfill their election pledge. Fingers crossed!
Meanwhile, at the provincial level, the reforms at hand relate to political funding. There has been widespread and totally justified complaint about the way it seems that individuals and corporations with deep pockets can buy enhanced access to our elected officials, including the Premier and her Cabinet, but also Opposition leaders and parties. Responding to this outcry, the Premier has pledged reforms to be in place before the next election.
In this process, the Premier isn’t forming an all-party committee but at least has been open to consultation and input from other party leaders, including the electorally mature but currently seatless Green Party. For what seem like petty partisan reasons, the NDP chose to forgo this opportunity, but since the Greens have the most developed electoral finance reform policy base, there was no vacuum of good advice.
Measures announced so far will bar corporate and union contributions altogether. Sadly, the proposed individual contribution limit of $7500 is still too high, and restrictions on party spending aren’t sufficient. But one key reform is to replace the forgone corporate/union money with per-vote funding. This system, already present in other jurisdictions like Nova Scotia and Quebec and formerly in place federally, is the fairest way to apportion spending money between political parties. It allows every voter an equal amount of subsidy to direct to the party of their preference, regardless of their personal finances and without direct cost to them. What’s best is that this per-vote subsidy will actually cost the taxpayer less than the existing tax rebates on the contributions being phased out.
So although we’ll have to pay careful attention to this process to make sure the results are fair to all, there is at least reason for optimism on the electoral reform front.

* This has changed since this column was originally published.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Feeling positive about electoral reform"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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