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No one is getting electoral reform because no one really wants it

You are going to read very little accurate commentary on the final report from the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform simply because so many powerful and influential people are deeply vested in denial. We saw a preview of this in the House of Commons the other day with Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef getting piled on from all sides for observing a simple fact: the electoral reform committee was a dumb thing that produced a dumb report.

Conservatives are instinctively hesitant to believe anything a hacky partisan like Monsef says. NDPers and Elizabeth May, who have the most to gain from a new electoral system, take her criticism personally. Pundits across the land — nearly all of whom believe deeply in the cause of electoral reform — need a scapegoat to blame for a dream that’s fast slipping away.

Yet changing Canada’s electoral system in time for the next election was always a wildly implausible promise that was only attractive in the abstract. Preserving the idea’s popularity thus required keeping it abstract as long as humanly possible, which is what the electoral reform committee did quite successfully during their six months of opaque proceedings, and clearly hoped to keep doing in releasing this utterly useless report.

Would you like to know what electoral system the report recommends? Here’s the summary, in total: “a proportional electoral system.” This is less than useless, because as the report’s endless pages of exposition and thinking-out-loud make clear, a “proportional system” doesn’t actually mean anything, it’s merely an aspirational standard in which seats in the legislature are elected in greater sync with the popular vote than they are at present. People like the sound of that, but as Mackenzie King once said of taxes, everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.

If the report offers little formal instruction regarding how government should make the “proportional” dream a reality, it certainly knows what it doesn’t want. The new system must have “a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less,” it demands, referring to a fairness standard too technical to get into here (Canada’s last election got a score of 12, for reference). But so too must this new system not use “pure party lists,” as are common in Europe, “as such systems sever the connection between voters and their MP.” Also: it’s important that “no change to the electoral system must be made that would have the effect of diminishing Quebecer’s [sic] voice in the Canadian political discourse” or “the needs, interests and aspirations of Canada’s two official language minority communities.” They also concede there are a lot of constitutional ambiguities that still need to be sorted out, so get cracking on that too, government.

Thankfully, the report does explicitly acknowledge one piece of reality establishment boosters of electoral reform have been most loathe to admit: swapping Canada’s electoral system will inescapably compromise other aspects of Canadian democracy as currently practiced. My own personal anxiety has long been that adopting an electoral system disposed to yield narrow minority governments, or coalition governments, brings enormous risk of severing voter control over who gets to be prime minister — which is really the only important voter concern in a political system as constitutionally top-heavy as ours. Thus, government must undertake a “comprehensive study of the effects [of a new electoral system] on other aspects of Canada’s ‘governance ecosystem’” before they offer voters any hard proposals, the report concludes.

In sum, the committee’s findings can be reduced to “status quo bad, let’s change it,” which marks no meaningful advancement from the slogans spouted by Justin Trudeau on last year’s campaign trail. The committee should have had the courage to recommend a specific alternative system, but that would have invited the public to immediately begin deconstructing its flaws. A de facto “Vote No” campaign would instantly spring to life, and the uphill battle for the pro-change folks would become more obvious than it was already.

So poor Minister Monsef, already so long suffering, is forced to take the fall for an incompetent government determined to bluff and deny its way through life. Much fire is being disingenuously spat for her completely accurate comment that the electoral committee “did not complete the hard work we had expected,” as if her words were intended as a literal dig at the amount of man-hours its members invested, and not how useless those hours ultimately proved. The only real criticism she deserves is for pretending to anticipate anything different.