Principled supporters of electoral reform should concede the obvious and call for a referendum

Political watchers were hard at work dissecting the Liberal platform and the 171 promises contained therein.

Even before Justin Trudeau was sworn in as prime minister, political watchers were hard at work dissecting the Liberal platform and the 171 promises contained therein.

Among them: a pledge that the 2015 election would be “the last federal election held under the first-past-the-post voting system.”

Less than two months into his new government’s term, electoral reform is already a major point of controversy — and not just because of strong opinions about different electoral systems. Rather, the electoral reform debate has become almost entirely fixated on one thing: whether any reform proposal can be legitimately implemented without a nationwide referendum being held to seek the approval of Canadians.

So far, this debate has largely polarized into two camps: those who prefer the status quo and want a referendum on the presumption that any change can be defeated; and those who prefer some alternative system and fear a referendum would scuttle any chance for change. Both sides are more interested in getting the outcome they want and are merely using the question of a referendum as camouflage for predictable self-interest.

Yet a more principled view on electoral reform should separate the preference for a desired outcome with a respect for the proper process, in the same way that voters all have a vested interest in free and fair elections, even if most have a preference about which party wins.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, for example, endorsed the single transferable vote proposal in the 2005 and 2009 British Columbia referenda. But we would never have endorsed such a change without a referendum, which reflects our belief that such a fundamental change requires the direct approval of the voting public.

Historical precedent weighs heavily in favour of a referendum, as no government in modern Canadian history has attempted to implement it without one — and electoral reform referenda in Prince Edward Island (2005), British Columbia (2005 and 2009) and Ontario (2007) were all defeated.

But not all electoral reform referenda pan out this way. In New Zealand, for example, a 1992 referendum on electoral reform not only won, but won big, with the pro-reform side winning 84 per cent of the vote. Accordingly, reform advocates should not view a referendum as a death sentence for their cause, but as an opportunity to win new converts to the pro-reform side.

There is also the matter of the sheer vagueness of the Liberal promise. Even if we were to accept the argument that a vote for a political party is a clear endorsement of every single one of its policies, the 2015 Liberal promise on electoral reform is, to be charitable, quite unspecific.

Pro-reformers who refuse to endorse the need for a referendum are left to confront a few awkward questions, such as: how is it that 39 per cent of the vote (for the Liberal party) in a supposedly unfair system can equal a clear mandate for such a fundamental change?

The Trudeau government has a mandate to explore electoral reform. It does not have a mandate to impose anything it draws up without asking Canadians first. Principled reformers should concede the obvious, and make calls for a referendum on electoral reform unanimous.

– Aaron Wudrick is federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.