Referendums are often called to reach a consensus on a way forward. Just as often, however, referendums seem to reinforce deeply bitter divides.
When then-premier Jacques Parizeau famously conceded defeat in Quebec’s 1995 sovereignty referendum, he declared the Yes side had lost due to money and the ethnic vote. The referendum settled the question, but only in the near-term; sovereigntists continued to win a plurality of seats in Quebec for years afterward.
When Britons voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union, dozens of high-profile media and political figures lamented the ignorance of voters and argued that the referendum need not be binding after all. The voters, they argued, didn’t know what was best for them. Many cited as evidence that ‘What is the EU?’ was the most Googled question in the U.K. in the hours after the vote.
With this in mind, we turn to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise that the 2015 election would be the last election under the current, first-past-the-post electoral system. Some sort of change must be made, argued the Liberals. And so has begun a cross-country consultation to overhaul our arguably outdated electoral system.
There have been previous attempts at electoral reform in Canada, each coming to a crashing halt when subjected to the approval of the voters through referendums. Ontario’s attempt at reform in 2007 and British Columbia’s attempts in 2004 and 2009 all failed.
The Liberals, perhaps informed by the failures of previous Canadian referendums and the recent U.K. experience, have remained uncertain about committing to one this time around.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef recently told a House of Commons committee that ‘although I recognize that a referendum is one way of seeking clarity from Canadians, I remain to be convinced that it is the best way.’ She noted that referendums ‘do not easily lend themselves to effectively deciding complex issues.’
The argument goes like this: In previous referendums, Canadians have voted with little context about how different electoral systems around the world have worked and have opted to remain in the safe, if somewhat flawed, system we have now.
The minister is not wrong.
The federal government faces innumerable decisions every day. It both produces and receives a huge amount of information from commissions, committees and studies on topics as diverse as the environment of salmon on the West Coast to the safety of our infrastructure. It produces and consumes an amount of information impossible for an average citizen to digest.
That is why we elect members of Parliament. Every four years, Canadians decide who will best keep up with the information and the issues and then make informed decisions for us. MPs vote on hundreds of motions, resolutions and bills that require deep knowledge and understanding. And, every four years, should Canadians be unhappy with the decisions of their MPs, they can fire them.
The minister is also not wrong to suggest many Canadians would vote in a referendum on electoral reform without a nuanced understanding of the options in front of them.
She is right to say that referendums are often divisive and that they lack the opportunity for complex debate most issues deserve.
That’s why MPs should be trusted to make decisions on almost every issue that confronts us. They are deeply versed in the issues the country faces. In fact, this forms part of the basis for parliamentary democracy.
However, there is no way MPs can fairly assess whether the method by which they are elected should change. That is because they would be hard pressed to ignore how any change would affect their own electoral situation – in effect, their own, personal job prospects.
Different electoral systems favour different parties and different MPs within those parties. When voting on any changes, some MPs could, depending on the system, be voting themselves out of a job, or into a cushy seat that they would likely never lose.
So that’s why a referendum, with all its many flaws and challenges, is the only way the Canadian electoral system should be changed. To have MPs choose the way they are elected is, to use a shopworn clich’, akin to having the fox guard the henhouse.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.