Our message to #ERRE

On August 31st, 2016, Samara Executive Director Jane Hilderman appeared as a witness before the Special Committee on Electoral Reform in Ottawa. The committee was appointed by the House of Commons to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system, as well as to examine mandatory voting and online voting, and to assess the extent to which the options identified could advance the principles laid out in the commitee’smandate.

Directed to consult broadly with relevant experts and organizations, the committee invited Ms. Hilderman to deliver the following remarks.

Check against delivery.

Thank you, Chair, for the invitation to appear this evening at this final Committee meeting of August before you embark on your cross-country tour.

As the Chair mentioned, I am appearing on behalf of Samara Canada, a nonpartisan, independent charity committed to strengthening Canada’s democracy and reconnecting citizens to politics.

At Samara, we employ rigourous, accessible and innovative research to expose how Canada’s democracy works for Canadians. Our work is regularly cited in national media coverage, post-secondary classrooms, parliamentary discussions and in even in places like the most recent Travers Debate, where humourist Scott Feschuk referred to Samara as “Parliament’s mom.” We take that as a compliment.

Our research also works in tandem with Samara’s engagement programming, as we aim to celebrate and encourage active citizenship — especially among young Canadians and new Canadians.

I would like to take a moment to clarify for this Committee that unlike many of the academics and experts you’ve heard from throughout July and August, Samara Canada has NOT been immersed in the nuances of different electoral systems over many years. We have not, and are not, an advocate for one particular electoral system over another.

Since our creation in 2009, most of Samara’s work has focused on what I might call “persistent” or “core” challenges to a healthy and vibrant democracy. Notably, these challenges are typically found in most established democracies irrespective of their electoral system. For example:

  • In the eyes of many citizens, politics is viewed as irrelevant or unimportant to their day-to-day lives — leading many to look to channels outside of politics to solve a public problem.
  • Elected representatives often face a lack of respect and trust from the public, and
  • Many people will not consider running for elected office — and those that do, end up facing an extremely demanding job often without many supports in place.

Elections are not the places where core challenges such as these will be solved.

Nevertheless, elections remain key moments for our democracy that hold the attention of millions of Canadians; and voting still remains the primary avenue for citizens to express their political voice.

This Committee has been tasked to explore alternatives to Canada’s current electoral system, and to do so in a way that includes “a comprehensive and inclusive consultation with Canadians.”

A national conversation about how citizens choose our representatives driven by Parliament doesn’t come around all that frequently. And in our view, this should be a key opportunity for Canadians to get engaged in their democracy, to grow more familiar with the work of Parliamentarians and feel that their opinions can be heard.

However as the electoral reform discussion has unfolded this year, we have felt that most citizens face an uphill battle to understand what this debate was about, why it is important and how they can get involved.

Yes, there are several thorough Canadian reports and research studies already in existence — but many are long or use technical language.

In response, Samara Canada decided to pull together the essential, objective information on different electoral systems for Canadians just getting up to speed on electoral reform. To ensure the information was accurate and neutral, we worked with a political scientist, Stewart Prest, and asked five academic experts to review the report.

Last week Samara released this report called What We Talk About When We Talk About Electoral Reform in both English and French. I kindly asked the Committee Clerk to share this report with you last week — it is also available on Samara’s website.

In short, it outlines how five possible electoral systems would work in Canada, including first-past-the-post, alternative vote, list proportional representation, mixed member proportional and single transferable vote.

The report also distills for Canadians the expert advice that this Committee has received. A selection includes:

  1. There is no “best” system — each has its tradeoffs.
  2. Partisan advantage is hard to predict given a change in electoral system.
  3. No system eliminates the need for Canadians to think strategically about their vote.
  4. Though we can learn from the experiences of other countries, we should not assume that an electoral system will work well for Canada just because it works somewhere else.

While all members of this Committee have essentially completed a crash course in electoral systems this summer, I want to remind the Committee that most Canadians have not.

Many have yet to realize that electoral reform is an urgent issue before this Parliament, let alone that the window for the Committee to hear from them is quickly closing.

To help this Committee meet its commitment to a truly inclusive consultation process with Canadians, we recommend that:

  1. More resources are dedicated to the creation and communication of nonpartisan information about electoral reform.
  2. More time is needed for Canadians to access information about electoral reform, talk about it with others and to participate in the consultation.

Samara’s experience with the creation of our own report finds that electoral reform is a complex issue to explain in an accessible manner — particularly when many options remain on the table.

At twenty-odd pages in length, we are well aware that Samara’s report will not serve everyone’s information needs. For example, educational resources should be designed and distributed for high school teachers and their students, for audiences with limited literacy, and for different types of learning needs. Moreover, some of these resources should be available in different languages in addition to English and French.

Pursuing public engagement without considering the public’s education needs risks attracting, by in large, the voices of the most motivated in the discussion: experts, partisans and passionate advocates for one option or another. These voices matter, but such engagement is not inclusive enough. Moreover, when promised engagement falls short, we fear that Canadians may end up frustrated and further alienated from politics and democracy.

Time is also needed for an effective a consultation process. Not only is electoral reform complex, it’s not particularly urgent, and will take more time to capture Canadians’ attention.

In the eyes of the vast majority of Canadians, the 2015 election did not generate a crisis for Canadian democracy. In fact, Canadians turned out in numbers the nation had not seen for many years (since 1997). Youth turnout was a particularly impressive story: a full 18% point jump from 2011. The electoral results were widely accepted; the past government peacefully made way for a new government.

This is not to say discussing electoral reform is pointless at this juncture. Quite the contrary, it is vitally important that opportunities exist for Canadians, their MPs and civil society to step back and consider improvements to our democratic system.

Canadians now have less than six weeks until October 7 to share their views with you.

This current deadline has been imposed by many factors: The Chief Electoral officer requires two years to implement a new electoral system in 2019. The legislative process of introducing a bill and moving it through both House and Senate takes months. And this committee in turns needs to time to thoughtfully analyze what it hears and receives in submissions.

But given the absence of a democratic crisis that demands a course of quick action, this Committee should have a process that is slow, thoughtful and rigorous. With more time, the quantity and the quality of Canadians’ participation in the discussion on electoral reform can improve.

As such, more time will also enhance the public’s perception that this Committee’s consultations are credible and should carry significant weight in the eyes of the Government and of Parliament.

In conclusion, Samara urges this Committee to recognize that meaningful national engagement on a subject like electoral reform requires that many citizens have a real chance to be informed, and the chance to be heard.

If the Committee requires more time to meet its mandate to consult inclusively among Canadians, this is a request should be made and supported by Parliament and Government.

I’d like to leave you with some final ideas for your consideration. Whether Canada changes our electoral system or not, the issue of electoral reform and the work of this Committee highlights two trends:

First, there is a need for strengthened public education about Canada’s democratic system — often called civic education or civic literacy. This will be especially important if the electoral system changes.

At present citizenship education largely remains the purview of provincial education curricula and is typically incorporated into high school education programs. This is helpful, but insufficient.

Efforts are needed to reinforce civic knowledge through adulthood, as well as during the integration of newcomers into Canada’s public life. There are, however, very few resources for nation-wide efforts in Canada on civic education, nor is it clear who among government department or agency should be responsible for delivering this goal.

Second, parliamentary committees and MPs may be called on more and more frequently to effectively consult Canadians. Given that this Committee is using all tools at your disposal, including social media, an e-consultation, a cross-country tour and input from MP town halls, it would be of great value to capture lessons for other committees and MPs.

Great public engagement and consultation takes planning, skill, communications and relationship-building. The experience of this Committee should start a conversation the capacity of Parliament to undertake public engagement effectively.

Thank you.

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