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UPDATE: The Liberal government has revealed details of the special House committee that will be charged with recommending a new electoral system. There will be 10 voting members: six Liberals, three Conservatives and one New Democrat. A Bloc Québecois MP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will sit as non-voting members.

The committee will have a staff and budget, as do other House committees, and will be able to travel around the country. The apportionment of seats on this committee mirrors what is usual for standing committees of the House.

In a majority government situation, MPs from the government side always have a majority of members, while the third party is normally given only a single seat. Given the existential nature of the electoral reform exercise — it will determine how future parliaments are elected — some might ask if membership on this special committee should not more closely resemble the popular vote share of the parties represented in the House. 

Just about a year ago, Justin Trudeau, then leader of the third party in Parliament, unveiled his party’s democratic reform agenda at a rousing event in Ottawa’s Château Laurier.

There were plenty of cheering Liberal partisans there, flanking and surrounding their leader.

Most journalists had to stand in a semi-circle, while Trudeau delivered his pitch and then took a handful of shouted questions, scrum-style.

The proposals the party made that day were bold and comprehensive. You can read them all here.

Liberals called their plan “Fair and Open Government” and it included strengthening access to information and making the process less costly, giving the federal Information Commissioner the power to compel recalcitrant government officials to release information, and opening the secretive House of Commons Board of Internal Economy.

Trudeau reiterated his pledge to institute a new way of selecting non-partisan senators, promised to end the “abuse” of prorogation and omnibus legislation, and solemnly pledged to, in the exact words of the plan, “save home mail delivery.”

Most famously, the plan made an ironclad pledge that the 2015 election would be the last fought under the first-past-the-post system.

A Liberal government, Trudeau promised, would set up an all-party committee to “within 18 months of forming government bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform.”

This was probably Trudeau’s most dramatic and bold pledge on that balmy day, last spring.

It was a departure from the historic Liberal Party position, and it made a lot of the Liberal old guard cringe. Their party, they reasoned privately, has been wildly successful over more than a century using the old system. Why change?

Why indeed?

Part of the reason seems to have been the state of political play, at that time. The NDP had just won the Alberta election, putting significant, if temporary, wind in the federal NDP’s sails. And the Liberals’ tortured position on the anti-terror bill, C-51, seemed to be costing them support with Canadians — especially young Canadians — concerned about human rights and civil liberties.

Trudeau and his advisors knew that if there was ever a time to be fearless, resolute and willing to take risks, this was it.

Trudeau takes his time, but lives up to his pledge 

Now, the Liberals are in power, six months have elapsed, Parliament will rise for the summer in about six weeks, and until rather late in the day — at 9:30 p.m. on the evening of Tuesday, May 10, to be exact — there was no committee in sight.

Then the House of Commons Daily Order and Notice paper appeared, and there it was, a government notice that “a Special Committee on electoral reform be appointed to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems, such as preferential ballots and proportional representation, 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 following principles for electoral reform.”

The notice goes on to list those principles, to wit: 

a. Effectiveness and legitimacy, that the proposed measure would increase public confidence among Canadians that their democratic will, as expressed by their votes, will be fairly translated …

b. Engagement: that the proposed measure would encourage voting and participation in the democratic process …

c. Accessibility and inclusiveness: that the proposed measure would avoid undue complexity in the voting process …

d. Integrity: that the proposed measure can be implemented while safeguarding public trust in the election process …

e. Local representation: that the proposed measure would ensure accountability and recognize the value that Canadians attach to community, to Members of Parliament understanding local conditions and advancing local needs at the national level ….

You can read all of it here. (Scroll to near the bottom of the page to: Government Business.)

And so, those skeptics and critics — including this writer — who thought Prime Minister Trudeau might be having second thoughts about this particular promise have been proven wrong.

Now, the battle is engaged. Why call it a battle? Because there are fiercely held position on all sides.

The Conservatives argue that any reform must be put to a national referendum.

The NDP is quite strongly committed to a particular reform model, mixed member proportional.

In the past, Trudeau and the Liberals have favoured some sort of preferential ballot (which could be combined with mixed proportional). Is that still their preferred choice?

And then there are the many, many unanswered questions that will inevitably make their way onto the table.

What would a new electoral system do for gender balance in the House? (Coincidentally, also on Tuesday May 10, the private member’s Bill 237, “The Candidate Gender Equity Act”, introduced by NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, was debated in the House and sent to committee with support from all parties. This bill proposes to create a financial incentive for political parties to run more women during federal elections. See more here.)

What about Indigenous representation?

What happens to smaller provinces, notably Prince Edward Island, and their guarantee of a minimum number of seats?

You can add your own questions. You probably have quite a few. 

Read rabble’s ongoing series proportional representation and how to make every vote count.

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...