Electoral reform activists campaigning for a citizens’ assembly

Political candidates and their volunteers aren’t the only ones distributing campaign literature this federal election.

Members and supporters of Fair Vote Canada are also pounding the pavement, distributing 250,000 door hangers calling for the creation of a national citizens’ assembly on electoral reform.

“What we are attempting to do is keep the issue on people’s radar,” said Gisela Ruckert, an FVC board member based in Kamloops, B.C. “We know there is huge public support for this issue, and we know the vast majority of Canadians would like to see electoral reform.”

In a Leger poll commissioned last year by FVC, 80 per cent of Canadians supported establishing a national citizens’ body on how the country votes.

A similar number — 76 per cent — supported moving towards a system of proportional representation, something the non-partisan, non-profit FVC has been promoting for 20 years.

“Many of us feel simply unheard and under-represented,” Ruckert said. “This is not surprising, given that about 50 per cent of all votes cast during any election actually serve to elect no one.”

Electoral reform figured prominently in the 2015 federal election.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised to make it the last campaign decided using first-past-the-post, a winner-take-all system that produces false majorities, stifles smaller parties, and promotes strategic voting.

The Liberals abandoned that commitment 15 months after forming government, much to the disappointment of FVC and other advocates of more representative voting methods.

In addition to delivering a quarter-million door hangers, FVC is also making a media buy to get its message out to as many people as possible.

“We’re going to be running a national TV ad for the first time in Fair Vote’s history,” Ruckert said. The 30-second spot will air on newscasts Sept. 9 following the English-language leaders’ debate.

The volunteer-driven FVC is still fundraising to get the ad placed on major networks.

“We’re a grassroots movement and we have only one full-time paid staff member, which is our executive director Anita Nickerson,” she said. “I don’t even want to contemplate the hours she’s putting in right now.”

According to Ruckert, a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform would act as a “mini version of Canadian society,” mirroring the diversity of the country’s people and places.

FVC envisions an assembly whose members are not only representative of the electorate, but also non-partisan, free from political interference, and committed to evidence-based research and decision-making.

“We’ve seen citizens’ assemblies gaining steam around the world,” Ruckert said, pointing to examples in Germany (democracy), Australia (nuclear waste), France (climate change), and Ireland (abortion). “It’s an idea whose time has come.”

Fair Vote’s push for a citizens’ body on electoral reform received a major boost June 22 from the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

Liberal members of the committee voted to support an NDP motion to “undertake a study on the advisability of establishing a National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform to make recommendations about how to improve Canada’s electoral system, including the question of how Canadians elect Members of Parliament and how the make up of Parliament reflects the votes cast by Canadians.”

To get more cross-party buy-in for a citizens’ assembly, Ruckert said FVC is open to all options being on the table alongside proportional representation, including first-past-the-post and the ranked-ballot system the Trudeau government seemed to prefer before it broke its electoral reform promise.

The NDP and Green Party of Canada won’t need much convincing.

The NDP election platform explicitly endorses mixed-member proportional representation. The Greens, who have yet to release a platform, have a long track record of supporting electoral reform.

It’s the Conservatives and Liberals, the parties who benefit most from the current system, who will need to be persuaded, Ruckert said. That may be a tall order, considering those parties won majority governments in 2011 and 2015, respectively, with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

“What we’re asking for is an examination of what’s best for our country,” she said. “And we can’t do this kind of citizens’ assembly without the support of the governing parties.”

(Photo: Submitted)