Assessment of the Town Halls

The 2015 Liberal election platform promised that Canada would no longer use the First Past the Post (also known as Single Member Plurality) system for future elections. It was a position supported by the NDP and Green parties although exactly what would replace the current system was never specified.

Before that alternative is proposed Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef announced that a consultation process would be undertaken to gauge the public’s input. The three main pillars of that consultation process include:

  • Town Halls to be held by MPs with their constituents. MPs are asked to submit a report on the feedback received at these meetings.
  • A social media campaign, particularly using Twitter.
  • Speakers and written submissions to the 12-member Parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform.

After attending three town halls in the Greater Toronto Area, I want to share my feedback on that process.

1. Not all MPs are holding town halls

I recently moved from one riding to another. Neither my current nor my former riding is holding a town hall. I’m not sure if they are planning on submitting a report at all. At one of the three that I did attend, the MP asked attendees to raise their hands if they were from outside the riding boundaries (about half of us). One person yelled that those outside the riding should not get a chance to speak. It made me uncomfortable although I did line up and was the last attendee to speak.

2. The Town Halls had minimal advertising

I found out about the town halls from the Democratic Institutions Canada website. In one instance, upon arriving at the location posted on the website, I was informed that the particular town hall taking place that day would be on carbon pricing and national defense.  Electoral reform would not be discussed at all. @CdnDemocracy apologized to me for the mistake over Twitter.

I understand that MPs did also notify their email lists about the event, an approach bound to skew the attendance in favour of their supporters.

I did not encounter any advertisements in community newspapers, at community centres, distributed to schools, or delivered to households.

3. Attendees were not from marginalized groups

Minister Monsef suggested during Question Period that the town halls would allow the government to hear from groups that do not typically vote. The GTA is a very diverse community. Two of the three town halls I attended had roughly 100 attendees and were dominated by retirees or working professionals of English descent, who certainly had insightful comments.

The third town hall I attended, with roughly thirty attendees, was much more diverse in the cultural background of the attendees. They seemed to be on a first name basis with the MP, however, and did not give the impression that they were shy about voting. That one even had one high school student attend and speak.

If Minister Monsef’s intention was to tap in to the thoughts of disengaged voters, it seemed the town halls accomplished the opposite. Only the most highly engaged community members spared two hours of their time to attend these events.

4. Time constraints limited discussion

All three town halls were scheduled to be two hours in length. It simply wasn’t enough time to adequately explain what the major alternatives to First Past the Post were, contemplate their implications, and share our thoughts. One town hall did not even attempt to explain the alternatives, assuming that those in attendance already knew about them (which may have been mostly accurate). Only one of the three showed videos that explained the systems. All three eventually asked attendees to submit their comments in writing due to a lack of time to hear from everyone. Even if they were scheduled for a full eight hours, there would probably still be more to be said.

5. Lack of consensus on specifics

In addition to the proposed voting systems, attendees were asked about their opinions on mandatory voting, online voting, and lowering the voting age. In all cases, there were attendees on either side of these issues.  There was, however, a consensus among attendees that the current First Past the Post system could be improved.

6. Likely little impact on the final decision

I did enjoy attending the town halls. They were a wonderful reason to bring together communities and discuss a topic of utmost importance to our democracy. They were a valuable exercise in raising awareness that the topic is being discussed in Parliament and inviting citizens to explore their feelings on it. In terms of actually affecting the final decision, however, it did not seem like the town halls would have much of an effect. Ultimately, 12 members of the Special Committee will be able to propose and vote on a final proposal. They are hearing from experts testifying in person in Ottawa and consulting with their party leaders on how any changes would affect their own party. They may or may not read 338 MP reports, which may or may not accurately reflect the statements of the attendees.

If you actually want to make sure your voice is heard, contact the Committee members directly before October 7. Click here for more details.

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