Q&A: A Conversation With Maryam Monsef

Policy Editor L. Ian MacDonald sat down with Demo- cratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef in her Centre Block of ce on October 5. The conversation touched on referendums, the possibility of a consensus in the Spe- cial Committee on Electoral Reform, whether the Liberals would use their majority to impose a preferred outcome, mandatory and electronic voting, and her thoughts on the response of Canadians to the revelation that she was born in Iran rather than Afghanistan.

Policy: Minister Monsef, thank you for doing this. What are you seeing out there in the country? You’ve been from one end to the other on your tour. What are you seeing and hear- ing about democratic reform?

Maryam Monsef: What I’m seeing is a breathtaking country. Moun- tains and oceans and waterfalls and tundra and agricultural land and so much wealth and so many natural resources that we have to take really good care of. I’m seeing people from all walks of life who… some come in reluctant or skeptical, rather, at the beginning of the conversation, and they leave, heard and hopeful, that their government genuinely wants to hear from them.

Policy: And what’s the level of inter- est? Is it really where Darryl Bricker had it in the Ipsos poll—only one Ca- nadian in ve had heard of electoral reform, and only 3.5 per cent were following the work of the committee? I think you called these people the democra-geeks.

Maryam Monsef: You heard about that, eh? So that term was affection- ately coined by a group of young democra-geeks that I met just before we launched the tour. And this is a

group of young Canadians who for years have been meeting every sum- mer at someone’s cottage to talk about the state of their democracy. And this year they invited me. And I had the great privilege—

Policy: Did they have some beer?

Maryam Monsef: There was no time for beer! We had so much to talk about. And the quality of conversa- tions is invaluable, especially with young people, who for 10 years, have felt like the doors of their government were shut to them. Suddenly, we’re going to them and asking them how we can increase their participation and how we can be more relevant and responsive to them, and they’re hope- ful. So—I totally understand that it’s a time of relative peace and stability. There is no major crisis happening in this country, and people, for the most part, are focused on jobs and raising their kids, and focusing on their grandkids, and I’m thankful to those who do come out and advocate on behalf of those who face barriers when entering those rooms.

Policy: Do you nd there’s a differ- ence in tone between the quote/un- quote expert testimony you hear in this building during/before the committee and what you’re seeing out- side among the voices of the people in the country?

Maryam Monsef: I have a lot of respect for the experts and academ- ics. Many have dedicated their lives to this, and we can’t do this work without them. But there’s a reason the prime minister asked me to go and connect with Canadians in every province and every territory, because the quality of conversation, the reali- ties that everyday Canadians experi- ence, whether it’s in Iqaluit or White- horse or in places like Winnipeg or Saturna, they are different than the realities we experience here in the Ot- tawa bubble.

Policy: Right. The special commit- tee’s road show, you have 12 people spending a month together on the road, and then another month in a room writing up their recommenda- tions. What’s your sense of the chem- istry of this group?

Maryam Monsef: So the composi- tion of this committee is really impor- tant. Form is important when it comes to function, and so the composition of this committee, the only commit- tee in the House of Commons where the Opposition actually has the ma- jority, is really important. We made a decision to listen to Canadians who said there’s a better way to compose the committee. We heard from oppo- sition parties, and we wanted to send a signal that, for electoral reform to work, for it to move forward, we’re going to have to take a collaborative and cooperative approach.

I’m so proud that the spirit in which the committee was composed contin- ues. I watched some of their delibera- tions when they were aired on CPAC, and I hear anecdotes here and there.

They seem to be getting to know each other well. And I hope that that same spirit of cooperation will be re ected in the nal outcome.

Policy: I should say they also have an exceptional chair in Francis Scarpaleggia.

Maryam Monsef: They do, and ev- ery single person around that table has worked really hard throughout the summer. They were in electoral reform boot camp before the road show began. Every single one of them brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, and certainly the chair’s leadership has been really important for maintaining that right tone.

Policy: And we should point out that the special committee of 12 with seven Opposition members is distinct from a standing committee of 10 at which the Liberals would normally have a majority of six, right?

Maryam Monsef: Correct.

Policy: So if there is an all-party con- sensus, the Conservatives would obvi- ously demand a referendum as their bottom line. And perhaps all oppo- sition parties might agree on that as kind of the price of the deal if there is, you know, a deal to be made on some- thing like mixed member proportion- al or something. Where do you think the cutting edge of the deal might be?

Maryam Monsef: You’re asking me if I have a crystal ball…and you’re asking me to look into it, and I sure wish I had one. Look, I have a lot of con dence in this committee. And I know that they’re working really hard on behalf of Canadians. They’re tak- ing into account, naturally, the values that each party has brought to this House. And I’ve asked them for one report as opposed to each party pro- viding their own minority report.

The question of a referendum has cer- tainly come up from our colleagues in the Conservative caucus. And I person- ally don’t believe that a referendum is the best way to make a decision about complex public policy issues like this. Is it one way to seek broad support

I’m so proud that the spirit in which the committee

was composed continues. I watched some of their deliberations when they were aired on CPAC, and I hear anecdotes here and there. They seem to be getting to know each other well. And I hope that that same spirit of cooperation will be re ected in the nal outcome.

from Canadians? Sure. Is it the best way? I have yet to be convinced.

Policy: Well the New York Times agrees with you. In a major story on page 1 today, the headline is: “Why national referendums are messy tools of democracy.” You probably could have written that headline.

Maryam Monsef: They have a ten- dency to be costly in ways beyond nancial, right? They can cause divi- sions in communities. And this gov- ernment is more concerned and more interested in building community and a sense of national cohesion.

Policy: Well, the article points out that people sometimes vote in refer- endums on leadership rather than on the issue that’s on the table, as in Britain, for example, in the Brexit referendum sending a message to Mr. Cameron, as they certainly did. Forty- eight hours later, he was gone. We’ve just been through the Colombia expe- rience, where a referendum to ratify a treaty ending a 52-year civil war was narrowly defeated. And I lived through the Quebec referendum in 1995 when we came within 1.2 per- centage points of losing our country over a question hardly anybody un- derstood. So there are cautions about referendums out there.

Maryam Monsef: Absolutely, there are, and referenda on electoral reform have seen about half of the popula- tion participating in the past. And what about the other half?

So all of that said, this isn’t about my personal opinion. And what the prime minister has asked me to do is to en- ter this process with an open mind. And if, at the end of really thoughtful

deliberations, the committee comes back and makes a recommendation with a referendum being that tool that we use to determine whether or not their proposed reforms have the support of Canadians then we have to take that seriously.

Policy: If there’s no consensus in the committee, would the government rule out using cabinet and its majority in the House to impose a preference of its own?

I have a lot of

con dence in the people who are on this

committee, and I do believe that they will work hard to come up with something that will serve the best interests of Canadians and that everybody can live with.

Maryam Monsef: So there are two parts to this question. Firstly, as I mentioned, I have a lot of con – dence in the people who are on this committee, and I do believe that they will work hard to come up with something that will serve the best in- terests of Canadians and that every- body can live with.

We will not move forward with any reforms without the broad support of Canadians. So no, we are not interest- ed in leveraging our majority in this place to move any reforms forward because this is not about us. This is for Canadians, and if at the end of the day we have an electoral system that doesn’t have their buy-in then why are we doing this?

We will not move forward with any reforms without the broad support of Canadians. So no, we are not interested in leveraging our majority in this place to move any reforms forward because this is not about us. This is for Canadians.

Policy: There’s a lot of alphabet soup, as you know, from FPTP to SMP to PR to PPR to MMP to MSMP. Is it possible people nd it’s confusing and that rst-past-the-post it’s the devil they know?

Maryam Monsef: We talk about this in town halls that for some democra- geeks, FPTP and STV and MMP and so on, it’s an opportunity to have a delightful conversation about the de- tails of different systems out there. But other nations that have taken on the noble pursuit of electoral re- form, the research that’s out there, it shows that the best way to enter a conversation about electoral reform isn’t through the technical aspects of any given system; it’s through a set of principles. There’s no perfect system.

The process itself is highly subjective because our democratic institutions and our vote, our right to vote, is so deeply connected to our sense of identity. And so it’s about a set of val- ues and a set of principles, and that’s why the committee—and myself— are framing this conversation with Canadians around a set of principles, which they easily engage in.

Policy: The government has a time- line of having a proposal in place within 18 months of taking of ce, so by next May 4th. Is this cast in stone? Because a lot of people think this deadline is unrealistic.

Maryam Monsef: Well, this is a deadline that the House voted on, and it has been agreed upon, and the committee has been asked to provide us with a report on December 1st, and we’ll be introducing legislation in the House in May. And I believe that if we continue to work as dili- gently as we have, if the committee continues to work as collaboratively as they have, then we will meet this timeline and we’ll be able to give Elections Canada the time they need to implement the changes.

Policy: That’s interesting because as you know, Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Of cer, at his nal news conference on October 4th, expressed his own doubts about the achievabil-