By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Postmedia.
For the first of a series of interviews, Inside the ERRE, we spoke with committee chair Francis Scarpaleggia. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) is an all party, high profile committee set to return to 1 Wellington Street today for yet another busy session of expert panels, hearing testimony from professors, Benoît Pelletier, Arend Lijphart, Nathalie Des Rosiers, Christian Dufour and Harold Jansen. The committee’s final report will ultimately form the basis for the federal government’s own plans for electoral reform. The Liberals, of course, committed in their platform last fall to tabling legislation on electoral reform “within 18 months of forming government.”
During his interview with the Ribbon, the Chair shared his hopes for the committee, setting the stakes as it were for the ERRE going forward. He emphasizes the need for an in depth public consultation with Canadians, stressing the enormous time crunch that the committee faces to complete its consultation and deliver a final report later this year.
Scarpaleggia is a policy wonk at heart, having championed a national water strategy to protect Canada’s freshwater reserves, in addition to co-founding the House of Commons all-party committee on palliative care. His work as chair of this most recent special committee is far from his first rodeo, Scarpaleggia has served as vice chair before for committees on Public Safety and National Security, Environment and Sustainable Development, as well as serving in a laundry list of other House committees. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 2004, serving as MP for Lac-Saint-Louis, a Liberal stronghold in Montreal’s West Island. He’s also Chair of the National Liberal Caucus.
Thanks again, Mr. Scarpaleggia for taking some time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts on the special committee for electoral reform with us.
Is the committee progressing as you would have hoped?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Are you concerned about partisanship or obstructionism interfering in the committee’s work?
No, actually it’s been quite harmonious and collegial and it’s seen real intellectual curiosity on the part of all members and all parties.
What’s the process involved in realizing the committee’s final report?
Well, we’re doing hearings in Ottawa right now. Typically we’re hearing from academics and people who are involved in think tanks. We’ve had some overseas skyping, if you want to call it that, from some academics in Ireland, and the Chief Electoral Officers in New Zealand and Australia. We’ll be restarting up our hearings on August 22 and 23 in Ottawa and then we’ll break until August 29th where we’ll have four days of hearings.
And then we hope to hit the road and visit all of the territories and all the provinces. We’re going to try to do a bit of a mix of, not just, big cities but small regional centres, more rural areas, but obviously we’re going to count on the consultations that we’ve invited all three hundred and thirty eight members of parliament to conduct to really achieve the blanket coverage we’re aiming for.
Do you believe the parties will reach a compromise on electoral reform?
I wouldn’t want to prejudge.
I have to be honest with you, my main concern as chair is rolling out the process and making sure we meet the deadlines that have been handed down to us and that the committee process has integrity, that we hear from a diverse group of witnesses that reflects the major and minor points of view on this issue and that Canadians themselves who are not stakeholders or who are not academics get the chance to have some input and that the input and testimony is all interesting and robust.
Speaking of diversity, some have voiced concerns recently about the diversity of the committee’s expert panels – do you share those concerns?
Well we’re hoping to – over the longer term – achieve gender balance, yes. That’s a priority.
The Liberals as you know are divided on electoral reform, there are those who support IRV or PR; I understand you’re the chair, but I was wondering where you stand on the issue?
I really am agnostic on it, to be honest and I think it should be that way for the chair.
Because it’s an all-party committee – a true all party committee, including the Bloc and the Green Party – I really think that requisites neutrality.
Are you worried that the other issues that the committee is supposed to be looking at, beyond the electoral system, might be getting lost in the proceedings?
I think that, for example, mandatory voting is coming up in a kind of sporadic way, but a number of questions on that have been addressed to that by a wide spectrum of witnesses. So it is coming up, but in a dispersed fashion, but that’s fine.
And we’re hoping that we’re going to do some kind of panel that will focus on online voting, though the issue with online voting has come up in questions and testimony already. But I think there may be a better opportunity to have a more focused discussion specifically on online voting at some point.
What’s the greatest challenge, the committee faces?
The challenge is the committee has a lot of work to do in a short period of time. So the challenge is to get the job done on time and, as I’ve said, to have a robust process and then people produce a report that is fair, that is representative of what we’ve heard, and that hopefully can bring all the parties together. But those are the challenges in a nutshell.
I wish you good luck with your work as chair on the special committee and thank you again for sharing your thoughts on electoral reform and the ERRE. Merci!
Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s been my pleasure.
The following interview was conducted 04/08/2016 via telephone. Edited and condensed.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.