By Richard Forbes.
Continuing our series of interviews, Inside the ERRE, with members of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, we were lucky enough to get in touch with Gérard Deltell to discuss his thoughts on this recent push by the Liberals to reform Canada’s voting system. The ERRE has already heard from professors Barry Cooper, Nicole Goodman and Emmett Macfarlane today and we’re also expected this afternoon to hear from Matthew Harrington, Pippa Norris and Thomas Axworthy; the latter was a strategist and Principal Secretary for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during his final term in office.
Gérard Deltell is a rising star in the Conservative ranks and Deputy Party Leader, who – although new to federal politics – is considered a potential candidate to replace former Conservative party leader Stephen Harper. Before entering into politics, Deltell was a journalist for two decades in television and radio. Deltell is now the MP for Louis-Saint-Laurent, a riding in Quebec City’s northwest. In the past, he’s served as a party and house leader provincially in Quebec for third parties, Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) respectively.
Bonjour. Thanks again, Mr Deltell for taking part in this Q and A to discuss electoral reform and your work in the ERRE.
It’s my pleasure.
Are you satisfied with how the committee is progressing?
Well, we have an objective and we will achieve that. It’s been very interesting to listen to the panels over the past few days, but we have to take the time to listen to them, to ask questions, and to think about the future of our electoral system.
What we have heard since then is that some experts are telling us, ‘Okay, we can make some changes, but we must take our time and there is no perfect system in the world.’ So, our system is not perfect, other systems are not perfect, so if we have to change something, we must understand that nothing is perfect and also we must take our time, which is not the case in this situation today.
Do you believe the Liberals are approaching electoral reform in good faith?
Not at all. And that’s a big mistake of the Liberals because you can’t change the way people elect their elected representatives without asking them what they think about that. This is the most important issue in our democracy: how do we elect people? And all policy depends on who is in power and who is in power depends on how we elect people. So this is the most important decision in our democracy: the way the system we have elects our representatives. It must be very important, we must have a real debate in Canada, we must take our time, and we shall ask the people what they think of it.
The last three times we have considered making some changes to electoral systems in Canada, we have had referendums on this issue. And so, I will quote what Stéphane Dion said: ‘Precedent makes holding a referendum necessary in Canada: changing the voting system would require popular support.’
He said exactly that. A senior cabinet of the federal Liberal government! We asked him to testify, but unfortunately the Liberal MPs want to shut down one of their major – and senior – cabinet ministers, a former leader who said we must have a referendum. So it’s very sad to see that. I don’t know whom, the PMO? Or Mr Trudeau? I don’t know.
The point is Mr Dion should testify in front of the committee and the Liberals rejected that proposition. And Mr Dion, sure, for most is a senior cabinet minister, but before and during politics, he was a very well respected scholar, a very well respected academic, with a PhD from the Institut d’études politiques de Paris which is quite prestigious in France. So he’s a very bright guy, I do not agree with him on every issue, but at least we should let him explain his point of view on why he thinks we should have a referendum.
But the Liberals did win a majority government under FPTP last year…
Some might say if the government wanted to rig the next election they would keep things just as they are. How would you respond to that?
First of all, as I told you there is no perfect system, our system is not perfect, but there is no perfect system in the world right now. So we must understand that in the last one hundred years, when we’ve had more than two major national parties, we have had 29 elections and only once did the party who got the plurality of votes not form the government and it was in 1979, with the election of the minority PC government of the right honourable Joe Clark. But only for nine months, as we all remember.
So the system is not perfect but at least it works.
You know, what we’ve heard from the Liberals is what Justin Trudeau has said, before and after becoming leader of the Liberal party. He’s said publicly many times that he does support, and still supports, the preferential vote and some commentators are saying that the preferential vote could assure the Liberals stay in power for a long, long time. This is why this is a decision that does not belong to the politician, it belongs to the Canadian.
So if they want to make any changes, if they are sure this decision is a good one, that their system is the good one, let the people decide.
Beyond holding a referendum, do the Conservatives have a plan for democratic reform?
We are open to debate, we are open to discussion, but the bottom line is let the people decide. You know, it’s so fundamental, it’s so touchy, it’s so important, as I’ve told you, it’s the most important decision in a democratic system: the way we elect our members.
So, at the least we can do is have an open debate, say ‘we must take our time’ and at the end of the day, let the people decide.
The decision does not belong to one person, because the reality is if we don’t let the people decide the decision will belong at the end of the day to one person, the prime minister – and we know where he stands, he supports the preferential vote.
Since he controls the executive, and with the majority in the house he controls the legislature, he’s the one who will call the shots. That’s not democratic for us, we shall let the people decide at the end of the day.
Polling suggests Quebec is one of the provinces most enthusiastic for electoral reform. As a Quebec MP, do you feel offside with the province’s mood for change?
Well, we have to be careful when we ask people what they think and we must be very careful with polls because I can tell you as an MP and as a candidate a year ago in the electoral campaign no one talked to me about that, and I would say that even during the campaign, even the leaders didn’t talk about that.
We had five leaders debates – many, many hours of debates – and only one time out of five was this question put on the table and it was not by Monsieur Trudeau, it was for Madame May of the Green Party. So if, for Mr. Trudeau, it was so important – because this is important to want to change that – he should have raised it many, many times through the campaign and he should have raised it during the leaders debates – and he did not do that because he knows that people do not care about it.
Also what I would like to say is since I’ve been a Member of Parliament, since I’ve been elected, no one has talked to me about it. Even since the last two months while we’ve had a public debate over this – you know, the federal government asked us to hold town halls in our ridings – well, I have received only one call in my office and the call was from a Green Party activist. I do respect political activists, but I have to listen to the people; I cannot just listen to political activists only.
Will you hold a town hall in your riding?
If I see people are asking me questions in my riding I will call a town hall in my riding.
But as I just told you, I have only received one call in my office and he was a Green activist. He was a good guy, I do respect him, I do respect political activists – but if, hundreds or thousands of people are asking me for a town hall, I will call a town hall.
But that’s not the case right now.
How do you anticipate electoral reform could change how the Conservatives campaign? Could it affect the leadership race, for example?
As we don’t know exactly where the government stands and what will be the decision of the government, I don’t think that it will be a big issue for the leadership race because every leadership candidate will have to make their position on it and I can tell you that we are unanimous on this issue: we should have a referendum. But as I told you, we are open to debate within our party, you know, we’re not stuck on one issue, we let people talk about it. I would remind you that the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party were very strong on electoral reform. But we were always supporters of a referendum. So if there is any change, we must let people decide it.
And we must take our time with it: we learnt from the expert testimonies that it took New Zealand eleven years, a full eleven years of hard work, studies and consultation before any change and they had three referendums on that issue. What we’re doing is not a public inquiry like New Zealand had. New Zealand took eighteen months just to study the issue, then after that they had three elections and three referendums. So we shall take our time, which is not the Liberal preference right now.
Do you believe the parties will reach a compromise on electoral reform?
We will see what will happen during discussions, I cannot say today exactly where we will stand because we’re open-minded, we let people talk about that, but one thing is sure: if there is any change, we must let people decide via a referendum.
I wish you good luck with your work on the special committee, Mr Deltell and thank you again for sharing your thoughts on electoral reform and the committee.
It’s been a real pleasure for me to talk to you. Thank you.
Thanks to Elias Weiss for his assistance.
The following interview was conducted 10/08/2016 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.