Our foreign minister at Sobeys: A cautionary tale about electoral reform

This 28 Oct 2015 op-ed by John Milloy on National Newswatch is about the importance of Canadian MPs being regional and warning about what might be lost if they instead were elected by some nationwide "proportional representation" system.

The new Liberal government has promised a national discussion on electoral reform. We should welcome such a debate, but never forget the fact that during the most recent campaign I bumped into Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson in front of a Sobeys in Niagara Falls.

Does everyone remember electoral reform? For about 10 minutes in the most recent campaign it was a topic of considerable discussion. Both the Liberals and NDP promised action if elected. The issue unfortunately became overtaken by much more critical matters like the need for a dress code at citizenship ceremonies.

The Liberal victory means we have a party in power that, according to its platform, "is committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the post-voting system." The platform promises timely legislation based on the findings of a special all-party parliamentary committee.

The nature of the Liberal victory also reinforces the argument for change. Once again we have a government that won less than 40% of the vote and yet received a majority of the seats. The Greens, on the other hand, received around 3.5% of the popular vote but elected only one member of Parliament.

Which brings me back to Rob Nicholson: On a family trip to Niagara Falls during the campaign I stopped at Sobeys. Standing out front was Rob Nicholson, anxious to speak with any voter who happened to pass by.

That image of our foreign affairs minister openly chatting with members of the public reminded me of a TV interview I saw of Finance Minister Joe Oliver at his campaign headquarters. Clad in casual clothes (that 'everyman' look that male politicians pull off so badly), he was willing to talk with any voter who walked through the door.

Never underestimate the importance of these interactions. Election campaigns are the few times that citizens not only have real power but real access to their representatives, no matter what important role he or she holds. There is something heartwarming about seeing a senior cabinet minister pounding the pavement and having to listen to ordinary people – to their complaints, their concerns, their hopes and their anxieties.

As someone who ran in three elections, I can honestly say that the experience made me a better representative. I learned a great deal about my constituents. Hearing their issues and concerns put real faces to societal problems – faces that belonged to people I was directly responsible for.

To this day I remember the man who tracked me down while I was door knocking in his neighbourhood. He had been unemployed for some time – a victim of the recession – and wanted to tell me that a government retraining program wasn't working. I am still not certain whether he realized that I was the minister who had introduced that program.

These are not trivial matters. The most vocal critics of our present political system frequently point to the disconnect between voters and their elected representatives. A recent media report noted that Conservative campaign manager Jenni Byrne didn't realize – until she went door knocking – the high level of antipathy toward Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Ottawa bubble, or its provincial equivalent, is real. Local campaigns burst that bubble for elected representatives. And, to a lesser extent, so does every moment back home in the riding. The complaints, concerns and compliments you receive from constituents as you go about your business remain with you when you return to Parliament.

These are often not pleasant interactions, especially when you learn that the solution that everyone on Parliament Hill thought was brilliant is going over like a lead balloon with the people who will decide on your re-election.

My worry about electoral reform is that we will forget this aspect of our system. No one likes to be constantly criticized and challenged, particularly when you are used to being treated with considerable deference on Parliament Hill. There may be a huge temptation by politicians to de-link their role from a specific geographic constituency by allocating seats based on popular vote – negating the need to ever stand outside Sobeys again or face a group of angry constituents at the local fall fair.

True there would still be national campaigns and general interaction between voters and candidates, but when you have no specific responsibility or association with a defined community, the connection is lost.

The newly elected government hasn't made any decisions yet, and there are reform models that do maintain a connection to each constituency. But before our memory of the most recent election fades and we make any decisions about changing the electoral system, let's commit to always remembering the image of our foreign affairs minister at Sobeys, listening to the people who elected him.


John Milloy is a former Ontario cabinet minister who served as MPP for Kitchener Centre from 2003 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked on Parliament Hill, including five years in the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He is currently the Co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics and Assistant Professor of Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural Practitioner in Residence in Wilfrid Laurier University's Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo's Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at: jmilloy@wlu.ca or follow him on twitter at: @John_Milloy.

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