Last spring, I wrote about the prospect that the Legault government in Quebec would implement mixed-member proportional representation in time for the next provincial general election scheduled for 2022 in a piece for Policy Options. Recent developments answer this question in the negative – but in an interesting way. The Legault government has still taken a unique approach which distinguishes it from what governments in other provinces have done.
To recap, during the lead up to the provincial general election in 2018, Legault pledged that his party would table a bill in the National Assembly to switch to MMPR and rejected what British Columbia and Ontario did with citizens’ assemblies and referendums. Legault even promised during the provincial election campaign in 2018 that he would not “do what Trudeau did” and abandon electoral reform if his party won a parliamentary majority. The Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec won a parliamentary majority in 2018, and Premier Francois Legault pledged in his Opening Speech that his government will by October 2019 introduce a bill to switch Quebec’s electoral system to MMPR for the next scheduled provincial election in 2022.
Legault has kept this promise in a clever way after facing pressure from within the parliamentary party to abandon the policy. In September 2019, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, Electoral Reform, and Access to Information, Sonia LeBel, tabled a bill to switch Quebec to MMPR. However, Bill 39, would not enter into force upon Royal Assent; instead, it will enter into force and switch Quebec to MMPR by Order-in-Council if and only if a majority of Quebeckers support MMPR in a referendum which will be held in conjunction with the next provincial general election in 2022. Under Quebec’s MMPR, the National Assembly would remain fixed at 125 seats, with 80 single-member districts and 45 party-list compensatory seats, called “regional seats” and drawn from 17 regions. Parties would need to meet a minimum threshold of 10% in order to win any representation from the compensatory seats, and this system would exclude any overhang or levelling seats altogether. I suspect that the biggest fanatics behind proportional representation in Canada will not like Quebec’s model of MMPR because of its very small district magnitude and very high threshold of 10%, and because it rejects the possibility of overhang seats and levelling seats. In other words, it’s not a very proportional form of proportional representation.
The Charest government considered a form of MMPR in Quebec very similar to what the Legault government has now endorsed, where National Assembly would contain a fixed number of 127 seats, 77 from single-member districts and 50 drawn from party lists. But instead of treating the Province of Quebec as a whole as one at-large district for the party-list seats, as Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly did for that province, the 50 party-list seats would fall under a series of 24 to 27 super-districts.
Ontario held its referendum on switching to MMPR only in principle (based on a report issued by the Citizens’ Assembly and without a piece of legislation outlining precisely how it would work) concurrently with its general election in 2007. But Quebeckers, uniquely amongst Canadians in other provinces who have voted in electoral reform referendums, will vote on a complete and detailed legislative framework for MMPR and know all the details of the system instead of merely voting on a vague idea and general principle. Furthermore – and perhaps most importantly – section 227 of Bill 39 specifies that this referendum on switching to MMPR will require only a simple majority, and not the comically complicated super-majorities of 60% of the total popular vote plus at least a simple majority of support within at least 60% of the existing electoral districts that British Columbia required for switching to STV in 2005 and 2009 and which Ontario mandated for switching to MMPR in 2007.
Sous réserve du premier alinéa, la présente loi entre en vigueur uniquement si, au terme d’un référendum devant être tenu le même jour que le scrutin de la première élection générale qui suit le (indiquer ici la date de la sanction de la présente loi), la majorité des votes déclarés valides, soit 50 % de ces votes plus un vote, est en faveur du nouveau mode de scrutin prévu par la présente loi.Le texte de la question soumise au référendum est le suivant :
« Êtes-vous en accord avec le remplacement du mode de scrutin majoritaire uninominal à un tour par le mode de scrutin mixte avec compensation régionale prévu par la Loi établissant un nouveau mode de scrutin?
Oui / Non ».
The Government and Legislature of Quebec would never endorse a referendum requiring that the “yes” side meet a super-majority threshold, if you see what I mean. That would set a bad precedent for potential future referendums on a different question. Ah-hem. But in a departure from Quebec’s recent history with other referendums, the National Assembly has also this time offered a clear and simple question, rendered in the following in the English-language version of the bill:
“Do you agree with replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system by the mixed electoral system with regional compensation set out in the Act to establish a new electoral system?
If Quebeckers vote in favour of MMPR, it would take effect in the general election scheduled for 2026. A provincial legislature alone can undoubtedly alter the province’s electoral system under the Section 45 Amending Procedure. Citizens’ assemblies and referendums merely provide political cover, and governments can decide whether to employ them or not; they do not amount to legal-constitutional requirements. If a provincial government truly believes in switching from a majoritarian to a proportional electoral system, then Cabinet should likewise take responsibility for implementing it fully instead of using citizens’ assemblies and referendums as intermediaries. In the current National Assembly, three of the four parties (the governing nationalist-autonomist CAQ, the confused and near-defunct Parti Quebecois, and the socialist-secessionist Quebec solidaire) support electoral reform; only the Liberals, the Official Opposition, support SMP.
But the Legault government’s new approach should at least still force cabinet ministers to support and campaign for their own bill during the referendum and provides voters with a clear option on a clear question. No one can lambast the proposed electoral reform as vague. In contrast, the McGuinty government in Ontario in 2007 showed at best benign disinterest and at worst outright hostility to the more radical form of MMPR that the Citizens’ Assembly had proposed. And why not? After all, the Citizens’ Assembly ensured that Ministers of the Crown were not responsible for the policy. As much I would prefer to retain a majoritarian electoral system, I also want governments to defend and justify their own policies instead of laundering their responsibility through Citizens’ Assemblies. Before the Legault government had tabled its bill, the only two precedents in Canada for switching electoral systems were that the provincial legislature passed a government bill into law to change the electoral system or that governments would cynically study electoral reform to death in committee or offshore responsibility onto a Citizens’ Assembly and then hold a referendum with an absurdly high threshold on what the Citizens’ Assembly recommended. These super-majority thresholds make a mockery of referendums by manipulating the odds in favour of the status quo; if the people are to decide on a binary, yes-no question (where, by definition, a plurality is impossible), then a simple majority should suffice. British Columbia should have switched to STV back in 2005 given that 57.69% of British Columbians voted in favour of the policy in that referendum. In any other context, 57.69% would be seen for what it is: a massive majority.
Bill 39 currently languishes in the Report Stage in the National Assembly, and the Coronavirus has certainly rendered it a non-priority for the time being. But it will probably still pass Third Reading and receive Royal Assent at some point before the next provincial general election currently scheduled for October 2022. I suspect that if the Legault government commits to MMPR and strongly campaigns in its favour in 2022, this will increase the chances that the measure will pass, especially since it only requires a simple majority.
I look forward to watching Quebeckers vote in a referendum with a clear question and not pertaining to secession!
- Policy Options and Electoral Reform in Quebec
- The Legault Government Might Actually Implement Mixed-Member Proportional Representation in Quebec
- Electoral Reform
 Guillaume Bourgault-Côté, “Réforme du mode de scrutin: ‘On ne fera pas comme Justin Trudeau,’ jure Legault,” Le Devoir, 10 September 2018 [accessed 25 February 2019]. < https://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/536418/reforme-du-mode-de-scrutin-on-ne-fera-pas-comme-justin-trudeau-jure-legault>
 National Assembly of Quebec, 42nd Legislature, 3rd Session, Bill 39, An Act to establish a new electoral system (Quebec City: Official Printer of Quebec, 2019), 2-4.
 Quebec, “Briller parmi les meilleurs: Pour que chaque vote compte – la proportionnelle mixte,” (Gouvernement du Quebec, 2004), 1-2. <http://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/bs36849?fbclid=IwAR1uH6wKoE1BLLQKsXwzymA9fbfundBI2x1RGuPpDRFkf7_m_w0Quq6ecdo>