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"A referendum hasn't been done since 1992."

OTTAWA — A referendum on electoral reform would cost taxpayers an additional $300 million, Canada's chief electoral officer said Thursday.

Marc Mayrand told the special committee on electoral reform that Elections Canada needs a minimum of six months — under the current Referendum Act — to plan for a vote.

"We've started to develop contingency plans, trying to identify what needs to be done. A referendum hasn't been done since 1992," he said.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill on Thursday July 7, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The last time the federal election agency organized a referendum, it was for the Charlottetown Accord, which was rejected by a majority of Canadians.

When asked by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May how much a referendum might cost, Mayrand responded: "[By] our estimate, under the current Referendum Act, it would be about $300 million to run a referendum."

He later told MPs that a referendum could be done by mail "which would reduce costs considerably" but the current legislation doesn’t allow for it.

May is opposed to a referendum, but the Conservatives are pushing for one.

She told reporters the focus on holding such a vote is a "red herring" that is getting in the way of the committee’s work to live up to what the Liberals promised during the 2015 election — to get rid of the first-past-the-post system. "That is a promise I want to hold them to. That is a promise Canadians want."

"I think our electoral system needs to be accepted by our citizens if we want them to have confidence in it."

— Conservative MP Gérard Deltell

The Conservatives want to talk about a referendum, May added, only because they like the current first-past-the-post system. "It’s the only way they got 100 per cent of the power with 39 per cent of the votes," she said.

The Liberals also obtained a majority government last fall with 39.5 per cent of voter support.

Conservative democratic institutions critic Scott Reid said he is concerned that the Liberals will run out of time and won’t be able to consult Canadians directly on the choice of electoral system because of the campaign promise to have a new voting method by the 2019 election.

Reid said he thinks the $300 million price tag is also reasonable.

"If we are worried about the cost of democracy," he said, "we should suspend having any future elections.

"Clearly, our democracy is worth this amount."

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand speaks to Green Party Leader Elizabeth May on Parliament Hill. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The Tories asked Mayrand whether he thought a referendum is necessary before electoral changes are made. He said it is up to MPs to decide but that he thinks changes to the electoral system need "social acceptability."

"Our electoral system needs to be accepted by our citizens if we want them to have confidence in it," he told Conservative MP Gérard Deltell.

The Liberal government is unlikely, however, to call for a referendum on a new voting system. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he believes a referendum would only lead to maintaining the status quo.

Voters in British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island rejected changes to the voting system when they were asked in provincial referendums.

Monsef lays out case against referendum

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef told committee members Wednesday that the current first-past-the-past system is antiquated and that she feels that since 63 per cent of Canadians had voted for parties — the Grits, the NDP and the Greens — that championed electoral change during the last election campaign, the government has a mandate to change the system.

"Referenda do not easily lend themselves to effectively deciding complex issues," she told the committee. "They can [lead] and have often led to deep divisions within Canadian and other societies, divisions which have not been easily healed," she added, perhaps alluding to the United Kingdom's recent example with Brexit.

Monsef said she wants to ensure that Canadians who tend to vote in lower numbers in general elections, such as the young, those who rent homes rather than own, those without high school diplomas, new immigrants and single parents, are included in the government's consultations on electoral reform.

"My apprehension with a referendum is the possibility that it will provide an incomplete picture of what Canadians want," she told MPs.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday July 6, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The Conservatives suggested a consultation process of even 50,000 people could not replace one that involved millions of Canadians.

Citing his role as an "administrator of elections," Mayrand declined to weigh in on the issue.

"There are all sorts of ways of engaging Canadians. I believe that this committee will be tasked exactly with that and it’s up for them — they are the elected officials — to determine which is the best way to engage and reach out to Canadians," he said.

The Tories also asked former chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley whether he thought Canadians should be consulted through a referendum or whether parliamentary consultations, kitchen clubs and local town halls would be sufficient.

Ex-watchdog testifies

"It’s an election initially that is the [best] way, because we are a representative democracy," said Kingsley, who headed Elections Canada from 1990 to 2007.

"The introduction of a referendum was problematic, when we talked about it in 1992. We said it should only be used to settle constitutional questions because nobody wanted to see that implant itself in our system as a regular way of settling things."

Mayrand told reporters he doesn’t think the current referendum legislation needs to be updated for a referendum on a non-constitutional matter but that he needs sufficient time to plan for one. He expects to have some indication by December that the government will be calling one, he said. Then, he can prepare for a referendum in May or June and have the required time to plan for a vote with four days of advance pollings and special ballots and still have the two years Elections Canada needs to also plan for widespread changes to the voting system — if that is what is decided.

With previous files


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