“In betraying electoral reform, it’s not just that Trudeau has broken his promise. At an ethical level, he has broken the hope and promise of reform, of moving from the sick old politics to new, positive and healthy public democratic values. Canadians are ready for real democratic change.”
Discarding his long-held promise to change the way Canadians vote in federal elections, on February 1 in a mandate letter for newly appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, Justin Trudeau made clear that electoral reform — once top of mind for the Liberal government — is no longer on the agenda. Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate, & referendum.
While as a part of the Liberal Party of Canada’s policy platform, and a promise made during the 2015 election campaign, and repeated in the Speech from the Throne, Justin Trudeau vowed that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past- the-post voting system.” His promise to Canadians was that “within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.”
Further stressing upon the promise, the Liberal Party had a message that Justin Trudeau was different from the then Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper. To the Canadian voters, electoral reform promise was a powerful symbol of difference from Harper. Trudeau endorsing electoral reform was a historic promise.
Acceptance of proportional representation was a historic offer of Parliamentary co-operation. Prior to this, in Kingston, Ontario, on January 12, when a woman asked Trudeau if he believes that a proportional voting system — in which a party's share of seats in the House of Commons reflects its share of the popular vote — is best for Canada, Trudeau without directly repeating the promise said, on record from before I became prime minister suggesting that I think an option in which people can rank their choices is probably suitable for Canada, but I have showed consistently that I'm open to a broad range of perspectives and views, including yours.. ..And what we are doing is we are listening carefully to Canadians, we are looking at the recommendations of the committee and we are going to move forward on improving our electoral system in a way that is consistent with the priorities and values that Canadians express.
Trudeau further described electoral reform as complicated issue that people feel very strongly about on a number of different sides of the issue. Indeed in 2016, Trudeau started to send signals that he was going to renege on the promise. The first signs came in an October 19, 2016, interview in Le Devoir where Trudeau said that there was no need for electoral reform now that the Liberals defeated Stephen Harper. “Under the current system, they [Canadians] now have a government with which they are more satisfied. And the motivation to want to change the system is less compelling.”
It was at that moment it became clear to many that electoral reform wouldn’t survive. For others, though, it was obvious from the get-go that the Liberals' campaign promise was never actually supposed to grow up. No one should be surprised at this. Decidedly, the reality is in the numbers. Under the current system the Liberals recognize that they can gain a majority of 54% of the available seats even with only 39% of the popular vote.
Under proportional representation, the 184 seats they hold now would have dropped to only 133, and we'd have a minority government in Ottawa. Virtually, Canadians are very disappointed about the government dropping their electoral reform promise. They made their views known through the House of Commons special committee on electoral reform. This committee has heard from more than 150 expert witnesses. Canadians also participated in hundreds of electoral reform town halls at the invitation of their MPs. Fair Vote Canada has received feedback on approximately 70 per cent of the town halls. Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef complemented the town halls with her own “Engaged In Democracy” events. Meanwhile, Canadians initiated a slew of citizen-lead community dialogues in church basements, community centres and Tim Hortons across the country. In addition to all this, Academic research, expert testimony, citizen feedback and the consistent recommendations of previous commissions and studies in favour of proportional representation constitute a powerful case for change.
All the efforts made at the different levels gave the government a clear mandate to act and bring in a proportional representation voting system, one that ensures the results of the election reflect the popular vote. The message was resoundingly clear: only a system of proportional representation will fix the problems that citizens have identified with Canada’s antiquated voting system. Naturally, the about-face has provoked a passionate response from their political rivals. Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees, said that “the work of the Electoral Reform Committee was thorough and the Committee heard loud and clear from Canadians, and the vast majority of experts, that Canada should move to a proportional representation system. We are very disappointed about the government dropping their electoral reform promise. We were working on this in good faith, assuming the government meant what it said. Trust has been broken.”
The harshest criticism came from opposition parties, who denounced Trudeau. Following the announcement, NDP Critic Nathan Cullen said, “Mr. Trudeau promised to end our unfair and outdated voting system. He promised to be different and bring hope not cynicism. Well, he lied to millions of Canadians who put their faith in him.” 100000 Canadians have signed NDP’s petition demanding Trudeau keep his promise. That criticism is also coming from the inside. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who began championing electoral reform even before his party put it in its campaign platform, has expressed disappointment. “To all Canadians who support the promise of reform . I am deeply sorry,” he wrote in a piece published in the Huffington Post.
Canadians want fairer elections and Proportional Representation is the solution. In a way, there was already a referendum on electoral reform — the 2015 election. The Liberals, NDP and Green parties all promised to change the electoral system. And those three parties were supported by 63 per cent of voters.
In betraying electoral reform, it’s not just that Trudeau has broken his promise. At an ethical level, he has broken the hope and promise of reform, of moving from the sick old politics to new, positive and healthy public democratic values. Canadians are ready for real democratic change.
[Dr. P. R. Kalia, is Editor, Asian Times, Edmonton, Canada]