Opinion

We can still have electoral reform, as long as it's the Liberals' choice of electoral reform: Robyn Urback

The Liberals pledge openness but always with an asterisk. Everything is on the table except for the things the Liberals want off the table. So you can still have electoral reform, as long as it’s the Liberals’ preferred type of electoral reform.

If Trudeau hasn't made cynics out of his supporters yet, surely this one should do the trick

For the first time, Trudeau has basically admitted the party scrapped electoral reform — a central promise of its campaign in 2015 — because it looked like the Liberals' preferred system would be out of the running. (David Donnelly/CBC)

When Henry Ford unveiled his brand new Model T at the turn of the 20th century, he noted that "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black."

A reader reminded me of that quote after I took to Twitter to share what might be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first honest explanation of why he abandoned his promise last year to enact electoral reform. As it stands, the promise is still dead. Or to use the language of the Liberal mandate tracker, it is still "not being pursued."

But in an interview with CBC Radio's The House this week, Trudeau suggested he'd consider reviving the discussion if pushed by the other parties, and on one condition: "I will not move toward any form of proportional representation," he said, "but if people want to talk about a different system that might benefit Canadians, like a preferential ballot, I'd be open to that."

In other words, Canadians can have any type of electoral reform they want, so long as it is a ranked ballot system.

This is the first time Trudeau has essentially admitted the party scrapped what had been a central promise of its campaign — "within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform" — because it looked like the Liberals' preferred system would be out of the running.

Last December, an all-party committee studying electoral reform recommended holding a referendum on changing Canada's first-past-the-post system to a proportional representation system. The Liberals didn't much care for this suggestion, so they sent Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef out to accuse the committee of improperly following instructions, while bizarrely holding up a printout of a mathematical equation in the House of Commons, which I can only assume was some sort of weird diversionary tactic.

In any case, shortly thereafter, and following a cabinet shuffle, electoral reform was finally de—not being pursued.

Justin Trudeau answers audience questions on electoral reform during an interview with Chris Hall. 2:16

Trudeau has since offered a number of explanations as to why electoral reform went from an issue that was supposed to be of foremost importance to the functioning of our democracy to the Voldemort of campaign promises.

Initially, he claimed it was to prevent fringe voices, such as that of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, from gaining the balance of power in a proportional representation system. He also claimed that a referendum would be "divisive" (unlike elections, which are, uh, unifying?) and that the lack of consensus meant there was no way to move forward (even though a consensus was never established as a precondition to begin with).

Thus, the message — then, at least — was electoral reform was off the agenda for your own good, Canada.

But Trudeau's admission this week — that he would only entertain discussions of a ranked ballot system — confirms that electoral reform was off the agenda for the party's own good. Obviously.

This is not particularly out of character for a government that has pledged openness but always with an asterisk. Trudeau has promised open nominations … except when it comes to protecting incumbents. Open and transparent competitions to replace Canada's fighter jets … but excluding the F-35s (a position on which the Liberals have since softened). And open and free votes for MPs on matters of conscience … except abortion.

In other words, everything is on the table except for the things the Liberals want off the table. The choices are endless, among a few heavily vetted options. And you can still have electoral reform, as long as it's the Liberals' preferred type of electoral reform. If Trudeau hasn't made cynics out of his supporters yet, surely this one should do the trick.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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