Analysis

Trudeau says government's popularity has dampened public's desire for electoral reform

One year after his party's resounding election victory, Justin Trudeau finds himself in a bind. Yes, the Liberals promised the 2015 vote would be the last campaign conducted under the first-past-the-post system. But his government has also since said it won't proceed with electoral reform unless there is broad public support.

Prime minister criticized for suggesting electorate might not be clamouring for change he promised

Justin Trudeau promised he would introduce legislation for electoral reform within 18 months of forming a government, based on the recommendations of an all-party parliamentary committee. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

One year after his party's resounding election victory, Justin Trudeau finds himself in a terrible bind: his government is so beloved that it might not, in good conscience, be able to fulfil one of its campaign commitments.

Yes, the Liberal government did promise the federal election in 2015 would be the last such campaign conducted under the first-past-the-post system. 

But his government has also since said it won't proceed with electoral reform unless there is broad public support for doing so.

And, the prime minister suggested in an interview this week with Le Devoir, the government's delivery of satisfactory governance might be diminishing the public's desire for change.

"Under Mr. Harper, there were so many people dissatisfied with the government and its approach that they were saying, 'We need an electoral reform so that we can no longer have a government we don't like,'" Trudeau explained. 

"However, under the current system, they now have a government they are more satisfied with. And the motivation to want to change the electoral system is less urgent."

So perhaps the best way for the Liberal government to effect electoral reform is to stop being so popular. Maybe prorogue Parliament a couple times. Or appoint Donald Trump to fill one of Prince Edward Island's Senate seats.

But the prime minister's musing is a reminder that the government has cleared a foreseeable path to another election being conducted under first-past-the-post.

Awkward promise on esoteric topic

On the esoteric topic of electoral reform, the Liberal commitment was, from the outset, equally bold and awkward: a vow that first-past-the-post would be replaced, but without specifying what would replace it.

And to that the Liberals added a certain reluctance to consider calling a referendum to settle the question (as has been done to try to resolve such debates in other Canadian jurisdictions, though the reforms were never adopted).

The Liberals noted that a majority of Canadians voted in 2015 for candidates whose parties were committed to electoral reform, but they also came to insist they wouldn't move forward without "broad" support from the public.

That has the virtue of seeming basically reasonable, but it also allows one to imagine how this might end without a fundamental change to the system.

But to the prime minister's suggestion that electoral reform is something other than wildly popular and inevitable, there was consternation from reform-minded New Democrats.

Ed Broadbent, the exalted elder statesman, unleashed a 21-part Twitter essay to remind the prime minister of his commitment and the principled arguments for change.

NDP critic Nathan Cullen warned that if the Liberals "think they're so incredibly popular that people will forgive them any broken promise, they are sadly mistaken."

Leader Tom Mulcair took the matter to question period. "Instead of inventing excuses and backing away from his solemn promise to Canadians," Mulcair said, "will he work with us in good faith to deliver the fair, proportional electoral system the voters deserve?"

Trudeau was apparently ready for this.

"Mr. Speaker," he said, shrugging slightly, "in the spring, the member opposite was tremendously worried that we would use our majority to ram through changes to Canada's electoral system."

The prime minister became animated as he got to the punch line. "Now he's changed his mind and he wants us to use our majority to ram through electoral change," he said, turning to face Mulcair. "Mr. Speaker, saying one thing and then doing the opposite was exactly what landed that member in that seat in this House."

Trudeau, in a suit and vest, put his left hand to his jacket as he returned to his seat, this outburst only lacking a "good day, sir!" as he finished.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair battle it out over the future of electoral reform during question period 1:13

Can consensus be created?

When Maryam Monsef, the minister for democratic institutions, stopped in Gatineau, Que., last month during her national consultation, she reported that she had not, until then, heard a consensus about the way forward.

And the available data does suggest something less than universal public agreement.

An Ekos poll in December found 41 per cent of respondents preferred some form of proportional representation as their first choice, while first-past-the-post and preferential voting were each the first choice of 25 per cent.

An Abacus Data poll conducted for the Broadbent Institute that same month found 42 per cent of respondents wanted complete or major change to the electoral system, but 58 per cent wanted little or no change.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef says she hasn't heard a consensus about the way forward on electoral reform. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Underneath that is a question of public interest.

Only 12 per cent told Abacus they were extremely concerned about electoral reform. In August, Ipsos Reid reported that just 19 per cent of respondents were aware the government had begun consultations on changing the electoral system.

That much suggests the Liberals might not lose too many votes in walking away. 

Of course, reform might somehow still come together.

The committee might, for instance, arrive at a consensus on a new model, or at least multi-party agreement. But then what? Could broad public support be rallied? By who? And what qualifies as "broad"? 

A year ago, electoral reform was a point of principle for the prime minister. Could he abandon as much without seeming cynical or disingenuous?

It might be a relatively small number of voters whose vote in 2019 will depend on the outcome of electoral reform. Listening to the public might even be a virtue. But some might be concerned by a prime minister whose promises are subject to change.

Trudeau walked into this quagmire of electoral reform willingly. And so now he might at least be expected to make a good effort at struggling with it.

The government's popularity could conceivably help it sell reform. But if this all ends badly, the prime minister might at least get credit for stoking the sort of disenchantment that can drive voters to desire change.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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