Electoral reform: Window of opportunity opens to revive our democracy

Canadians should pressure their MPs to vote in favour of reviving electoral reform, the prime minister's sidelined 'cornerstone campaign promise,' say two Winnipeg-based community organizers.

MPs to vote May 31 on whether to support all-party committee report on electoral reform

Justin Trudeau pledged to usher in a new electoral system in time for the next election, guaranteeing that the 2015 vote would be the last conducted under the first-past-the-post system. That plan to change the way members of Parliament are elected was abandoned last February. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It's easy to chastise governments for broken promises — and voters these days are used to a few of them emerging after every election.

For many voters across Canada, a promise to change our voting system figured prominently during the 2015 federal election, with the prime minister infamously declaring that the first-past-the-post system was dead.

Now, two years into his mandate, electoral reform seems to be abandoned at the roadside.

Is the promise of a more equitable, fairer and more proportional method of electing our government truly dead? Does the chance to change our politics for the better disappear with an announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons?

You might be surprised to learn that in less than a month, our MPs will vote to decide whether to move forward on electoral reform, or leave it in the dust.

Acting on this cornerstone campaign promise, Trudeau established a House of Commons special committee on electoral reform (ERRE) — composed of MPs from all five parties — tasked with assessing the options for reform.

While the new mandate letter given to Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould in February falsely states otherwise, the report actually found an appetite amongst Canadians for a change to our electoral system.

Last December, the committee released a 333-page report, titled Strengthening Democracy in Canada: Principles, Process and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform, which illustrates clear consensus among experts that our system should be more proportional, consensus among Canadians on the need for more government co-operation across party lines, and consensus among parties on a process for changing the system.

NDP Democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen has been holding town-hall meetings in Liberal ridings across the country in an effort to resurrect electoral reform. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On May 31, the ERRE all-party committee's report on democratic reform will be brought to a vote in the House of Commons, to determine whether the issue will be carried forward or abandoned as Trudeau has indicated is his preference.

As the prime minister is fond of saying, it is the responsibility of our MPs to "be the voice of our communities in Ottawa." With over 80 per cent of the Liberal caucus consisting of newly elected MPs, one would hope that they will take the time to engage their communities ahead of this pivotal vote.

MPs should not let campaign promise go

While Trudeau was able to pull a 180 on the promise to change our electoral system, that doesn't mean that we should allow our MPs to do the same. Many Liberal MPs adopted and were elected on this promise as well. And MPs across party lines are feeling the pressure to carry through on this monumental promise in the upcoming vote.

Individual MPs have made their stance on democratic reform clear, from Skeena NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who is holding consultations and town halls across the country on the topic, to Winnipeg Centre Liberal MP Robert Falcon Ouellette, who sent out a newsletter to constituents promoting electoral reform the same week in February as Trudeau's announcement.

Another Liberal MP wrote an article publicly apologizing to his constituents for the broken promise. It is clear that interest in the topic is not dying as the government moves to advance its agenda.

Defying the voting patterns of cabinet is often seen as an act of defiance, but has been increasingly common under the Trudeau government as MPs have felt the confidence to express their views and those of their communities. We've seen this precedent in other matters, such as the recent vote on legislation aimed at preventing discrimination with genetic testing, when Liberal backbenchers defied cabinet's instructions and passed the bill with no substantive changes.

Ending need for strategic voting

Many voters chose the Liberals because of their support for electoral reform, recognizing that their vote could better reflect their beliefs down the line. Some even voted strategically to remove Conservative MPs with the hopes that a new government would introduce a new electoral system that would eliminate the need for strategic voting next time around.

All Canadians deserve the opportunity to vote for the policies and visions that appeal to them with the expectation that their choice will be represented on the floor of the House. The vote to reopen the electoral reform debate at the end of May can bring us one step closer to a better form of representative democracy.  All of our MPs, particularly Liberals who adopted this promise, need to listen to the wishes of their constituents and remember that acting on electoral reform is part of their mandate.

That's why Leadnow is reaching out to people across the country ahead of this crucial vote on May 31. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change our system for the better. The next two weeks present a critical window of opportunity for all of us to remind our MPs that they were elected to fulfil their election promises, even if their leader chooses not to stand by those commitments. 

Drop by your MP's office or give them a call, write a letter and tell a friend to do the same. But most of all, remind them that when the 2019 election comes around, you'll remember how they voted in the House of Commons on May 31, 2017.

About the authors

Joseph Wasylycia-Leis is a long-time community organizer passionate about public engagement and social change. He currently works as the campus sustainability co-ordinator at the University of Winnipeg and has been a community organizer with the independent advocacy organization Leadnow since the 2015 federal election. He has previously worked with the Manitoba NDP. 

Laura Cameron is a graduate student in the master's of Indigenous governance program at the University of Winnipeg. Her academic work looks at Indigenous governance in the context of climate change impact and adaptation across the Prairies. Her volunteer work includes being an organizer with Leadnow on a national campaign for electoral reform.


Laura Cameron is a community organizer with the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition and an MA candidate at the University of Winnipeg.


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