Opinion

Say goodbye to electoral reform — a promise that was born sickly: Robyn Urback

We shouldn’t think of this as a loss, but rather as the peaceful passing of something that was never intended to survive.

Think of this as the peaceful passing of something that was never intended to survive

Did the Liberals care what type of electoral reform they got? No, they said, just as long as it was healthy. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Today, we say goodbye to one of the Liberals' most important 2015 campaign promises: electoral reform. 

Born sickly, the pledge to see to a new voting system in time for the next federal election was nevertheless welcomed by many Canadians who had grown tired of seeing majority governments won with 39 per cent of the vote. The Liberals' announcement that "2015 would be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post system," brought with it hope for a better future and a more representative government for Canadians. 

To many, it seemed obvious the Liberals' promise of electoral reform never had a chance. (The Canadian Press)

Did the Liberals care what type of electoral reform they got? No, they said, just as long as it was healthy.

Yet it was obvious the Liberals did in fact have a preference: for a ranked balloting system, which would, most likely, be the voting system resulting in more members of their party populating the House of Commons. But they didn't say that out loud, of course. Whatever Canadians wanted would be fine by them.

Signs of trouble

But there were early signs that the promise was unwell. Under the guardianship of Maryam Monsef — a new minister who, it is clear now, didn't have the experience necessary to manage such a complicated and problematic file — the Liberals hosted a series of town hall meetings to discuss the fate of electoral reform. But, as it turned out, many Canadians just weren't interested in spending their summer listening to policy wonks drone on about the meaning of "democracy." Best wishes, though.

Electoral reform did take its first tentative steps late last year when a special committee issued its report on the file, which recommended a referendum pitting first-past-the-post against a proportional representation system. That wasn't exactly what the Liberals were hoping for, though, so Monsef — either by her own volition, or on a directive from the Prime Minister's Office — took a swipe at the committee, accusing its members of not following the guidelines she set out for its report (in fact, they followed the guidelines exactly).

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould says that her new mandate letter does not include pursuing a change to Canada's first-past-the-post system 1:13

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. 

The Liberals, after all, had given themselves less than four years to completely upend the way Canadians elect their governments. The promise was too vague at the outset, too. The Liberals said they would replace first-past-the-post with something, but never said what that something would be, or how they would determine what that something should be.

The Liberals also promised to move ahead only when they had achieved "broad consensus" from Canadians, but never defined what would constitute "broad consensus." At the same time, it was clear there would never be unanimity among parties in the House: the Greens and NDP wanted proportional voting, the Liberals wanted ranked ballots and the Tories were happy with the status quo. 

R.I.P. 

Those preferences explain the marked differences in the reactions to electoral reform's death Wednesday afternoon. The Conservatives didn't quite dance on its grave, but there were evidently a few toes wiggling under the benches in the House of Commons. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was livid — a sentiment shared by members of the NDP — and poor Justin Trudeau, clearly still confused and distraught, blamed electoral reform's death on it "not being good for Canadians," and it being "divisive" and on not wanting an "augmentation of extremist voices in this House."

He'll come around, as we all should. Indeed, we shouldn't think of this as a loss, per se, but rather as the peaceful passing of something that was never intended to survive. May electoral reform live on forever in our memories. 

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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