Trudeau might have moved on, but some still dream of electoral reform

The Liberal promise of electoral reform died with a whimper on Wednesday. But a possible referendum in B.C. could reanimate the federal debate.

B.C. and London, Ont., offer hope for reformers

The deal between BC NDP leader John Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver could mean a referendum on proportional representation in British Columbia next year. (CBC)

The Liberal promise of electoral reform went out with a whimper on Wednesday afternoon.

New Democrats had moved for a vote on the final report of the special committee on electoral reform, which was tabled in December. That report had recommended, with some qualifiers, that a referendum be held on abandoning the current first-past-the-post system in favour of some unspecified form of proportional representation.

On Wednesday, 159 Liberal MPs voted against it.

As we know, the Liberal government announced in February that it would not be moving ahead to fulfill a campaign commitment to change the electoral system. And even if they did suddenly become interested again in doing something, they might be hard-pressed to do so in time for the 2019 election.

When the vote was called on Wednesday afternoon, just two Liberals broke with their party to endorse the committee's report: Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a frequent dissenter who is an advocate for reform, and Sean Casey, who later said he wanted to represent those Prince Edward Islanders who supported proportional representation in the province's recent plebiscite

Except insofar as New Democrats and Greens might remind Liberals of their broken promise, the reform debate at the federal level thus seems closed. At least until sometime after 2019.

But the recurring dream of electoral reform — the subject of committee hearings and royal commissions since at least 1921 — refuses to die.

Look to London and B.C.

In May, city councillors in London, Ont., voted to make it the first municipality in Ontario to adopt a ranked ballot for elections, taking advantage of a provincial law that was passed in 2016.

One reform advocate suggested the Forest City could be the first domino to fall. It is conceivable that if the system proves popular and effective in London, other cities could follow. 

Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the New Democrats and Greens have emerged with a plan to hold a provincial referendum on proportional representation in the fall of 2018.

It would be the province's third vote on electoral reform, after referendums in 2005 and 2009. A poll last month found 54 per cent in favour of moving to some form of proportional representation. And if New Democrats and Greens were campaigning in favour of change, reform would presumably have at least a puncher's chance.

What B.C. might mean

If you are keen to see a new electoral system adopted federally, it might in fact make sense to start with British Columbia anyway.

A national referendum was always going to be fraught. The threshold for implementing reform would have been debated. The vote might have broken awkwardly along provincial or regional lines. It might have invited a national unity crisis.

Meanwhile, proceeding without a referendum might have poisoned the entire effort, tainting the reform as undemocratic. 

But if British Columbians vote for reform in 2018, the province could boost the cause and provide a useful example of proportional representation in action.

If British Columbians vote against proportional representation in 2018, it might be harder to blame Justin Trudeau for deciding likewise. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When the Liberals walked away from their commitment, the decision was linked to concerns about the ramifications of PR — namely, the possible rise of fringe and extremist parties that could benefit from a system that makes it easier for smaller parties to gain representation.

PR advocates tend to dismiss such concerns, but the possible implications of reform will always be at the forefront of any debate.

"Do you think that Kellie Leitch should have her own party?" Trudeau asked during a public appearance in Iqaluit in February. "Because if you have a party that represents the fringe voices … or the periphery of our perspectives and they hold 10, 15, 20 seats in the House, they end up holding the balance of power."

Those concerns might be heightened when the issue is national reform in a large, regionally diverse country. But B.C. could still provide an experiment in proportional representation, demonstrating how reform might impact elections, government formation and public policy.

If all goes well, other provinces might be inspired to follow suit.

But, of course, it could work both ways.

If British Columbians vote against proportional representation in 2018, it might be harder to blame Trudeau for deciding likewise.

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. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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