How Trudeau lost his way on electoral reform

Nearly five months after his government decided to abandon any thought it had of pursuing electoral reform, Justin Trudeau was asked on Tuesday whether he felt badly about that.

The prime minister missed his opportunity to push for the ranked ballot he preferred

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks about his views on electoral reform at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

In an alternate universe, Justin Trudeau wasn't standing before the cameras on Tuesday, trying again to explain why he had walked away from a campaign commitment to pursue electoral reform.

Because during June 2015 in that alternate universe, Trudeau had stood before the cameras and vowed that a Liberal government would implement a ranked ballot for electing MPs.

Alas, in reality, Trudeau made an open-ended commitment to reform and vowed it would be in place for 2019. A committee was struck to study the issue, dozens of town hall forums were convened, an online survey was conducted and postcards were mailed to millions of households inviting Canadians to participate. 

Only then did Trudeau's government walk away. But only then did Trudeau publicly confront the actual possibilities for reform.

And, as it turns out, his preference for a ranked ballot and his opposition to proportional representation, first stated in 2012, were left standing.

Trudeau's choice

Tuesday was not the first time Trudeau had tried to account for that decision — there was an eight-minute explanation in Yellowknife in February and some pointed comments about Kellie Leitch in Iqaluit.

And his comments this time, as on those previous occasions, were directly stated.

"Unfortunately, it became very clear that we had a preference to give people a ranked ballot, so they could actually reduce the aspect of strategic voting and put their second choice and third choice down on the ballot, and therefore have every MP be at least the choice of 50 per cent of their riding," the prime minister said on Tuesday.

"We thought that was the right, concrete way forward. Nobody else agreed."

Indeed. Advocates of proportional representation oppose a ranked ballot because it does not inherently result in a party receiving an allotment of seats in the legislature that is proportional to its share of the popular vote.

Perhaps even more crucially, it is believed that a ranked ballot could benefit the Liberal Party, as a conceivably second-choice for NDP and Conservative votes — the NDP-aligned Broadbent Institute effectively poisoned the chalice in December 2015 when it released an analysis suggesting the Liberals would have won 217 seats had that year's election been conducted under a ranked ballot.

"The NDP were anchored in proportional representation as being the only way forward, and I have been consistent and crystal clear from the beginning of my political career — you can look at the speeches I made here in Ottawa at the convention in 2012 or debates I had onstage, particularly in Halifax during the Liberal leadership — where I think proportional representation would be bad for our country," Trudeau said. 

"I think it would weaken one of the great things about Canada, which is that we come together in our diversity to work together on big things. And I think creating fragmentation amongst political parties, as opposed to having larger political parties that include Canada's diversity within them, would weaken our country."

These are not unreasonable concerns. And Trudeau does have a record, through 2012 and 2013, of espousing the benefits of a ranked ballot and questioning the ramifications of proportional representation.

"The problem with proportional representation is every different model of proportional representation actually increases partisanship, not reduces it," he said in 2013. "What we need is a preferential ballot that causes politicians to have to reach out to be the second choice and even the third choice of different political parties.

Trudeau says stability of Canada outweighs electoral reform

7 years ago
Duration 1:12
Trudeau spoke during a town hall in Yellowknife today

"We need people who represent broader voices, not narrower interests. And I understand people want proportional representation, but too many people don't understand the polarization and the micro issues that come through proportional representation."

Trudeau wavers

Things might have started to go sideways in 2014, when the Liberal Party adopted a resolution that called for a study of reform, with both a ranked ballot and proportional presentation as options. That same year, Liberal MPs split over a vote in the House of Commons on one form of proportional representation.

When it came time for Trudeau to promise change in June 2015, both a ranked ballot and proportional representation were explicitly mentioned as options.

As of December 2015, Trudeau felt it was important that he not impose his personal view on the debate.

In June 2016, he said he had moved "toward a greater degree of openness towards what Canadians actually want."

And, after abandoning the promise of reform, Trudeau is said to have been "open to having his mind changed."

But, in the end, Trudeau of 2017 sounds a lot like the Justin Trudeau of 2013.

What was missing was Trudeau's opinion

After Trudeau expressed his opinion on Tuesday, there was outrage.

"I thought this prime minister wasn't about top-down dictatorship," fumed Green Leader Elizabeth May. "On other issues, the prime minister defers to his cabinet members, but it's clear that on electoral reform, this was his personal preference without regard for the evidence."

That evidence might be debated. But, in hindsight, Trudeau's opinion is what was missing.

Maybe he was open to being convinced. Probably he should have said something, regardless.

In December 2015, his opinion might have framed an actual debate about electoral reform, instead of the meandering, shapeless discussion that ensued.

In June 2015, his opinion might have framed a campaign promise that otherwise seemed perfectly wide open.

The cynic — or proportional representation advocate — might wonder whether the promise was always less than it seemed, whether it was conjured up to pull support away from the NDP. 

Though it is difficult to imagine an election turning on electoral reform — be it in 2015 or 2019 — it's at least true that, going forward, electoral reform will loom as evidence of failure and disappointment.

At best, it was an odd adventure. 

Ultimately, Trudeau probably would have been better off sticking with his first instinct about electoral reform. 


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

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.