Liberal fears of proportional representation and a referendum killed Trudeau's reform promise

Fear of both proportional representation, including the possible emergence of fringe or even alt-right parties, and a potentially divisive national referendum led Justin Trudeau's government to abandon his promise of electoral reform, according to a senior Liberal source.

Senior party source explains government’s decision to scrap important campaign pledge

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abandoned his campaign promise to replace the first-past-the-post voting system. A senior Liberal source shared some of the decision-making details with CBC News. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Fear of both proportional representation, including the possible emergence of fringe or even alt-right parties, and a potentially divisive national referendum led Justin Trudeau's government to abandon his promise of electoral reform, according to a senior Liberal source.

In the lead-up to the 2015 election, Trudeau pledged that a Liberal government would ensure a new electoral system was in place for the next federal vote.

The Liberals regularly repeated that promise through their first 15 months in office, but on Wednesday the government announced electoral reform was no longer a priority.

'Wrong system'

In question period, Trudeau acknowledged his long-standing personal support for a preferential ballot — which allows voters to rank candidates — but the prime minister "was open to having his mind changed," says a senior Liberal, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But the more he thought about proportional representation, the more he thought it was exactly the wrong system for a big, regionally and culturally diverse country."

In the House, Trudeau said reform might produce "an augmentation of extremist voices in the House," a potential result that is sometimes associated with proportional representation.

The Liberal cabinet is said to have been overwhelmingly opposed to proportional representation, which aims to allot seats in the legislature in proportion to the national popular vote. Ministers, the source says, believed Canada was better served with broader "big tent" parties.

The source added the ministers were concerned that proportional representation could open the door to smaller regional or fringe parties in the House of Commons, including the alt-right, a loosely defined political movement that includes white nationalists and white supremacists.

The spectre of such a party holding the balance of power in Parliament is said to have been raised.

'Deep division' 

Cabinet also decided, while meeting in Calgary last month, that it would be irresponsible to hold a referendum.

The Liberals had not previously ruled out the possibility, but during an appearance in July before the special committee on electoral reform, Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef said referendums "can and have often led to deep divisions within Canadian and other societies, divisions which have not been easily healed."

In question period on Thursday, Trudeau similarly referred to a potential referendum as "divisive." 

The senior Liberal notes that in establishing a vote threshold for the implementation of reform, the government could have also set a precedent for future referendums.

An electoral-reform referendum that needed only a simple majority to be accepted could, for instance, be cited to justify a similar threshold in any future referendum on Quebec sovereignty, something that would undermine the Liberal position that separation shouldn't be so simple.

The Liberals were concerned that by establishing a vote threshold for the implementation of electoral reform, the government could have also set a precedent for future referendums — including on Quebec sovereignty. (Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)

All previous national votes on specific issues — prohibition in 1898, conscription in 1942 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 — have divided along provincial lines.

Beyond the government's lament that no "consensus" on the issue of electoral reform had been achieved, the prime minister's comments in the House suggested a concern about the risk of moving forward.

"It would be irresponsible for us to do something that harms Canada's stability," Trudeau said Wednesday.

"The fact of the matter is that I am not going to do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform," he later added. "That is not the kind of prime minister I will be."

During question period on Friday, NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen responded to Liberal concerns about fringe or alt-right parties. 

"In their desperate attempt to justify their betrayal on electoral reform, Liberals are reaching for any excuse, however ridiculous or absurd," Cullen said.

"Donald Trump got elected on first-past-the-post with no problem. A fair voting system is the actual antidote to such campaigns like his.... Proportional representation elects more women, more diverse parliaments and forces parties to work together and bring a country like Canada together."

Cullen alleged that the Liberals abandoned electoral reform "not because it was a threat to Canadian unity, but because it was a threat to the Liberal party."