Analysis

Time for Liberals to decide if they're serious about electoral reform: Aaron Wherry

For now, the government is committed to going through the motions to try to reform the voting system, including another round of public outreach. But are the Liberals really committed to doing what it takes to keep their campaign promise?

Trudeau government has options, but is it still determined to keep campaign promise?

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef holds up a printout of the Gallagher Index, a mathematical formula for assessing the representative quality of electoral systems. She mocked the electoral reform committee's use of the index in its report.

On June 16, 2015, as he announced a broad agenda for political reform, Justin Trudeau declared that his Liberals were "committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post."

Standing behind him were a few dozen Liberal candidates who applauded in agreement, including Maryam Monsef, prominently positioned to Trudeau's right and smiling, no doubt blissfully unaware of what that commitment would mean for her.

A year and a half later, the four Liberal MPs assigned by Trudeau to participate in a study of electoral reform declared it would be a bad idea to keep the prime minister's promise.

The alternative — as proposed by the other members of the committee — is to proceed forthwith to organize a potentially treacherous referendum.

In response to that, Monsef stood in the House of Commons on Thursday and denounced the committee as a failure — notably choosing to mock the committee's decision to refer to a mathematical formula, the Gallagher Index, for assessing the representative quality of electoral systems.

During question period in the House of Commons Thursday. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef accuses the Opposition of not doing its job on the electoral reform committee. 2:31

And for that she was condemned by the Conservatives, New Democrats, the Bloc Québécois and Green Leader Elizabeth May and publicly challenged by a Liberal MP's husband who didn't appreciate the suggestion his wife's time away from her family had been wasted.

Did Trudeau imagine a new electoral system would be easily adopted? Had he thought much at all about the how?

That is perhaps for the history books. 

For now, if one is still willing to hold out any hope for change during this prime minister's time in office, the relevant question remains this: How much does Justin Trudeau want to reform the electoral system?

Committee agreed and disagreed

The 348-page committee report is, in the words of NDP reform critic Nathan Cullen, "a historic document, the most comprehensive ... study of Canadian democracy in Canada's history." 

And maybe someday someone might make some use of it.

There is at least a little something for everyone.

The majority report recommends the referendum the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois had demanded.

It also says any alternative electoral system should achieve the result of proportional representation, as the New Democrats and Greens prefer.

The electoral reform committee wants the Trudeau government to design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge how much Canadians would support it. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

And if you aren't entirely convinced of either of those concepts, there is the supplemental report of the Liberal MPs, which quibbles generally with everything.

"We contend that the recommendations posed in the majority report regarding alternative electoral systems are rushed, and are too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged," the Liberals write.

"Our position is that the timeline on electoral reform as proposed in the [majority report] is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline."

If only those same Liberal MPs hadn't run on a platform that expressly specified a predetermined deadline for reform.

The opposition parties have nearly cornered the government with a proposal to meet the prime minister's target. In response, Monsef complained that the committee hadn't landed on a specific alternative system. To which Cullen suggested the Liberal members could have joined the New Democrats and Greens in proposing alternatives.

The question of a referendum

The Liberal committee members concluded Canadians are not yet sufficiently engaged with the topic of electoral reform, which could perhaps be read as an indictment of the committee's own efforts, not to mention those of the prime minister and his government.

But it's plausible that Canadians will remain unengaged unless or until there is both a specific proposal for change and the imminent possibility of that change being implemented — something, for instance, like a referendum.

Unfortunately, the Liberals aren't so sure about that option, either.

There are many reasons to question the efficacy of a referendum for deciding major issues of public policy, but it's difficult to make those arguments without seeming to oppose democracy itself.

There are though real reasons to hesitate before plunging a large, regionally diverse federation into a national referendum. 

When prohibition was put to a vote in 1898 and conscription in 1942, national majorities were in favour, but Quebec was opposed. Could Parliament implement electoral reform now if Quebec was an outlier again? What if Quebec was the only province that voted in favour? What if only Alberta was opposed? Or Alberta and Saskatchewan?

What would be the reaction elsewhere if a lone province (or two) scuttled reform?

The Liberals could still try to get something through Parliament without a referendum — an option the New Democrats and Greens seemed to leave open with a supplemental report that suggested a national vote wasn't necessarily necessary.

But doing so would invite Conservative fury and accusations of undemocratically imposing a new method of voting.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen says the Electoral Reform Committee found ways to compromise to help the Liberals keep a promise they may now not be interested in keeping. 1:40

Will the Liberals walk away?

The Liberals could also simply walk away. And they might get away with it without suffering great harm. At least so long as they don't seem insultingly cynical or brutish in doing so.

But a prime minister who stood in front of a chalkboard decorated with algebra and proudly explained quantum computing to reporters might want to question the sight of his minister in the House mocking the equation used by some academics to measure the results of electoral systems.

And Trudeau might want to worry that electoral reform could leave a promising minister with lasting political scars.

For now, the government is at least committed to going through the motions: it will soon launch another round of public outreach, this time involving postcards mailed to millions of homes and an online survey.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sounded passionate about electoral reform in the past, but there are signs that's changed. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Monsef has described first-past-the-post as "an antiquated system, designed to meet the realities of 19th century Canada." 

"We require an electoral system that provides a stronger link between the democratic will of Canadians and election results," she told the committee in July.

And Trudeau himself has sounded passionate about electoral reform in the past.

Does he believe enough in the cause to do whatever is necessary to get something done?

If he decides that he doesn't, there will be all the more reason to wonder why he made the promise.

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.