Trudeau's promise of electoral reform: From 'we can do better' to accusations of betrayal

Justin Trudeau once seemed very interested in changing the way federal elections are conducted in this country. Less than a year later, he stands accused of deceit, cynicism and betrayal. What happened?

How did months of consultation end in abandoning election promise?

Justin Trudeau pledged to usher in a new electoral system in time for the next election, guaranteeing that the 2015 vote would be the last conducted under the first-past-the-post system. That plan to change the way members of Parliament are elected was abandoned last February. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau once seemed very interested in changing the way federal elections are conducted in this country.

"I believe fundamentally that we can do better," he said during a forum at the University of Ottawa last April, 10 months after he first vowed that a Liberal government would move past the current federal electoral system. "We can have an electoral system that does a better job of reflecting the concerns, the voices of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and give us a better level of governance."

It was, he said, a priority for him and for a lot of Canadians who believe, "we need to make sure that going forward we have the best possible electoral system."

Less than a year later, he stands accused of deceit, cynicism and betrayal, after a new mandate letter issued to Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould announced the government would not be pursuing electoral reform.

"What Trudeau proved himself today was to be a liar, was to be of the most cynical variety of politician," the NDP's Nathan Cullen said on Wednesday.

"We are in a time of dangerous politics. You must never do anything as a politician who understands what's at stake that feeds cynicism," mused Green party leader Elizabeth May. "Cynicism has enough to feed itself. It is work to feed hope. It is work to feed faith. And when you break faith you will reap what you sow."

What happened?

Lack of consensus and concern about PR

In abandoning their commitment, the Liberals have identified three primary concerns.

First, there is the lack of "consensus" on the issue, the electoral system being something on which there should be widespread agreement.

Efforts certainly were made to hear from all and sundry: a special committee conducted hearings and travelled the country, the minister embarked on a national tour, MPs hosted dozens of public forums, and postcards were mailed to 14 million households to promote an online survey.

But the original Liberal promise was not just to consult widely in hopes that a consensus would naturally emerge. And though consensus might not have been possible to achieve in this case, the sort of debate that would have demonstrated as much never really took shape.

NDP Democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen has been holding town-hall meetings in Liberal ridings across the country in an effort to resurrect electoral reform. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Appearing in question period on Wednesday, Trudeau floated a second issue: That moving to a system of proportional representation could have made it easier for "extremist" parties to win seats in the House of Commons.

As Cullen noted to a CBC reporter on Friday, vote thresholds — in Germany, for instance, a party must win five per cent of the national vote to qualify for a seat in the legislature — can be used to limit how many parties are represented. And perhaps there is a larger philosophical debate to be had about whether a political system should even be engineered to limit the spectrum of political views.

But fragmentation is not an unreasonable concern.

A debate that never happened

Proportional representation, in which seats are allotted in proportion to the national popular vote, could result in smaller parties gaining representation. Canada is, as noted by a senior Liberal this week, a large and regionally diverse country. The implications for the federal party system deserve careful consideration.

Unfortunately, this debate was not openly held. Except within the testimony of academics at the special committee, the political and public discourse never got to that point, the Liberals preferring to keep the discussion focused on values.

Not until Wednesday afternoon, an hour after his commitment was declared null and void, did Trudeau categorically assert his preference for preferential voting and publicly pit it against the NDP's desire for proportional representation.

Early on, the basic idea of preferential voting was criticized in some circles for its design and identified as a system that might favour the Liberals. And the prime minister is said to have kept an open mind about proportional representation.

But not until the matter was moot did this take prominence as a significant impasse.

In the face of opposition anger Wednesday, Justin Trudeau offered concerns about a 'divisive' referendum and the rise of 'extremist' parties to explain his decision to drop electoral reform. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives, meanwhile, demanded a national referendum. And Trudeau also worried aloud last week that a referendum would be "divisive."

That too is worthy of consideration. Though provincial proposals for electoral reform have generally been put to referendums, a national vote could break along provincial lines or otherwise stoke regional or political divisions.

Precedent for future referendums

The senior Liberal noted that in establishing a threshold for reform, the government could have set a precedent for future referendums, particularly on Quebec sovereignty.

But such considerations might have given Trudeau pause before that day in June 2015 when he promised reform. If he had misgivings about proportional representation or if a referendum was likely to be fraught, he might have avoided making what otherwise seemed to be an open-ended commitment.

After the promise was made, Canadians might have expected a fuller debate.

That might have at least made the promise's demise easier to understand.

Trudeau tries to move forward

​"We are moving forward in a way that will focus on the things that matter to Canadians," Trudeau said in the House on Wednesday. "That is what Canadians elected us to do."

Voters who were invested in electoral reform might be deeply disappointed and even some who were only vaguely interested might be left with a bad impression. But electoral reform is perhaps not foremost among the concerns for the average Canadian.

The government no doubt has many other things to worry about. If the Liberals manage to keep most of their other promises, this episode might not become emblematic of a prime minister whose commitments can't be trusted.

But on Wednesday, Cullen called Trudeau directly to account.

"I was a bit surprised that it wasn't Mr. Trudeau out here, somehow lacking the courage and fortitude to make this announcement himself," the New Democrat said.

Doing better in this case might have meant a personal and extended accounting from the prime minister himself.


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.