As It Happens

Liberal MP apologizes to Canadians after Trudeau abandons electoral reform

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to ditch his promise to make our democracy more fair has Toronto MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith saying he's sorry to voters - and proposing a last-ditch effort to bring about electoral reform.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is apologizing to voters after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government will be abandoning electoral reform. (Nathaniel Erskine-Smith/ Wyld/CP)

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Nathaniel Erskine-Smith wants you to know that he is deeply sorry.

Like the leader of his party, the Toronto-area Liberal campaigned on a promise to deliver a fairer voting system. But this week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent newly-minted Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould out in front of the cameras to announce that electoral reform was no longer in the cards.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould says that her new mandate letter does not include pursuing a change to Canada's first-past-the-post system 1:13

That's prompted howls of outrage from both the opposition and voters who insist that they've been duped.

Now Erskine-Smith has published an op-ed apologizing to voters. The MP for Beaches East-York in Toronto spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about why he felt compelled to issue an apology and publicly question the direction of his party. Here is part of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, what prompted you to write this public apology?

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith: It's an issue that I've cared about for a long time, well before entering politics. It's an issue that when I was signing folks up in the nomination process, I was signing up to tell them that I care about this issue and that I would be an advocate for it. Then, of course, it was part of our platform promise and so, given we're not moving forward with i,t I felt like an apology was necessary.

HM: What have you been hearing from your constituents since the prime minister backed down on this promise?

NES: Frustration from a number of constituents that the promise was not to be kept. In my conversation with constituents, I think there was a general understanding that it was going to be a tight timeline and it was maybe unreasonable to push forward with a change before 2019. But I think there is general frustration that we're not continuing the conversation into the future.

HM: Why are you not satisfied with the prime minister's explanation that this can't happen because there is no consensus on electoral reform?

NES: In the article that I published in the Huffington Post, I agreed that there's no consensus on a specific alternative to first past the post. Though I noted that there is significant consensus among experts at the committee regarding moving towards a more proportional system. There was significant consensus based on the MyDemocracy survey and our town halls that Canadians want governments that are more cooperative that work across party lines. I think there was significant consensus among parties based on process. So not outcome, but process. The committee that studied this issue had recommended a referendum. Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of a referendum. But if a referendum at the same time as the next election would give this issue its due and give Canadians a real opportunity to have their say on it, I think that that would have been a fair compromise for all parties.

HM: Do you believe, as the prime minister seems to suggest, that further action, a referendum even, would destabilize the country?

NES: I don't. There are reasons to think that having a referendum can be destablizing — if you look to our history with referendums, with respect to Quebec, if you look to the Brexit vote. But on this particular issue, I don't think it gets tempers flaring quite as much. When we look at P.E.I that just had a referendum, Quebec and B.C. have gone through referenda on this issue as well. While the issue did not move forward afterwards, I didn't see the world fall apart as a result of those referenda taking place.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen lambastes PM Justin Trudeau for breaking his promise to reform Canada's electoral system. 2:39

HM: NDP MP Nathan Cullen told us that the government support for the idea evaporated when the prime minister's preferred option, ranked ballots, looked like it was not going to happen. The committee rejected that. Do you think that's a fair comment?

NES: Honestly, I have no idea. But I would say, if you look at the New Zealand . . . referendum, in 1992 they had two-part question. The first question was: Do you want change? The second question was: If yes, what change would you like to see? On that option there was a ranked ballot, there was mixed member proportional, single transferable vote and supplementary proportionals. So it's not to say that ranked ballots shouldn't have been an alternative put to Canadians in 2019.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and family leave a polling station after voting in Montreal, Quebec on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

HM: So what kind of response have you had from the prime minister and minister of democratic institutions since you've gone public with your concerns?

NES: Well, in my opinion, the prime minister has embraced independence in Parliament and it's the most significant democratic reform we can have, absent legislation, so I think it's welcome.

HM: Have you heard that directly from the prime minister or from the minister?

NES: Not directly. But the very fact that I'm out there saying what I'm saying, that I've been vocal on other issues and no one has taken to task for doing so, I'm certainly not silenced. I've received no indication that I should not be out there representing my constituents. On the first day we had when I stepped into that caucus, the prime minister reiterated that we were to be voices of our constituents in Ottawa and not the other way around. I take that very seriously and continue to do so.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.


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