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June 11, 2019

Electoral reform: A Trudeau's promise not kept

The Canadian Charger

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised Canadians electoral reform while campaigning in the 2015 election that brought him to power; but that promise is now frozen in another time, as it has long-since been abandoned by the Trudeau government.

While on the election trail, on June 16, 2015, Justin Trudeau said:

“We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post.”

He pledged to have a national engagement process, and within 18 months of forming government the Liberals “will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform.”

He added that a ranked ballot system, proportional representation, online voting, and mandatory voting will be examined.

However, in December 2016, when an all-party committee report recommended the Liberals design a proportional representation voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge support, the Trudeau government refused to acknowledge the consensus. 

Most of the people who addressed the committee and were in favor of reform wanted a proportional system, which is used in many countries around the world, including Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Greece, Israel, Finland, Norway, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.

The proportional-representation lobby has been working hard for over a generation now, and not so long ago they counted an up-and-coming politician named Justin Trudeau among their allies.

They say the current system allows parties that fail to win a majority of votes to nevertheless form majorities in Parliament. It also leaves parties that consistently receive substantial support from the people with virtually no say in government policy. This can lead to strategic voting, which is really voting for the least bad alternative, rather than voting for parties whose policies voters agree with.

Some proportional representation enthusiasts have argued that the current system is directly responsible for low participation rates in elections.

However, despite the proportional-representation lobby's efforts, and only two months after an all-party committee recommended proportional representation, Mr. Trudeau directed the minister of democratic institutions to abandon electoral reform altogether.

In October 2016 he said Canadians now have a government they are more satisfied with so the motivation to want to change the electoral system is less compelling.

The Trudeau Liberals completely abandoning any plans for electoral reform in February 2017 when the Prime Minister said - in a letter to newly appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould - “changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”

When questioned about his about-face, Prime Minister Trudeau said cross-Canada consultations failed to signal great demand for electoral reform, and there would be no national referendum either.

“A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada’s interest.”

He explained that with proportional representation “those fringe voices would end up holding the balance of power.” The current system works well he added because “people learn to get along,” and don’t “amplify small voices.”

Subsequently, in a debate in the House of Commons, NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen used the example of the US to argue that in the current winner-take-all system extreme fringe elements have more say than they would in a proportional representation system.

“A proportional system doesn't stop fringe elements but, unlike the current system, it ensures they stay on the fringe.”

Under our current first-past-the-post system, voters elect a single representative in each single-member riding. In some ridings, 70 per cent of the voters cast ballots which elect no-one. In contrast, any proportional representation voting system elects several representatives at once for a given geographic region so that most voters in that region have a voice in Parliament.

Proponents of proportional representation argue that with this system almost every vote will count for something and almost every voter will help elect a representative who represents their views on at least some major issues. All regions should end up with representation, if not in government, then in opposition. A single party will no longer be able to attain a majority government with 40 per cent or less of the popular vote. Parliamentarians will have no choice but to cooperate and compromise or risk losing their seats in the next election.

First-past-the-post systems can also disproportionately benefit regional parties that can win districts where they have a strong following, while other parties with national support but no strongholds, like the Green Party, win few or no seats. An example is the Bloc Quebecois, that won 52 seats in the 1993 federal election, all in Quebec, on 13.5 per cent of the national vote, while the Progressive Conservatives collapsed to two seats on 16 per cent spread nationally.

In our current system of government, majority rules both in deciding who sits in Parliament and what policies are passed into law. But this means the minority and their representatives have great difficulty being heard, let alone influencing government policy. 

It would be much more difficult for the governing party to shut down committees inquiring about government policy because they have a majority on the committee, as in the Liberals did in the when opposition parties demanded parliamentary committee investigations into both the SNC Lavalin scandal and the Mark Norman case.

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M. Elmasry

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