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Election 2019

Will the Liberals’ Broken Electoral Reform Promise Hurt Them?

Keeping the status quo was the ‘right decision for the country at the time,’ says democratic institutions minister.

Christopher Guly 11 Sep 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Guly is a member of the Ottawa-based Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Justin Trudeau’s pledge to replace Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system and make “every vote count” was a major campaign promise in 2015, and arguably a significant ballot box boost for the Liberals.

The issue is still important to Tyee readers, who urged us to make it a focus of our election coverage and shared our recent story on the NDP and Greens’ plans for electoral reform almost 3,000 times.

The Liberals believe the matter was settled when, two months after the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform recommended replacing first-past-the-post with proportional representation in December 2016, Trudeau abandoned the promised reform.

“We consulted quite broadly over the course of the first two years that we were in office,” said Karina Gould, who was appointed minister of democratic institutions in January 2017.

In an interview with The Tyee, she said that public consultations, such as MyDemocracy.ca that attracted almost 400,000 submissions, made it “clear that while there are a number of Canadians who are very passionate about changing the electoral system, there is not a clear consensus about what that change would look like, and there are also Canadians for whom this is not a top priority.”

Gould, whose appointment at 29 made her the youngest-ever federal cabinet minister, added that voters in Prince Edward Island and British Columbia had chosen to stay with first-past-the-post in referenda in 2019 and 2018.

Pollster Darrell Bricker said electoral change is a must-have item on the political menu for its diehard supporters but remains an optional appetizer for most Canadian voters.

Electoral reform is “not something that comes up spontaneously in any surveys that we’ve done, which is not a shock,” said Bricker, CEO of IPSOS Public Affairs, in a recent interview.

In the last poll done by IPSOS that included questions on electoral reform in August 2016, only about three per cent of 1,000 Canadians reported that they had closely followed the federal government’s electoral-reform consultation process.

It was, as Bricker told the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform three years ago, an “elite group.”

Bricker said the polling could explain why the Liberals abandoned their campaign promise. It was a “loud minority” who wanted electoral reform, he said, adding that Liberals are unlikely to revisit the issue and remind Canadian voters of that reversal.

“The problem with electoral reform for the Liberals is that there is really no reward for doing it,” Bricker said. “What it does is promote opportunities for parties like the Greens and the NDP to do better.”

Still, the Liberals made the electoral change commitment four years ago and, according to former NDP leader Tom Mulcair, repeated the promise 1,813 times during the campaign.

Liberal candidates could face questions about the volte-face during the election campaign.

Asked how she would respond, Gould said the issue was “something that we were very committed to — the prime minister was clear that this was an objective of his.

“But even when you’re in government, you don’t always get to do everything exactly the way that you want to do it. We do live in a democracy,” said Gould, MP for the southern Ontario Burlington riding.

“We felt very strongly that we had to engage Canadians on this issue, and it’s one that we did engage Canadians quite extensively on. While the prime minister has expressed his own disappointment to not having been able to make those changes, he’s also been very clear that this is not something we would move forward on without the broad support of Canadians,” she said.

“If this is something Canadians feel passionate about, there are always opportunities for it come up in the future,” said Gould, who holds a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University. “But I can tell you that knocking on doors in my community and talking to Canadians across the country, it’s not something that I hear about a lot. They’re more concerned about the environment, climate change, the cost of living, where we are on the international stage and our relationship with partners around the world.”

Should the Liberals have promised electoral reform before consulting Canadians?

“When you’re running on a platform, you’re sharing with Canadians what your hopes and objectives are for when you form government,” she said. “We ran on a very wide and broad and extensive platform and have been able to achieve a lot of what we talked to Canadians about.

“We put forward a very earnest and thoughtful effort to try to reform the electoral system,” she continued. “However... when it comes to doing something so big as to change how we govern ourselves we really did feel that it was important that we had Canadians on board. I think there are a lot of lessons learned, but at the end of the day, we made the right decision for the country at the time.”

Green Leader Elizabeth May said earlier that she and other members of the all-party committee on electoral change heard from “hundreds of thousands of Canadians” who wanted proportional representation.

In its December 2016 report, the committee called on the federal government to use the Gallagher index — a tool to measure the gap between the popular will of voters and seat allocations in Parliament — in developing “a new proportional electoral system.”

Gould noted the committee also recommended a referendum on proportional representation.

Trudeau has been “very clear” that he does not believe proportional representation is in the best interest of Canadians, she said. “He’s talked about the fact that he’s always been in favour of a ranked-ballot system.”

Gould declined to “speculate” about whether electoral reform would be on the table if the Liberals had to negotiate with other parties to form a minority government.

It’s not a priority for most Canadians, she said, and even supporters of electoral reform couldn’t agree on the next steps: “It’s an ongoing issue, and I’m sure that there will be interesting conversations about it throughout the course of the election.”

Bricker said Greens and New Democrats will raise the issue during the campaign, and both parties could gain support from voters who want to punish the Liberals for abandoning the promise.

But it won’t hurt the Liberals in any significant way, he said. The issues of proportional representation and ranked ballots have failed to resonate with most Canadians.

“It’s not really anything people care about it,” said Bricker, a fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in Toronto and, with Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, author of the 2013 book, The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future.

“The issue Canadians have with our political system is not how we elect our politicians but what they do once they’re elected,” he said. “No one has really made the case for how electoral reform changes any of that.”

851px version of ElectoralReformRally.jpg
Electoral reform advocates rallied in Guelph, Ontario as part of the National Day of Action on Electoral Reform on Feb. 11, 2017. Photo by Ryan Hodnett, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

Bricker, who briefly served as director of public-opinion research in former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s office, believes most Canadians don’t see any serious consequences from inaction on electoral reform.

“With climate change, people do believe there is an existential problem and the disagreement is on what we should do about it,” he said. “On electoral reform, people don’t necessarily believe there is an existential problem with our electoral system, other than those really interested in the issue.”

If, as Bricker expects at this point, the Liberals form a minority government following the Oct. 21 election, electoral reform will be advanced, but not by “public will.” The New Democrats and Greens will push for some form of commitment to proportional representation.

Bricker said electoral reform advocates would have to show Canadians their lives “will be better as a result,” he said. “Politics in Canada has moved from big political issues to the specific impact something has on someone.”

Bricker doesn’t see electoral reform having a major impact on the Liberals this fall. He believes the biggest hit to their brand will come from Trudeau’s infamous 2018 trip to India, which garnered international attention, his Christmas 2016 family vacation at the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island and, more recently, his role in attempting to pressure former federal attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin. The vacation and the SNC-Lavalin scandal resulted in Trudeau becoming the first prime minister to have been found in violation of the federal Conflict of Interest Act not once, but twice.

Phillippe Fournier runs 338Canada.com, which projects electoral results based on opinion polls. He hasn’t seen proportional representation registering as a national issue.

“Those who are for electoral reform are really loud and motivated and politically sophisticated, but they are not very numerous,” said Fournier, who was asked by Mouvement Démocratie Nouvelle, a pro-electoral reform organization in Quebec, to design a program to simulate a mixed-member proportional system for the province.

Next month, Premier François Legault’s government is expected to table a bill that would introduce mixed-member proportional following an agreement signed last year by his Coalition Avenir Québec, the Parti Québécois, Québec solidaire and Quebec’s Green Party.

“I really doubt that it’s going to go through because of the complexity of what they’re suggesting,” said Fournier, a political contributor to Maclean’s and L’actualité magazines.

The proposed mixed-member proportional system would include 75 or 100 local representatives elected under the first-past-the-post system, and 25 or 50 seats assigned to parties based on their share of the popular vote.

The change would require approval in a proposed provincial referendum for possible implementation in 2026.

“What bugs me is that you would not vote for a person, but for a party, which decides who will sit in the National Assembly,” said Fournier. “It makes me appreciate the current system.”

“I used to think that proportional representation was far better than what we have, but after writing the program I realized how complicated it was,” he said.

The current system generally results in the party with the largest share of the vote in government, he said, though there are exceptions. In 1979, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals received 40.1 per cent of the votes but Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives, who obtained 35.9 per cent, formed a minority government with 136 seats to the Liberals’ 114.

Fournier forecasts a slim majority for the Liberals, but with less of the popular vote than the Conservatives. But even if there is a minority situation, the two main parties wouldn’t commit to act on electoral reform in return for support from a smaller party, he said. Especially as the smaller parties are unlikely to be in a strong bargaining position, he predicted.

“The NDP will be lucky to get 15 seats, the Greens might get five — all on Vancouver Island — and the Bloc Québécois doesn’t really care about electoral reform, which would give them about the same share of seats with proportional representation as they would with first-past-the-post,” he said.

Fournier said the Liberals disinterest in electoral reform is similar to Quebec’s governing CAQ, which wanted proportional representation. Then it won 59 per cent of the seats with 37 per cent of the vote last year.

“They’re not sure they want it anymore,” he said.

Carleton University journalism professor Randy Boswell argued in an Ottawa Citizen op-ed earlier this year that electoral reform could mean more MPs from smaller parties and the end of frequent majority governments and the “absolute power” parties in that position hold in Parliament.

That would bring change to parliamentary committees, which “would be composed of a fairer-cross section of MPs and no single party would be in a position to dictate what is discussed or decided,” he wrote, as the Liberal-dominated justice committee decided not to investigate the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Boswell, a former national writer with Postmedia News, predicted the Liberals’ “most glaring broken promise” from its 2015 campaign will “soften support” for the party.

“I may be one of hundreds of thousands of people who would consider themselves broadly sympathetic to a progressive government — and was very excited about the promise made in the last election campaign about proportional representation,” he said. “I just imagined that there would be a sea change in our political system, and what I hoped would be the case is that it would have helped this country avoid the hyper-partisanship that seems to be emerging in the United States and elsewhere.”

“I was encouraged when the Liberals won the election and that promise was a pillar of their campaign. But then it was very clear that the government lost interest in it and constructed a process that was essentially bound to come to a negative conclusion about electoral reform.”

Boswell believes Trudeau favours a ranked-ballot system, in which voters would rank candidates and those with the fewest votes would be eliminated until one has more than 50-per-cent support, because it would be the best new system for the Liberals.

Boswell agrees with Bricker that electoral reform won’t be the “ballot-box question, except for the most diehard advocates.”

It is, in his opinion, a “drip-drip” problem for the Liberals.

“If this government sailed through its four years with no smears on its reputation, except for the abandoned promise on electoral reform, I don’t think this would be an issue at all,” said Boswell.

“But this government ended up having a number of problems, and in that context, the broken promise becomes one of the problems that will serve as the biggest source of disappointment and strong annoyance” for people who voted for the Liberals four years ago. They may now take a dim view of the party’s record on electoral reform and other issues like the environment and Indigenous rights.

“But I don’t think Canadians are really going to become seized by electoral reform until the campaign heats up, and they hear people like Elizabeth May and [federal NDP Leader] Jagmeet Singh and others talk about it and proportional representation, and it may become a bigger issue than we can imagine at this moment,” Boswell said.

“In the last campaign, it was a big surprise for me to have the natural governing party of the country acknowledging a problem with the electoral system, and then it gets swept under the carpet during the time they’re governing,” he said. “It’s a pretty compelling narrative for the critics of Trudeau to point out that betrayal in this election. Of all the other stuff that happened over the four years of this government, that’s the one thing you can point to and say, ‘He said he was going to do this and then it didn’t happen.’ Maybe he over-promised, maybe it was too bold a declaration, but the reality is he did not deliver.”

“That’s very disappointing for Canadians who are very concerned with a Conservative government squeaking in with less than 50 per cent of the vote and getting a majority government.”

Boswell did note that proportional representation could also lead to the “frightening proposition for progressive Canadians” of right-wing nationalist parties in the House of Commons based on their share of the popular vote.

He believes that Trudeau abandoned the electoral reform promise after his advisors convinced him “it would prevent the Liberals from having repeat governments unfettered by opposition co-operation.” The Liberals opted to ensure “sweeping power back in their hands after having been in the political wilderness for a decade,” Boswell said.

“People are beaten down enough about politics that they are unlikely to believe that change can happen — and Trudeau promised that it could,” Boswell added. “That gave him a certain glow in the 2015 election campaign in my eyes by his embracing an idea that wouldn’t have served the Liberal party’s future except in the broad societal sense and that offered a pretty stark contrast to a tired, grumpy Conservative government. But in the end, he dropped the ball and did so, as far as I’m concerned, because he was convinced in the end that the Liberal party was more important than the country.”

Electoral reform was seen as a major reason why the Liberals attracted support from young voters in the 2015 election.

They showed up to vote in larger numbers four years ago than they had since Pierre Trudeau left politics in 1984.

In 2015, the voter turnout rate for the 18-to-24 age group increased to 57.1 per cent, a rise of 18 percentage points from 2011, according to the Library of Parliament.

Turnout in 2015 also went up among those aged 25 to 34, increasing from 45.1 per cent in 2011 to 57.4 per cent in 2015.

“While turnout rates increased for all age groups in 2015, the largest upswings were recorded by the 18-to-24 and 25-to-34 age groups. However, despite this surge in turnout in 2015, youth voter participation remained below the national average of 66.1 per cent for this election.”

Whether the abandoned promise on electoral reform will cut into the Liberals’ youth vote remains uncertain.

In 2017, when Abacus Data asked 783 voting-age millennials (18 to 36) whether the Liberals’ decision to abandon electoral reform would affect their support for the party, 42 per cent said they would vote Liberal, two percentage points lower than in 2015.

But some millennials, who had Trudeau’s ear as members of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, have raised the issue with him.

“We made it clear that the majority of the council members were not in agreement with the decision he took,” said Joe Darcel, a 26-year-old University of Manitoba medical student who served on the council from 2016 to 2018.

“He took some time to explain his rationale. His perception was that he was hearing a lot of messaging about proportional representation from groups like Fair Vote, but at the same time was hearing messaging about single-transferable votes and ranked ballots,” explained Darcel, who with his father Jim Darcel, a financial analyst in Winnipeg, has designed a mixed-member proportional system that would only allocate seats to under-represented parties in the House. “I think the prime minister had difficulty parsing which of those would be ideal given his perception about the state of the country.”

The MyDemocracy.ca survey did not include a question on specific alternative voting systems, but Darcel believes Canadians want a change.

“In my opinion, there was a clear consensus that proportional representation was the way to go among those who are interested,” he said.

Could millennials punish the Liberals for deciding that electoral reform is not the way to go?

“I think that it would be a shame if they became single-issue voters,” said Darcel. “But I do think that this will definitely lose them a significant number of votes.”

The Tyee’s federal election coverage is made possible by readers who pitched in to our election reporting fund. Read more about how The Tyee developed our reader-powered election reporting plan and see all of our stories here.  [Tyee]

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