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Calling It Now: Trudeau Will Choose 'Instant Runoff' Electoral Reform

It's not the proportional salvation some demand. But, as promised, it's different.

Jeff Sellot 29 Oct 2015iPolitics

Jeff Sallot is one of Canada's most experienced and respected political writers. A graduate of the Kent State University journalism school, he shared a Pulitzer Prize with colleagues at the Akron Beacon-Journal for his eyewitness coverage of the massacre of four Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war demonstration. He worked for The Globe and Mail for more than three decades, much of the time as a political journalist based in Ottawa. He started his career in political journalism at the Toronto Star when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. He taught journalism at Carleton University for seven years until he retired in 2014.

So, your favourite local candidate for Parliament lost last week, you're feeling bummed, and you're wondering why you even bothered to vote.

Friend, you're not alone. In fact, you're in the majority.

Once again, our warped electoral system has given us a "majority government" that didn't get anything near a majority of the votes. Justin Trudeau walks into Rideau Hall next week to take the oath of office knowing 60 per cent of voters wanted someone else to be prime minister.

Trudeau promises it won't ever happen that way again. The 2019 federal election, he says, will be conducted under new rules, details pending. Electoral reform advocates are ready. They've already started the four-year countdown clock.

It's funny how an opposition party's enthusiasm for electoral reform can wane after it wins a parliamentary majority and forms a government. Here's hoping the Liberals remember their years in the wilderness under a Tory government and inoculate themselves against indifference.

Long path to reform

Replacing the first-past-the-post voting system with something fairer, something that can produce a House of Commons that more closely reflects voters' preferences, need not be a Herculean task. A lot of the preliminary work is already done and has been sitting on a shelf since the federal Law Reform Commission completed a report on voting reform in 2004. And there are many successful models in use in other countries.

Fair Vote Canada, the national non-partisan electoral reform advocacy group, figures the new Liberal government will have enough time to implement reforms if it begins early -- this winter. Wilfred Day, the group's elections expert, thinks the government will need about 18 months of public consultations to examine and explain the many possible forms of electoral reform.

Day thinks the Liberal caucus might then need another four months or so to reach its own consensus on what system to enact. Voting reform sounds like a good idea in principle, but MPs start to get cold feet when they consider how a specific change might make it harder to keep their own seats.

Under most reform scenarios, federal electoral boundaries commissions would have to redraw the riding maps -- a job that can eat up a lot of time even before public hearings and appeals are complete. Then Elections Canada would need to put its own procedures in place.

It's all doable, and it can be done before the next election -- but only if the opposition parties and the public keep up the pressure. There probably are a lot of Tory voters and defeated Tory MPs who are ready to join the cause -- maybe even Stephen Harper. Remember him? He was a fan of electoral reform once upon a time, before he became party leader and learned how to game the current system to win power.

Back then, of course, the Liberal parliamentary caucus couldn't wait to get started on voting reform. At the Liberal policy convention last year, the caucus brought forward a resolution calling for electoral reform as its top-ranked priority issue.

What works for Trudeau

During the election campaign, Trudeau promised he would introduce reforms within 18 months of forming a government. Keep in mind, though, that he also asked voters for a "majority government" -- which he got with just 39 per cent of the vote.

Trudeau restated his vague promise of electoral reform at his first news conference after the election last week -- in response to a journalist's question. When a reporter has to remind a politician about a campaign promise, it's never a good sign.

"It was one of our commitments that this would be the last election based on this [first-past-the-post] process," Trudeau said. "We have much work to do, to consult, to be engaged with Canadians, to study the issue so that upcoming elections are indeed done in a different way."

Does "different" mean fairer? Maybe. Or maybe not so much. A true system of national proportional representation would freak out the Liberals because it would have given them a minority in last week's vote -- while Green Leader Elizabeth May would be dancing a jig with her 10-person caucus instead of singing "One Is the Loneliest Number," solo.

Reform advocates point out there are reform alternatives to pure pro-rep, including "mixed member proportional." MMP would give you a chance to vote for two representatives -- one for your riding and a second candidate from a party list. This two-tier system gets complicated quickly.

But I'm betting the MMP concept isn't going anywhere here. At the end of the day, Trudeau probably will bring in what's called an "instant runoff" model.

Here's how it works. You, the voter, get a ballot listing the candidates and you rank your choices -- first choice, second, third and so on. If no single candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes in your riding, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is dropped from the list. The votes that went to that last-place candidate are then distributed to the remaining candidates on the basis of which candidates those voters named as their second choice. This process continues until someone gets a majority of the votes cast in the riding.

Trudeau says he likes this system. It was used in the Liberal leadership vote two years ago. Runoffs also tend to favour parties that hew close to the political centre. The Liberals outflanked the NDP on the left in the recent election, but they'll have no problem moving back to their traditional spot in the ideological middle.

The NDP and Greens won't like runoffs all that much. But they may be out of luck. I'm betting the Liberals will introduce an instant runoff scheme and will make it stick -- because they can. They have a "majority government," after all.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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