In his mandate letter to the new Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, Justin Trudeau told the nation that he was breaking one of his key election promises: “Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”
Blaming a lack of consensus on reform despite extensive consultations, Trudeau claimed that it would be harmful to Canada’s stability to pursue reform or a referendum on the issue. In question period, he added, “I’m not going to do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform.”
His other comments implied that now that Canadians had a government with which they were happy, they were less interested in changing the system. But Trudeau’s remarks fly in the face of the truth.
The All-Party Parliamentary Committee which was tasked with recommending a way forward on reform said that “overwhelming majority” of submissions by almost 200 electoral experts and by thousands of Canadians were in favour of proportional representation. The committee itself recommended the government design a new system of proportional representation and gauge public support through a referendum.
In terms of wider public opinion, a recent Ekos poll found that 43 per cent of Canadians said proportional representation would be the best option for Canada (higher than for any other option) and 33 per cent said it would be second best. The same survey found that 59 per cent of people think the Liberals should deliver on their promise.
Why would the Liberals abandon their promise in the face of such stark evidence? They must feel they can get away with it electorally. They are riding high in the polls. Only one in five Canadians appeared to be engaged with the consultation process. They’re betting that most people don’t care. That gamble may come back to haunt them.
First, neither of the main opposition parties has a leader at the moment, so it is not surprising that they’re faring worse in the polls. It’s not guaranteed that either party will come back strongly with new leadership, but their public profiles and their ability to scrutinize the government will both be stronger when they are no longer concentrating on internal party politics.
Second, while the Liberals may be reassured by the fact that such a small percentage of Canadians was highly engaged in the electoral reform debate, it would make sense to assume that many of those engaged voters were current or former Green or New Democratic Party supporters. Both parties have been advocates of proportional representation for a long time. In the context of the “Anybody But Harper” election, some of them cast strategic votes for the Liberals at the expense of their beliefs, thinking the next time around the electoral system wouldn’t force them into this situation. Tactical voters will be less likely to believe the Liberals a second time.
Third, while the Liberals are probably banking on most people forgetting the issue by the time 2019 rolls around, there is no way that Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, will forget, and neither will the NDP after its extensive involvement in the all-party committee. Expect both parties to campaign heavily on the issue, with the added bonus of being able to repeat that Trudeau failed to deliver “real change.” Even the Conservatives are jumping on the opportunity to call Trudeau a liar despite their stance against reform.
Fourth, although the Liberals won an impressive victory in October 2015, it’s worth remembering that their majority is small and built on fragile support. Forty-three of the Liberals’ seats were won with less than a five per cent margin; the Conservatives came second in 20 of these seats, the NDP came second in 13 of them. Even small swings in the next election could have a big impact on the Liberals’ majority. The party is particularly vulnerable in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, where most of their super-marginal seats are located.
While not all Canadians are outraged that the next election will once again be first-past-the-post, the Liberals are taking a big hit to their trustworthiness. Perceptions of lies and broken promises will be harder to shake off in the long term.