Government casts aside promise of electoral reform

We should have seen it coming last October when Justin Trudeau told Le Devoir that he no longer saw the same appetite for electoral reform that he did when the Conservatives were in power.   What he likely meant was that the Liberals have no desire to change a system that just handed them a majority government with only 40% of the popular vote and that the electoral math they considered so flawed when it benefitted Stephen Harper, was just fine when it helped them.

The Prime Minister quickly backed down from his statement because the optics were so bad.  At that time, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform hadn’t even reported to parliament after spending months consulting Canadians.  But the length of time it had taken the government to get the committee formed was probably the first clue that the government wasn’t terribly committed to electoral reform.

Canadians can be excused for thinking otherwise because the Liberals certainly claimed they were going to change the system.  It was a prominent feature of their platform in the election and the throne speech that set the blue-print for the current parliament.  Apart from the October slip-up, the Prime Minister remained on message and was still talking about electoral reform during his town-hall tour that proceeded the current session of parliament.   All that changed with the mandate letter for the new Minister of Democratic Institutions stating the government will not be pursuing electoral reform.  

MPs that spent the last year working on the committee were devastated.  New Democrats and Greens made electoral reform a cornerstone in their election platforms.  It now looks like the Liberals only included it in their campaign to attract voters away from those parties.   Either way, more than 60% of the votes cast in 2015 went to parties who openly stated they would change the system so that, in the Prime Minister’s words, “every vote counts.”

The government is claiming they couldn’t find consensus on the issue, but their survey that followed on the heels of the committee recommendation for proportional representation was widely panned for being vague.  What’s more, it was never clear they were looking for consensus throughout the process and with the survey in particular. 

The problem will now become managing cynicism among voters who thought they were going to change an unfair system.  If Canadians need a reminder of how poorly our system can reflect the will of the electorate we should look no further than the 1993 election.  That’s when the Bloc Quebecois ended up as the Official Opposition, with the second-most seats in Parliament despite coming fourth in popular vote.  At the same time the NDP won four times as many seats as the Conservatives, even though the Conservatives had well over a million more votes cast for them. 

Promises for electoral reform were seen as part of a progressive platform that encouraged more people to vote in the last election than had in recent years.  Back-tracking will be seen as a betrayal of Canadians who thought they voted to do politics differently.  Rather than fixing our broken electoral system so it benefits all Canadians, the Liberals are standing-pat because they feel it helps them now.  It is a cynical way to do politics and could actually drive down voter participation.  Canadians deserve better.