Cynical ways

Trudeau stalls on electoral reform in epic betrayal of campaign promises

Liberals twist themselves into a pretzel to avoid acting on special committee’s recommendations
Photo: Michael Li

The Liberals’ oft-repeated election promise to make 2015’s election the last held under the first-past-the-post system was put in doubt yesterday when Liberal members of the special committee on electoral reform finally revealed the Trudeau government’s cynical plan to scuttle reform.

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In an apparent undermining of the very process they established to conduct this important work, Canadians got another peek at the dark underbelly of our “sunny ways” government.

The improbable consensus reached by all opposition parties in the committee’s majority report — which recommended, historically, the adoption of a proportional voting system with strong local representation, to be decided by national referendum — was overshadowed by comments from Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, and a fatuous supplemental report issued by the Liberal members of the committee.

Minister Monsef rejected the consensus reached on PR, and sought to discredit the majority report’s recommendation to design a system that scores no more than five on the Gallagher Index, a mathematical measure of the proportionality of a voting system. Monsef further claimed there was no mandate for the proposed reform from Canadians, and told parliament that the committee hadn’t done what it was asked to do (spoiler alert, it has!)

The minister’s comments were galling and duplicitous, but the incoherent logic of the supplemental report from her fellow members is what really took the cake on a day defined by disingenuousness.

The evidence is mounting that the prime minister is uninterested in genuinely pursuing the democratic renewal he loudly espoused pre-election.

That report called the committee’s roadmap for electoral reform “rushed” and said its recommendation for PR is “too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged.” It continued by stating that “the timeline on electoral reform as proposed in the [majority report] is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline.”

It is difficult to disentangle the range of deceptions here but they are worth picking apart.

What must be made clear, first and foremost, is that the committee — its mandate, the timelines, and the commitment to move away from FPTP by the next election — was designed and enacted by this government. “Rushed” and “hasty” are rather rich, particularly when one considers that the government did nothing for six months after being elected to get this file moving.

The claim that an MMP style PR system is “too radical” (someone page those crazy Germans and New Zealanders) and that Canadians have been on the sidelines simply does not pass muster. The government has continually moved the goalposts on what is needed to secure reform throughout the process. They’ve shifted, variously, from the need for all party consensus to the importance of evidence-based policy making and now to the need to sufficiently engage Canadians by some measure only they know and understand.

The fact is, the committee has now delivered a consensus, and one that allows the government to keep its election promise. In a representative parliamentary democracy such as ours, consensus across party lines on a file so important to the democratic constitution should not be treated so casually.

The report also delivers on evidence-based policy making. The committed heard from an impressive group of electoral reform experts from civil society and academia both in Canada and internationally, not to mention former politicians, civil servants and thousands of Canadian citizens. The report goes through the evidence it heard in meticulous detail, which was overwhelmingly supportive of moving to a proportional system. The Liberals’ supplemental report neatly overlooks that evidence, damaging the integrity of this historic exercise in the process.

Which brings us to the issue of whether Canadians are sufficiently engaged on the issue of electoral reform for a change of system to be legitimate. It’s curious that this criterion is now used as the excuse to step back from reform. Were the government serious about broad engagement with their yet-to-surface online tool, it could have been released many months ago and been used precisely to inform the work of the committee. It wasn’t, and the opportunity to do something innovative and meaningful online has passed.

The further irony, of course, is that a referendum would all but ensure broad engagement. The Liberal government stands on some solid ground in its skepticism over the efficacy and desirability of a referendum on this matter. One credible alternative to hosting a referendum is to make the decision in parliament with the support of other political parties. The Greens and NDP have had that option on the table for months, and left the door open yet again in their supplementary reports.

If Thursday is any guide, however, the government seems more interested in twisting itself into an obfuscatory pretzel in order retain the status quo. Canadians have been given a clear path to reform in the committee’s historic consensus, and measurable criteria of what the government needs to do to enact this reform. But now the government which initiated this process seems to oppose that very reform.

The evidence is mounting that the prime minister is uninterested in genuinely pursuing the democratic renewal he loudly espoused pre-election. And so, like with much else, the ersatz quality of his big announcement on ending FPTP back in the 2015 election now makes (cynical) sense.

At a moment when Kellie Leitch is running a disturbingly white nationalist campaign, it is this kind of inauthenticity that one worries will breed ever more cynicism in the electorate. It doesn’t have to be this way. The committee has laid out a roadmap for reform.

The Trudeau government must now prove that the promise to end FPTP was sincere and move forward on the committee’s recommendations.

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