This past week Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government formally reneged on their campaign promise to reform the federal electoral system. Following a recent cabinet shuffle, which saw Karina Gould assume the post of minister of democratic institutions, the Liberal government publicly released a mandate letter addressed to Ms. Gould stating that “changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”
According to the letter signed by the Prime Minister, the decision was reached after extensive assessment completed by the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform and additional public consultation found that “a clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged.”
The topic of electoral reform has been a mainstay in Canadian politics over the past few decades, as critics of the current electoral system have pushed for a voting process which they feel would better reflect Canada’s political diversity.
What is the current electoral system?
The present first-past-the-post system awards victories based on a simple majority where the candidate or party which receives the most votes wins. While it is straightforward and easy to understand, this winner-takes-all approach has been criticized for its failure to produce governments which proportionally represent the votes cast.
According to the CBC, while the Liberal party received 39.9% of the popular vote in the 2015 federal election, they ended up with 54% of the total seats —enough to form a majority government. Meanwhile, the Green party garnered 3.5% of the popular vote yet only have a single seat in the House of Commons, or 0.02% of the share.
Opposition cries foul
The government’s announcement caused a significant stir in Ottawa. Electoral reform had been widely touted within the 2015 Liberal party platform and was again reiterated by Prime Minister Trudeau in his first throne speech where he pledged that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”
“This is one of the most cynical displays of self-serving politics this government has yet to engage in,” deplored New Democratic Party democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen according to CBC News.
While the announcement to abandon electoral reform evoked strong reaction from opposition parties, the Liberals’ decision to abandon reform cannot come as a major shock after months of public wavering. In an interview with the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir in October, Trudeau appeared to be easing away from the policy pledge. Noting his continued popularity in the polls, a confident Trudeau said the call for electoral reform had been much greater under Stephen Harper and has subsequently diminished with his government.
Thereafter, Maryam Monsef, who held the democratic institutions ministership prior to Ms. Gould, drew significant backlash after ridiculing a parliamentary committee report for being imprecise and allegedly demonstrating no consensus on the matter. The report, produced by an opposition-dominated committee, had advocated for a proportional representation system and urged the government to call a national referendum. Ms. Monsef subsequently apologized for her comments.
A call to the public
In December, the Liberals introduced an online survey encouraging the public to weigh in on the issue. However, according to the Huffington Post the survey failed to pose the question of what voting system Canadians actually preferred, did not mention alternative systems and was criticized as a largely cosmetic effort to gauge public opinion. In the end, the findings reportedly showed that Canadians were fairly content with the current system, challenging previous polls which had demonstrated a palpable desire for change.
“We are in a time of dangerous politics. You must never do anything as a politician who understands what’s at stake that feeds cynicism. Cynicism has enough to feed itself. It is work to feed hope. It is work to feed faith. And when you break faith you will reap what you sow.”
Alluding to the recent wave of populism and rejection of politics as usual, these remarks, reported by CBC News, from Green party leader Elizabeth May, ominously warned of the ramifications the broken promise could have. Only time will tell whether May’s caution will come to a head. Meanwhile, the Liberals will take the risk, confident that public backlash can be weathered.
For those interested, a petition calling for electoral reform is available to sign here.
With files from CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the Guardian (Charlottetown), the Huffington Post and the Broadbent Institute.