Justin Trudeau, Heart Breaker: The False Promise of Electoral Reform

“2015 will be the last election conducted under the current electoral process” were the words that came out of Justin Trudeau’s mouth when he hit the campaign trail in the summer of 2015.  He promised that electoral reform would occur within the first 18 months if the Liberals were elected, but 14 months later the Liberal government is going back on their word and declaring that electoral reform is no longer a part of their agenda. Despite voicing support for electoral reform in the past, Trudeau is adhering to the “why would you change the system that voted you in” ideology that values the status quo over change – change that has the potential to strengthen Canada’s democratic processes. In the weeks following the breaking of the promise, there has been ample backlash. The government petition e-616, sponsored by Member of Parliament Nathan Cullen, calling for re-commitment to electoral reform has received over 125,000 signatures. The petition was created after Trudeau’s dismissive attitude on the topic of electoral reform in October during an interview with Le Devoir. In addition to this online form of solidarity, folks across Canada have been mobilizing to protest against the dismissal of electoral reform. The reasoning behind all this anger is understandable considering the potential that electoral reform has in strengthening Canada’s democratic integrity in order to truly represent all Canadians.

Toronto protest on March 11, 2012 https://flic.kr/p/bCgXvV

Toronto protest on March 11, 2012 https://flic.kr/p/bCgXvV

Our current system of single member plurality or ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) is a colonial legacy. This voting system was inherited and was one that suited the British’s needs during imperialism. Considering the fact that the nature of Canadian politics has changed significantly over the past 150 years, the way in which we form government ought to reflect these changes as well. FPTP inherently supports single party states as elections commonly result in “manufactured majorities.” This refers to the fact that the ruling party does not need to secure a majority of votes, only a plurality. While most people believe that our system runs under a “majority rules” discourse, FPTP actually propagates the idea of “winner takes all.” For example in the 2015 election, the Liberals won only 39.5% of the popular vote, yet secured a majority of seats in the House of Commons with 53% of the seats. Since the end of World War One, only 4 elections in Canada have resulted in a government that has secured at least 50.0% of the popular vote. The last time this happened was in 1984, when Brian Mulroney and his Conservative party was elected with 50.0% of the popular vote. Considering a few of the current issues that we have in Canadian democracy such as voter apathy, disproportionate representation in government, and false majorities, electoral reform can address many of Canada’s democratic deficits.

the infamous "Stop Harper" signs that popped up all over the country in 2015 https://flic.kr/p/pwjuTH

the infamous “Stop Harper” signs that popped up all over the country in 2015 https://flic.kr/p/pwjuTH

By contrasting two of the most common electoral systems, plurality systems and proportional representation, we can see the advantages and disadvantages of both. Plurality systems include first past the post, alternative vote, and two-round voting. All of these systems give seats in parliament to the candidates and parties who have achieved the plurality of votes. Alternative vote is the system that Trudeau has previously  expressed interest towards. Alternative vote involves a ranked ballot where an absolute majority is achieved by dropping the candidates who get the least amount of votes and reallocating ranked votes. Two-round voting or ‘run off’ voting, which is used in France, is when and if a candidate is unable to garner the majority vote in the first round of voting, a second run-off election will be run with the top two candidates. Plurality systems are favoured due to their simplicity: however, it results in lost votes as the winner takes all. This mentality has incentivized strategic voting that distorts voter intentions. This was seen in the 2015 election, where there was a large “Anyone but Harper” movement. FPTP also popularizes tactics such as gerrymandering which is the redrawing of ridings to manipulate votes to ensure a plurality of support for a party.  Due to the fact that Canada is so large, there is great deal of regionalism. While the results of elections show that they are clearly not homogeneous, the strong support for certain parties from different provinces show that there is a divide in political affiliation based on location. This illustrates the danger that is posed by regional parties that dominate in specific regions of Canada. Minorities are disenfranchised in stronghold regions, as they are unable to receive representation due to the fact that the structure of plurality voting systems bolsters the tyranny of the majority.

The second category of proportional representation is a system where the number of votes directly correlates with the number of seats. Proportional representation supports and amplifies the voices of minority groups that are otherwise dismissed or forgotten in pluralistic systems. It is a system that is predominantly utilized in European countries. Most proportional representation systems result in coalition governments as seen in Belgium and Switzerland. However, coalition governments are negatively perceived due to increased bureaucracy. While this system comes at the cost of efficiency and time in forming government, it is a small price to pay for proper representation as it is a cornerstone of liberal democracies. Coalition governments also promote greater consensus which involves more compromise for significant minority rights.  Rather than a few political parties playing big tent politics and spreading themselves out thin to represent a larger portion of Canadians. Smaller parties offer representation of specific regional or marginalized interests that do not get prioritized in larger parties. Proportional representation systems such as list proportional representation and single non-transferable vote, allows for parties to have more control over the demographics their elected representatives. By zippering candidates on a ballot based on gender identity, ethnicity, and race, greater diversity and more proportional representation can be achieved in the legislature. 

In 2015 there was a record number of 10 indigenous members of parliament elected into the office. While this increase is positive, this change must be continuously supported and promoted. This can be accomplished through the zippering system or creating allotted seats like New Zealand has to bolster greater Māori representation. Currently, 26% of the House of Commons’ seats are filled by women. In comparison, countries with proportional representation electoral systems see a greater representation of female members. For example, in Iceland’s 2016 election under the open-list system, 46% of the seats went to women and according to their Ministry for Foreign Affairs, they are now the “most equal Parliament in the world” without a quota system. Additionally, this election saw a voter turnout of 79% which is low for Iceland. In contrast the Canadian election in 2015 had a voter turnout of 68.3% which was the highest since 1993 election which had a 75.3% turnout. Since then, voter turnout has only been declining. With Canada at 131th in the world for voter turnout, many baby boomers tend to blame voter apathy on the millennials. However, in the last election, the age group with the most growth in turn out were new voters between the ages of 18-24. 57.1% of this group voted in comparison to 38.8% in 2011. This growth cannot be ignored in the dialogue on voter apathy, this suggests there are issues with the electoral system that promotes apathy. High turnout is also correlated with proportional representation as the nature of the system does not lead to lost votes at the magnitude of majoritarian systems, thus people feel more inclined to vote knowing that their vote counts. 

A protest sign in Guelph, ON https://flic.kr/p/RRKDNp

A protest sign in Guelph, ON https://flic.kr/p/RRKDNp

Back to the Liberal government today, it is disappointing to see them go back on their word when there is so much potential for change and democratic growth with electoral reform. The Liberals spent at least 4.1 million dollars on the Special Committee’s Study on Electoral Reform (ERRE) created June 7th 2016. It was a non-partisan committee with representatives from each party in parliament that was proportional to the party distribution in the lower house. They sought to “identify and study viable alternatives to the current voting system” and engage with citizens through town halls. In June 2016, they travelled across the country, holding 57 town halls to consult Canadians and garner public opinion on a promise that they ended up breaking only months later. In the process of going back on his word, Trudeau threw rookie MP and previous Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef under the bus by utilizing her as a scapegoat. During the town halls there was ongoing pressure on Monsef to disclose progress on democratic reform, however she continuously saying she didn’t want to undermine the work of the committee until the report was released on December 1st. After the release of the report of the ERRE the anger over the lack of substance resulted in the Liberal government introducing mydemocracy.ca, a platform seeking public opinion that was reminiscent of Buzzfeed quizzes but costs 250,000 dollars. . An issue with mydemocracy.ca was phrasing of the questions was focusing of the outcomes of the system rather than the systems themselves. This made it easy for the Liberal government to manipulate the questions to show how changes in the system could result in instability or unwanted outcomes. 50% of those who completed the quiz said they were somewhat satisfied about how democracy and 32% not satisfied there is a clear disappointment with the current electoral system. MP Nathan Cullen pointed out that many of the questions were unclear and thus, lead to unclear answers. With under 1.5% of eligible voters utilizing mydemocracy.ca it would be inappropriate to derive any concrete conclusions from the results, nevertheless some results of the quiz was utilized to justify rejecting electoral reform.

Due to the lack of clarity and “broad support”, the Liberal government suggests that a referendum is needed to engage Canadians with the topic of electoral reform. Maryam Monsef is now the Minister on the Status of Women and has been replaced by Karina Gould who has officially become the youngest appointed member of Cabinet. In the past week, Gould has been advocating first past the post which contrasts to Monsef’s opinion of the system as “antiquated. Her new mandate is to “offer advice to Canada’s political parties and Elections Canada on best practices when it comes to cyber security.” which is a complete shift in the portfolio’s agenda. There is a source that states that the decision to abandon electoral reform was made early on in 2016. If the Liberal government never intended on implementing electoral reform, they should not have spent the resources that they did on the ERRE and mydemocracy.ca knowing their intentions and that these two government actions would inspire hope in those who wanted to see this change. Currently, there is a greater mobilization of support for electoral reform from citizens and within the House of Commons. In combination with the plethora of advantages and solutions that electoral reform offers to address democratic deficits in Canada, the Liberal government ought to revisit electoral reform.

11 comments for “Justin Trudeau, Heart Breaker: The False Promise of Electoral Reform

  1. February 27, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    After a very thorough review and extensive public discussions, it was apparent that no consensus exists for electoral reform in Canada and, apart from a relatively small number of political activists, the vast majority of Canadians are not interesting in changing how they vote. It was time to pull the plug on this exercise.

    • Tom Friesen
      March 1, 2017 at 9:22 pm

      The largest online petition since the option was launched would suggest otherwise (now at over 130,000 signers).

      https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-616

    • Jennifer Chan
      March 1, 2017 at 11:48 pm

      Hey Michael, thanks for your comment. I think the way electoral reform was covered by the media made it seem like a small promise from Trudeau and that there was little support for it. However, since 2001 there have been active groups advocating for electoral reform such as Fair Vote Canada. Additionally, the NDP and Green Party both vocally support electoral reform. As Tom has said, the e-petition 616, referenced in the article, is currently the most signed petition on the government website and as Kelly has pointed out below, consensus was reached by the ERRE on a need for reform. Evidently, there is strong support for electoral reform from Canadians and from within the government. It is just unfortunate that this support was not fully recognized until after the dismissal of electoral reform.

      • March 2, 2017 at 8:27 am

        Hi Jennifer. I agree there was (and still is) consensus by the Fair Vote people, but not on the broader political scene. The Conservatives wanted to keep FPTP. The NDP and Greens were divided between MMP and STV, Justin Trudeau preferred Ranked Ballots, a few Liberal MPs supported MMP and many (like me) preferred FPTP. Some people wanted a referendum. Others, including the NDP until the last moment, opposed a referendum as “undemocratic.”

  2. Gary Shaul (former Fair Vote Canada national councillor - 2015-2017)
    February 28, 2017 at 12:22 am

    Trudeau will never reconsider his position. As pointed out in the article, it was a charade all along meant to get votes. It was a lie from the start finished off by more lies to justify the “decision”. The lesson to be learned is not to that we need to explain it better. The lesson is that the Liberal and Conservative parties have an unwritten agreement to only hand power to each other in service to the 1% who are fully backed by all the media editorial boards in the country. That is who reformers were up against. The stakes were high and that is why the Liberals never had any intention of ditching first-past-the-post. Energies would best be used learning from the federal campaign and applying those lessons to provincial and municipal opportunities. Investing more energy into Justin Trudeau and his Liberal clapping seals is counter-productive to those ends.

    • Jennifer Chan
      March 2, 2017 at 12:07 am

      Hi Gary, thanks for your comment! While reformers are against media editorial boards and the stance of Trudeau, I believe that there is always value in educating folks about electoral reform and explaining the different forms of electoral systems. One of the hurdles in the electoral reform movement is that the strength of the support base is limited to the number of people who are aware of and are knowledgeable on the topic. I believe that this reasoning also attributed to the low response to mydemocracy.ca. Thus, investing energy into education would be conducive in garnering support for electoral reform and inspiring change, if not in this government, it could in the next.

  3. February 28, 2017 at 8:05 am

    Actually, there was a consensus, just not the one preferred by the PM: http://www.fairvote.ca/strong-mandate/

    http://www.fairvote.ca/mydemocracyresults/

  4. Stu
    February 28, 2017 at 10:52 am

    Maybe we need to work more on collecting the votes than figuring out how to count the votes or at least we could say that we need to collect the votes before we count the votes….

    We need a system that allows the voter the ability to:

    Vote in any language that they choose.
    Watch a video explaining how the electoral system works before voting.
    Have instant access to statistical and biographical information for all the parties and candidates in the running.
    Take their time and cast their ballot in a familiar and comfortable setting, like at home or their place of work.

    We need a system:

    That is secure and safe to use and provides voter anonymity.
    That’s programmed to eliminate the possibility of user input errors such as leaving a box blank or filling in more than one box.
    That is environmentally friendly.
    That allows the mobility challenged as well as all our citizens working outside of Canada, an easy way to vote.
    That provides instant data and requires no manual input, resulting in better and faster election results.
    That is cost effective to run and won’t overburden the taxpayers.

  5. Jordan
    February 28, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    still time to hit up the e-petition to get election reform back on the docket.
    https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-616

    I for one am very angry at how Trudeau played us along on this. He was voted in because “he was new and refreshing”. Now once elected we see he’s just one of the good ‘ol boys his father so despised.

    its because of politicians like Justin we need PR Voting now more than ever to keep these ego maniacs on a short lease.

    O’Leary winning 2019 with 39% of the popular vote would be great karma.

  6. February 28, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    If only Britain and Canada knew what proportional representation is. The principle of PR between constituencies, the “equal constituencies” provision is used to justify FPTP as a form of equal representation. True, single member districts are patronising monopolies, and that is why incumbents won’t give them up. But identifying PR with party-proportional counts also monopolises representation by the party favorites in party list systems. In fact the so-called electoral reformers favored system of MMP combines monopolistic candidates in single districts with monopolistic party lists of candidates, instead of voters lists (which means a ranked choice for all voters or a preference vote). MMP is a doubly monopolistic “reform” or holy grail of too many reformers, which the Richard report said denied voters the fundamental democratic right to reject candidates.
    As for the democratic voting system, prefered by the Richard report and some half-dozen other official UK reports, as well as the BC Citizens Assembly, I didn’t notice the above very long article mention it.
    Richard Lung. “Democracy Science” links to 3 free e-books on election method.

  7. Elvis Picard
    March 3, 2017 at 8:38 am

    I’ve had this argument with a few, very motivated, people who are upset with Trudeau, the son’s, decision: in 2015 Canada replaced the Conservative Party (that had started out as a grassroots movement in Alberta in the late1980’s and had just run the country for 9 years+) by the Liberal Party that was in a distant 3rd place when the Writ dropped, that had to beg it’s current leader to become leader after he said no twice. So, where exactly is the ‘failing’ of Canadian democracy? Although, I personally feel if Jack Layton hadn’t succumbed to cancer, he’d probably be our PM right now. I believe at the time J. Trudeau was sincere, he did create a Ministerial position, created a feedback website and had the committee travel and get input. The committee couldn’t reach a consensus, the Official Opposition demanded a referendum and the vast majority of Canadians demanded nothing. Then, The Farce that Must be Reckoned With got elected US President and the Government realized Canada couldn’t waste 10 years navel-gazing (2, possibly 3, or more, elections) while we figured out how the new system worked, because we have thousands & thousands of jobs at stake at the whim of a simply unqualified narcissist. That being said, it’s not like a few small tweaks wouldn’t fix some of the most glaring issues: 1) Eliminate fixed election dates, this diminishes the power of the Lobbyists & PACs 2) Every donation over $100.00 has to be made public 3) Limit the federal Election Campaign to 36 days maximum 4) Keep election finance laws in place all year round 4) Re-instate the Voter subsidy threshold to level the playing field somewhat, the Green Party benefitted when it did exist 5) Complete transparency on MP & Senator expenses, on the Internet or similar 6) Referendums should also be held on voting days, Municipal, Territorial, Provincial & Federal and 7) finally make a change on the Senate, either reform or eliminate, things can’t continue the way they have been.

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