By Richard Forbes.
He sure knows how to command our attention: the prime minister, speaking to Le Devoir, appears to suggest the Liberals may backtrack on one of their key promises from last fall.
Although the Liberals have promised to replace the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system with an alternative electoral system, Trudeau suggests that since leading the country, the desire for electoral change has diminished; the priority given to electoral reform, it follows, was always predicated on Canada’s frustration with his predecessor. The prime minister also argues that the greater, the reform proposed, the greater, the public buy-in that first must take place before introducing said reform. Some took the latter as a slight at proportional representation (PR), which would cluster constituencies into multi-member constituencies — a significant change that the NDP and the Greens have held would be acceptable without a referendum since they support the reform.
The finer politics of the current situation are easy to miss: the NDP, via Nathan Cullen, told the Ribbon that a referendum wouldn’t be necessary if “more than one major party supports the outcome,” while Elizabeth May from the Green Party told us a referendum wouldn’t be necessary if “most of the parties at the table, ideally a consensus” agreed to the reform plan. Both leaders here are prepositioning themselves with leverage against the government, but in specifying “one major party,” the NDP is also cutting the Greens out of the agreement. Both also suggest that an element of proportionality must be in place for either party to support the government’s proposal; as a result, we can assume without a major reform change, the whole of the opposition will clamor for a referendum. Trudeau’s comments to Le Devoir makes for a clever dig at their logic: more change requires more support, not less, he argues.
Predictably, backlash for his comments in Le Devoir has been swift. According to various pundits and columnists, Trudeau’s comments hint at an imminent about-face on electoral reform. The cynic’s take from his interview has been, in short, that the Liberals are less interested in electoral reform now that the current system has delivered them a resounding majority in parliament. Why ruin a good thing, after all? Meanwhile, electoral reform groups like Fair Vote Canada and democratic activists have been livid; scolding the government for its apparent betrayal of voters. The NDP’s Tom Mulcair also emerged from somewhere dark to remind us that he’s still alive and outraged — outraged! — at the backpedaling.
Except we’ve seen this routine before: the prime minister implies something fairly explosive — a walkback, a reversal, something radical — only to then do as expected only after the opposition has lowered the public’s expectations for him with hours of chanting, groveling and desk-banging.
Frankly, the Conservatives looked ridiculous when they had spent a week accusing the government for abandoning Kevin Garratt when China released him soon after; they looked ridiculous when their fevered pitch for liquid natural gas hit an ultrasonic frequency, the very same day as an entire entourage of ministers was descending on the Pacific Coast to announce the government was approving said LNG project; and they looked patently moronic when the Liberals chose quite possibly the most East Coast East Coaster — barring Anne Green of Gables and the Gorton’s Fishsticks guy — only after the Conservatives had wasted hours of House of Commons debate time, countless questions, op-eds and motions emptily chiding the Liberals for suggesting they might not appoint an East Coaster to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Cromwell.
As the old saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me five times, shame on the people who elected me.”
Now, the Liberals seem set to use this tactic once err, twice more. First, on electoral reform. Next, on a Bombardier handout, which the Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains now says is not a question of “if” but “how,” despite being attacked in March by a Conservative motion for hinting they might not support Bombardier. With electoral reform, such a crafty “fake-out” on the part of the prime minister serves a dual purpose. In hinting that he might abandon his electoral reform, Trudeau is baiting the Tories to jump off message and goad him for breaking a promise (that he intends on keeping), rather than attacking him for not calling a referendum on electoral reform as they’ve currently been doing ad nauseum.
Turning the NDP’s argument on its head, Trudeau is also playing a subtle expectations game: arguing that a major change towards a proportional system, rather than being the most legitimate path forward, requires greater public support to legitimize the change. In effect, the prime minister is sending a tough message to the opposition parties, support his preferred (and far more modest) plan, a preferential ballot, or call for a (hopeless) referendum for proportional representation.
In writing off the Liberals’ hopes to replace FPTP, pundits assumed — quite unfairly — that Trudeau and his administration find electoral reform as unimportant as they do. Call me old fashioned, call me naive, sure, but one fairly obvious explanation for why such a specific promise for reform was made in the platform might be that the prime minister actually … believes in the need for electoral reform, no?
Being able to rank candidates on your ballot is a way of broadening your choice as a voter to express your will and it’s also an important step in ensuring members are selected with majority support among their constituents. Whereas, the question of proportionality is a very specific and abstract problem — a poor translation of the people’s will that occurs in the singularizing of constituencies — representing areas with one voice rather than three or four. The prime minister may have other concerns on his mind, especially as he, along with everyone else, watches the political situation in America disintegrate: namely, incivility and divisiveness in politics. In stump speeches all across the country during his pre-election circuit and later during the election, Trudeau championed the preferential ballot as yet another weapon in democracy’s arsenal democracy to fight against the political extremism and the negative politics that his administration has largely forgone with admirable brio.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.