By Richard Forbes.
Make no mistake, I was positively livid when Democratic Institutions minister Karina Gould announced the Liberals were backing away from their electoral reform pledge.
While not a central plank of the Liberals’ campaign platform, electoral reform had offered a tantalizing prospect of ‘real change’ – hopes which were dashed that morning by Gould’s first scrum in the foyer. The campaign promise had been specific on some details the Liberals needn’t have been specific about (“within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform”) which gave the pledge credibility and made it hurt that much more when the promise was reversed over a single morning. While they were at, the Liberals may as well have specified what pen Trudeau would use to sign electoral reform legislation with (Ballpoint? Fountain? Black? Red?), and what tie he would have worn during the ceremony (Purple/maroon seems like a safe bet.)
Using one of the Liberals’ youngest MPs to voice their government’s about-face on an issue close to Liberal youth’s hearts also reeks of cynicism. I can’t imagine the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) will show much respect to a minister whose first act as minister was to kill a campaign promise as requested by the PMO without, presumably, any interest from the PMO with regards to what they as a minister could do to salvage the promise.
For all the grandeur of holding the title of ‘minister’, such an early capitulation signals to everyone including the PMO that you’re a cog in the wheel. The popular understanding that only loyal soldiers have successful political careers is as far from the truth as could possibly be misconstrued. Loyalty is rewarded, but respect is a currency all to itself. When Jean Chrétien was a thirty-four year old junior minister, you can bet your sweet derrière he wouldn’t have taken a ministerial position under such an ultimatum when it was clear his opinions and input as minister would not have been valued from the onset.
But still, it should be said the blame for this failure lies mostly with the PMO, rather than the minister who is only formally responsible. It’s a failure too that speaks to the serious divide between the current PMO and the Pearson government it professes to emulate: the current PMO is a modern entity with a modern news cycle to survive; whereas, the Pearson government appointed ‘fixers’ like young Jean Chrétien for problem files, the new Trudeau government would rather appoint a sacrificial lamb in a vain attempt at image management and publicity.
In doing so, it also demonstrates what little respect they can have for Canadian youth; despite all of the platitudinous activity of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council and its recent ‘Converge 2017’ convention, I have yet to see where youth are particularly valued by the Liberal Party’s current handlers. You see no baby-faced Jim Coutts running the top shop nowadays. By Keith Davey’s standards, Gerald Butts would have been Senator Gerald Butts for almost a decade by now. The PMO of today bears little resemblance to the young Cell 13 that engineered the end of the so-called Diefenbaker Interlude. Whereas the Harper PMO exploited Conservative youth as ‘boys in short pants’ for their naiveté and their general lack of principles, the Trudeau government seems to value youth for their appearance and what their vibrancy ‘represents’ for its party’s image rather than their intelligence, their problem-solving abilities, their energy and openness to new ideas.
I’ve defended the federal government’s MyDemocracy.ca survey and some of Maryam Monsef’s antics in the past – the level of consultation seemed appropriate and the ERRE was the all-party political circus we all expected it to be – but electoral reform is still ultimately a failure of the Trudeau Liberals. The root of their failure was a mistake on their part to not pledge a specific electoral reform plan of their own in their campaign platform; rather than have Trudeau muse about preferential ballots, the plan should have been put in writing. Failure to do so left the Liberals under attack for a plan they never endorsed and worse still, locked them into a terrible dilemma of their own making: with the ERRE not endorsing a specific system, the Liberals were forced to either implement a new electoral system unilaterally without having endorsed it during a campaign or pursue the change through an expensive and divisive referendum.
But those that glibly have used this reversal as evidence that a ‘Liberal promise is still a Liberal promise’ and a ‘Trudeau promise is still a Trudeau promise’ would be wise to hold their tongue. Certainly, Justin Trudeau is his father’s son and his party is his father’s party – and it’s for that very reason that you should never completely write off electoral reform.
Electoral reform bears an obvious resemblance to constitutional reform – there were multiple failures at creating a constitutional amending formula for almost every decade after the Statute of Westminster was enacted – indeed, it was a complicated, routinely dismissed and esoteric subject that Pierre Trudeau himself was compelled by, a zeal which his English Canadian colleagues did not share (they would have preferred he had taken a greater interest in the burgeoning recession.) Trudeau himself was elected in the wake of Trudeaumania promising constitutional reform and if he had lost the 1972 election, perhaps history would remember him less kindly as the goof who broke his promises and oversaw the spectacular collapse of the Victoria Charter negotiations, rather than the man who patriated the constitution a decade later.
It was the dramatic arc of Trudeau’s career and his passion and vision for the subject that transformed the dusty subject of an amending formula into a nation-building moment and perhaps, the single greatest political victory in Canadian history.
Therefore, don’t be surprised if electoral reform, in all its niche, technical aloofness, takes on the same legacy-defining role in the years to come as constitutional patriation did for another man named Trudeau. People don’t often remember your successes in government, but they also don’t remember many of your failures either (just the big ones) – what they do remember are the times you succeed where you once failed. Those are the victories above all else that redeem governments. Because nothing, absolutely nothing, makes victories more impressive than failure. It’s the ability to pick one’s self up that comes to define our character in history, far more so than the punches we give and take.
Re-approaching electoral reform for the Liberal Party will take some time, however. Years, in fact. Not just because ‘time heals wounds’ but because some difficult conditions will have to be meant for the next approach to have a real possibility of success:
1) The Liberal Caucus must be behind the plan. It was a recipe for failure from the beginning, an affront to the party’s very orthodoxy, for the Trudeau Liberals to push for electoral reform without the caucus and the party having first agreed upon a specific idea to propose for how to reform the electoral system. The party must be on the same page to direct a change and for that, the subject matter demands both leadership and compromise from the party’s top insiders.
2) The Liberals will have to get creative. Electoral reform is thoroughly entrenched in political science, so much so even that academics have carved out boilerplate systems – FPTP, AV, MMP, STV, List PR – and case studies, without leaving room for the necessary creativity and pragmatism that the Trudeau Liberals will need to come up with a plan that suits Canada.
For example, despite all of the discussion that took place on electoral reform over the past year, my suggestion that proportional representation be countervailed with parliamentary reform still came largely as a novelty. We’ll need to rethink what we want from reform and how we can actually do that in Canada.
3) Quebec must be behind the plan. When polled, Quebecers are most likely to support electoral reform and yet it was Quebec that was most out of touch with the government’s e-consultations on electoral reform. As little as 7% of the respondents in the government’s e-consultation were Quebecers and as little as 4% of were francophone. This gives the impression that electoral reform is an anglophone issue – that focusing on it would be like Pearson throwing himself at the national flag debate to the complete apathy and general bemusement of Quebec. The Liberals will have to do a better job at involving the province in the electoral reform debate and getting to understand what Quebecers especially want from electoral reform, so that they can find a plan that unites the country more.
4) The plan must consist of a path for implementation. The process of implementation in the case of electoral reform, much like constitutional reform, must be both legitimate and realistic in its prospects of success. The greater the number of actors that need to support a proposal to move forward, the harder success becomes and the more legitimacy it conveys. It was the Patriation Reference  to the Supreme Court of Canada which gave Trudeau his path to patriation; although denying his ability to amend the constitution unilaterally against the Gang of Eight (provinces who opposed his plans), the court’s response detailed how he had to go about patriation conventionally: he needed substantial support among the provinces.
In much the same way, today’s Liberals will have to decide what would count as success. I would suggest pledging a specific electoral system during a campaign, then refining the details of that system with a Senate committee and a Citizen’s Assembly (rather than the ‘blue skies’ think tanks which result in proposals that a government feels it cannot directly endorse – as was the case in Ontario and BC.)
Certainly I’ve never felt as though I am a core constituent of any party, but my reaction to Karina Gould’s news – disappointment rather than resignation – made me realize that my home is with the party that stands the best chance of picking up the pieces and finishing what was started: that is, the same party that started the conversation in the first place.
Since it was Stéphane Dion who first pulled me into politics with his Green Shift in the 2008 federal election, it seems appropriate that in the same week Dion is departing from politics as the new ambassador for Germany and the EU that I’ve come to the realization I am a liberal – but not just any liberal, a Dion liberal. Like Dion, I think I represent a idealistic wing of the party – a bit intellectual and a bit crabby, really – but an honest sort. And in the years to come, I believe there will be a space in the Liberal Party once more for the same musings as Dion’s which gave birth to its ill-fated pledge this past election.
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.