My long-term focus is getting the right system

by Paul Wells

Justin Trudeau was eight minutes late for our interview on Monday, which was no hardship, since we’d budgeted a comfortable 40 minutes and I was waiting in the cosy confines of his own office on the third floor of Parliament’s Centre Block. Framed photo of his dad in the corner, under a contemporary caricature of Wilfrid Laurier. Medallion in the shape of the Montreal Canadiens logo hanging from the bookshelf in the opposite corner.

Trudeau was somewhere else. “What’s he doing?” I asked his press secretary.

“Briefing for this, I think.”

Tommy DesfossÈs, the PM’s assistant, wandered in, hunting for the boss’s suit jacket. I was once jokingly critical of Trudeau for going without a jacket at a public event. This time he’d have it on when he made his entrance.

When the prime minister did show up, he was so thoroughly prepared on so many files he was like an inflated balloon. Answers came out in a rush. He had a lot to say. It was an easy decision to run his answers over several days.

The Liberals had just climbed down, spectacularly, on the composition of a special committee looking into electoral reform. At first Maryam Monsef, the young lead minister on the file, announced a committee on which the party was the majority, as it is in the Commons.

The NDP screamed blue (orange?) murder, and finally Trudeau and Monsef relented: The Liberals would give up their majority in a way that more closely reflected the 39 per cent of the popular vote they had in last October’s election.

Trudeau told me it was a peacemaking effort. “Over the past months it became clear that the toxicity levels in the House were rising. And we’re happy to demonstrate that we are serious about doing things differently.”

But his other remarks suggested this was a tactical retreat. When the composition of the committee was the issue, the Liberals were isolated, a bullying majority with a veto over every other party’s preferences.

Now Trudeau hopes to isolate one of his opponents: the Conservatives.

The Conservative opposition has insisted that any change to the way MPs are elected must be approved by Canadians in a national referendum. “But they’re the only ones pushing for a referendum,” Trudeau told the Star.

“The other opposition parties think we should have much broader, more open consultations and a more open-ended engagement with Canadians than the specific up-or-down of a referendum.”

As always, Trudeau offered no details on the precise nature of the “open-ended engagement” he prefers to a national vote on election reform. But he made it clear he will avoid a referendum if he can.

“You know, referendum campaigns are tremendously exciting in terms of selling newspapers. But do they directly lead to better outcomes for Canadians in their electoral system? I think there’s a strong argument to be made that, not necessarily.”

I thought he was maybe selling the merits of selling newspapers short. What’s wrong with selling newspapers? But Trudeau was adamant.

“The black-and-whiteness of a referendum – and the political campaigning around self-interest that happens anytime you have the starkness of a referendum – impedes the very free and grounded conversation about what kind of values underpin our electoral system,” he said.

“We want to get to the substance of the conversation. What do people expect from their governments in terms of representation? What do they expect from parliamentarians? How do they want to go about choosing those parliamentarians? How do we get to governments that have greater than just, you know, 39 per cent of the population for a majority of seats?”

That last bit sounded self-deprecating. It was, in fact, Trudeau’s own Liberals who won a majority with “just” 39 per cent of the popular vote last October, much as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had done four years earlier.

But it also sounded like a reminder that Liberals, including Trudeau, are usually thought to prefer a very specific kind of electoral reform. Proportional representation would give each party a number of seats closer to its share of the popular vote. Preferential ballots would allocate the second choices of voters who preferred less-popular parties to more-popular parties. The first system would leave the Liberals with 39 per cent of the seats in the Commons, scrambling for coalition partners. The second would swell their ranks with second-choice support from fans of smaller parties.

Does Trudeau have a soft spot for preferential balloting? He didn’t say no. But he claimed he’s trying not to let his own preferences matter.

“Because I’m the leader of a party that is very much focused on appealing to the broadest possible number of people as opposed to narrowing voices, you could certainly make arguments around one form or another,” he said, backing away from a clear answer in the home stretch of a long sentence.

“But I’m really open. I’m really open to listening to Canadians. And actually, I have moved in my thinking toward a greater degree of openness towards what Canadians actually want.

“I’m very aware that the decision we take on electoral reform – we as a country – will have long-reaching implications over the next generations. Because you don’t change your parliamentary system very quickly or easily. And my long-term focus is getting the right system for Canadians. And it’s not up to any one person, even if it’s the prime minister, to define exactly what that right system is.

“We can all have different opinions and perceptions, but mine are obviously going to be coloured by the fact that I think diversity within a party, broad-based consensus, is the best thing for this country. Liberals would certainly agree. Canadians might not agree. And I think this is an important conversation to have, where we do have to respect Canadians.”

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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