National Column: Lessons from Trudeau’s electoral reform fiasco

by Thomas Walkom

Two lessons can be drawn from the federal government’s electoral reform fiasco last week.

The first is that political parties favour whatever voting system favours them.

The second is that while a small number of Canadians care a great deal about whether the country should adopt a different form of electing MPs, a much greater number don’t care at all.

The fiasco began during last year’s election campaign when Liberal leader Justin Trudeau rashly promised to implement an entirely new voting system before 2019.

Exactly why Trudeau made that pledge is unclear. Maybe he truly believed the current first-past-the-post system to be unfair. Maybe he wanted to burnish his image as a modern leader. Maybe he wanted to undercut the New Democrats (who had already embraced electoral reform).

What was clear at the time was there was no popular groundswell demanding changes to the current electoral system, which awards victory to the candidate who gets the most votes.

The fiasco continued when the entire project was sent to a special Commons committee that last week produced a less-than-definitive report.

I don’t mean to disparage the MPs on that committee.

Their report is comprehensive and worth reading. Given the real differences between their parties on this question, it is remarkable they came up with any report at all.

But those real differences are not trivial. The NDP and the Greens favour a version of proportional representation that tends to produce coalition governments.

Such governments give small parties like the NDP and Greens a shot at cabinet seats.

The Conservatives favour the current system because it gives them a good chance at majority government – particularly if the anti-Tory vote is split between the Liberals and NDP.

Trudeau has said he likes something called the ranked ballot system, in which voters’ second and subsequent choices are counted. It is used by Australia and favours parties like the Liberals, which are often everyone’s second choice.

It should be noted that since winning a parliamentary majority with only 39 per cent of the vote, Trudeau has become less critical of the current system.

In any case, the committee produced a curious report. Members agreed there should be a referendum before changing anything (although the NDP and the Greens said they didn’t agree that much).

Yet no one could agree on what options, other than the current first-past-the-post system, should be included in any referendum.

Finally, the Liberals – who started all of this in the first place – said the whole thing was too rushed and should be put off until after the next election.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef chided the committee for not making concrete
recommendations as to what might replace first-past-the-post. Committee members replied, correctly, that they hadn’t been asked to do that.

The committee wasn’t shy, however, about making recommendations in other areas it wasn’t asked to weigh in on.

It recommended against online voting. It also said voting should not be mandatory. And it said women seeking party nominations should receive financial support from the state.

Is anything going to come of this? Trudeau told the Star editorial board Friday that he’s still committed to replacing first-past-the-post before 2019.

“Canadians don’t expect us to throw up our hands when things get difficult,” he said.

To that end, his government is conducting one of its consultation exercises via Internet and postcard.

The prime minister said these consultations will focus on values rather than mechanics. Since electoral reform is all about mechanics, that may be difficult.

But I get his point. He doesn’t want the country to become bogged down debating obscure electoral variations, such as the Borda count and the Condorcet method.

Electoral reform has been under study in Canada since 1921. That’s when a Commons committee
recommended that in elections with more than two candidates a method called the alternative vote should be used.

Nothing came of that recommendation. Nor did anything come from the 1979 Task Force on Canadian Unity report, a 1985 Royal Commission report or a 2004 report by the Law Commission of Canada – all of which recommended some form of proportional representation.

The committee heard that alternative voting methods were tried in Manitoba and Alberta between the 1920s and 1950s – put in place by political parties that thought they could benefit from the change.

But when the benefits were no longer apparent, the parties changed their minds and reinstated the old first-past-the-post system. That’s our history.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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