National Column: Voting reform promise just a prop

by Chantal Hebert

As recently as his town hall tour, Justin Trudeau was insisting that he was still interested in changing the voting system.

In early December, the prime minister similarly told the Star editorial board that he remained committed to having a new system in place by 2019.

“I make promises because I believe in them … Canadians don’t expect us to throw up our hands when things get difficult,” he proclaimed.

But things, as it turned out, never had a chance to get difficult.

For it is fair to ask whether Trudeau was ever serious about keeping his word to Canadians. From day one, his government’s actions on the file never matched his words.

With a clock ticking on the logistical feasibility of replacing the first-past-the-post system in time for 2019, it took months for a special parliamentary committee to be set up.

Once it was in place, the government never advanced a position or tried, in any way, to craft the consensus that it now says it has failed to find.

For months on end, the opposition parties and Canadians alike were left to try to divine Trudeau’s thinking.

At times, it was as if the Liberals were going out of their way to ensure that no pattern could be discerned in the tea leaves they purported to be guided by.

They rejected both the notion of putting various options to a consultative referendum or of asking Canadians for their preference in the massive online consultation they engaged in at the end of last year.

In politics, a consensus is not like a rare mushroom only to be found by an extraordinarily lucky hunter. In any event, in this case, the government seemed more concerned with burying any hint of a consensus than unearthing one.

It is true that the exercise did not elicit much appetite for a ranked ballot, Trudeau’s preferred alternative to the first-past-the-post system. But then it is not as if the government even tried to make a case for it.

The opposition parties feel that they were taken for a yearlong ride, and it is hard to disagree with them.

As the sole elected MP of her party, Green Leader Elizabeth May did double and triple duty last fall to participate in the process. Electoral reform is a long-standing priority of her party. On Wednesday she said she had never felt so betrayed by a government.

For his part, the NDP’s Nathan Cullen called the prime minister a liar.

Expect parliamentary co-operation, going forward, to be hard to come by.

There are those who will argue that Trudeau is wise to walk away from his electoral-reform promise, as he needs to clear the decks to focus on the Canada/U.S. front.

But then one could make that same pronouncement about many other Liberal commitments, including some that are more likely to act as irritants in dealing with the new White House. The plan to legalize marijuana comes to mind.

The election of Donald Trump has brought about a major reallocation of government resources on Parliament Hill. But it would be easier to find virtue in the government’s timing if it had shown one ounce of political will to fulfil its promise in the full year that preceded the American election.

Or if Trudeau had not continued to say he intended to change the voting system months after Trump’s

The prime minister could have come to Canadians this week to say he had underestimated the time required to reform the system and that he needed to push back the deadline for achieving his goal beyond 2019.

But Wednesday’s announcement was about pulling the plug on the plan, not about recasting it.

Canadian voters are a forgiving lot. The assumption by Liberal government strategists that most will not be inclined to punish Trudeau for breaking a promise that never ranked high in the electorate’s list of priorities is probably right.

After all, a plurality of Canadians did not hold it against Jean ChrÈtien that he broke the more central promise to replace the GST.

There are parallels. Both commitments were shiny Liberal platform objects that turned out to be little more than cheap props. Plus Áa change!

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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