OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau's newly minted minister for democratic institutions is refusing to repeat the prime minister's campaign promise that the 2015 election would be the last conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.
Asked twice Thursday if she's committed to ensuring the federal government honours Trudeau's promise, Karina Gould dodged both times, saying only that she's committed to getting briefed on the file.
Gould gave a similar response when asked if the government is still planning to introduce electoral reform legislation by May, as originally promised by Maryam Monsef, her predecessor in the portfolio.
The need to be briefed before commenting on specific issues is a common — and plausible — response from newly appointed ministers in any portfolio.
Karina Gould is sworn in as Minister of Democratic Institutions on Tuesday. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
But in Gould's case, the refusal to even repeat an explicit and unequivocal campaign promise will likely add fuel to suspicions that the Trudeau government is looking for an exit strategy on the troublesome electoral reform file.
Trudeau himself did not directly repeat the promise when asked about electoral reform Thursday during a town hall meeting in Kingston, Ont.
A woman who identified herself as a longtime Liberal asked Trudeau if he believes, as she does, that a proportional voting system — in which a party's share of seats in the House of Commons reflects its share of the popular vote — is best for Canada.
"I'm on record from before I became prime minister suggesting that I think an option in which people can rank their choices is probably suitable for Canada, but I have showed consistently that I'm open to a broad range of perspectives and views, including yours," Trudeau said.
Gov't is listening to Canadians: PM
"And what we are doing is we are listening carefully to Canadians, we are looking at the recommendations of the committee and we are going to move forward on improving our electoral system in a way that is consistent with the priorities and values that Canadians express."
Trudeau described electoral reform as "a complicated issue that people feel very strongly about on a number of different sides of the issue."
Indeed, it has been problematic for the government from the outset.
The Liberals waited six months before creating the promised all-party committee to explore alternatives to first-past-the post, even though the chief electoral officer had warned that Elections Canada would need a full two years to get any new voting system up and running in time for the next federal election in October 2019.
Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting in Belleville, Ont., on Thursday. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
It botched the launch of the committee by initially insisting that Liberal MPs should have majority control, which prompted opposition accusations that Trudeau wanted to impose his preferred ranked ballot voting system because it would primarily benefit the Liberal party.
The Liberals eventually ceded control over the committee and, in December, the opposition majority recommended that the government design a new proportional voting system and hold a national referendum to gauge public support for it. However, Liberal committee members urged Trudeau to abandon his campaign promise, arguing that there's no consensus on electoral reform and not enough time to implement it by 2019.
Monsef accused the committee of failing to do its job, for which she later apologized. But she too argued there was no consensus on the issue and warned that reform would not happen without broad support from Canadians.
She then launched an online survey, MyDemocracy.ca, which was mocked mercilessly for failing to ask Canadians for their opinions about any specific voting options. That survey closes Sunday.
"I'm committed to getting briefed up and making sure I'm as up to speed as possible on this file."
As Gould steps into the file, there is little appetite left for all-party collaboration and time is rapidly running out.
Asked in an interview Thursday if she and the government are still committed to ensuring that the voting system is reformed before the 2019 election, Gould said: "I'm committed to getting briefed up and making sure I'm as up to speed as possible on this file."
She noted that she's been the minister for just two days.
"At this point, it means doing some reading, asking some questions, having conversations and then moving on from there."