OTTAWA — Liberal insiders say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pulled the plug on electoral reform because he didn’t want to plunge the country into a divisive referendum and feared that proportional representation would lead to white nationalists’ acquiring seats in the House of Commons — concerns dismissed by critics Friday.
Several government sources, speaking to The Huffington Post Canada on condition of anonymity, said a decision to abandon the Liberals’ election promise of making the 2015 election the last held under a first-past-the-post system was reached after a two-hour discussion at the January cabinet retreat in Calgary. Only one cabinet minister was opposed.
Justin Trudeau answers a question in the House of Commons on Jan. 31. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The government concluded that the only way to keep its promise would be to hold a referendum — possibly coincident with the 2019 election — and present a proposal for a more proportional system.
That wasn’t what the Liberals wanted to do. Trudeau was always in favour of a preferential ballot, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. The candidates with the worst first-choice support drop from the ballot, with their votes redistributed according to the second choice on each until a winning candidate obtains 50 per cent support. But the experts that testified at the special parliamentary committee on electoral reform didn’t support it, and neither did the Canadians who came to voice their opinions.
Tabling legislation to ram through a preferential ballot without parliamentary support would have been seen as transparently self-serving, a senior Liberal said.
Trudeau never liked proportional representation. While these types of voting systems tend to prevent a political party from obtaining the majority of the seats with a minority of votes — something Trudeau’s Liberals and former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper have recently enjoyed — proportional representation also tends to create conditions for more political parties and coalition governments. The prime minister and those around him believed it could cause a “total mess” in Canada, give an “alt-right party” representation, and create more regional parties that would further split the country apart.
The so-called alternative right movement originated in the U.S. and is an offshoot of conservatism that combines elements of racism, white nationalism and populism.
“Quite frankly, a divisive referendum at this time [would lead to] an augmentation of extremist voices in the House is not what is in the best interest of Canada,” Trudeau told the Commons this week.
Putting any system — let alone one the prime minister was opposed to — to Canadians via a referendum wasn’t what the Grits wanted, but it is what the opposition-members of the special committee on electoral reform recommended. The Conservatives, the NDP, the Bloc Québécois and the Green member all came to agreement late in the fall that a proportional system should be presented to the people for their approval. (The Liberal members on the committee dissented from the majority, instead recommending taking more time to study the issue.)
Newly minted Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould strongly opposed a referendum, and her arguments persuaded some skeptics. The team around Trudeau had always feared that a referendum on a new voting system could easily and uncontrollably turn into a debate over other issues. But now, they and others believe it would open a whole can of worms on regional vetoes, the threshold for necessary support, and create important federal precedents with national-unity implications.
“We didn’t want to reopen the Clarity Act issues,” one source explained.
Would 50 per cent plus one vote be enough?
"We didn’t want to reopen the Clarity Act issues."
If two-thirds of the country favoured electoral reform but one region or province did not, should the government press ahead regardless and force them to change the way they elect their MPs?
If the Liberals chose to use super-majorities, such as 60 per cent and two-thirds of the ridings with at least 50 per cent support as was used in Ontario and British Columbia during their plebiscites, would the government be accused of fixing the vote to guarantee it to fail?
Was it worth the risk? Was it worth the time and effort and political capital wasted on something the governing party didn’t want?
The answer became no.
Gov't: little public interest on electoral reform
Although a vocal citizens group was strongly calling for proportional representation, the government contended that the general public had shown little interest in the topic.
The town halls, committee hearings, and a much maligned mydemocracy.ca survey had failed to garner much attention, sources close to the file suggested. The mydemocracy.ca survey had more than 380,000 unique visitors fill out the questionnaire — a large number, perhaps, but only a small percentage of the Canadian population, another government source noted.
“Why put Parliament and the country through a remarkably potentially divisive referendum that would suck up all the political oxygen in Parliament for something that Canadians maybe don’t necessarily even want? That’s the problem.”
The government knew there was no consensus in Parliament for sweeping electoral change. The NDP and the Greens favoured a proportional system that would benefit their smaller parties. The Conservatives favoured the status quo and believed Canadians could be convinced in a referendum to stick with first-past-the-post. And the Liberals wanted preferential voting.
"I have long preferred a preferential ballot. The members opposite wanted a proportional representation. The official Opposition wanted a referendum. There is no consensus."
— Prime Minister Trudeau
Elections Canada Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand had warned the government in his fall report that it should not change to the way Canadians elect their MPs without widespread parliamentary support.
“I urge parliamentarians as much as possible to collaborate and seek a broad consensus when it comes to changes to the Act; our democratic system will be best strengthened when amendments reflect the views of a large number of political participants,” Mayrand wrote. New Zealand, he pointed out, requires a special majority of parliamentarians to enact big legislative change to their electoral framework. “I believe this is something that parliamentarians should consider.”
If agreement couldn’t be found, Trudeau was ready to abandon his promise.
“I have long preferred a preferential ballot. The members opposite wanted a proportional representation. The official Opposition wanted a referendum. There is no consensus,” Trudeau said in the House this week.
“It would be irresponsible for us to do something that harm's Canada's stability when, in fact, what we need is moving forward on growth for the middle class,” he added.
Key election pledge
The Liberals had promised electoral reform when they were in third place and the NDP, according to public opinion surveys, looked like the preferred option to replace the decade-old Conservative government.
The party’s platform was silent on what system the Liberals would propose — mentioning only that a committee would study proportional representation and preferential ballots.
Many Liberals believed a preferential system was really what was on the table.
"Yes, the prime minister made that commitment [to end first-past-the-post], but a lot of people thought he was talking about ranked ballots," Montreal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, the chair of the electoral committee, told reporters back in December.
"...Nobody wants ranked ballots. So, where does that leave us?"
Trudeau spoke on the topic in 2012
While one senior source insisted the prime minister was open to other voting systems, Trudeau had championed a preferential system since at least 2012, successfully urging delegates at the Liberal party’s convention that year to call for preferential ballots in all future federal elections.
A ranked ballot was simple to understand, easy to incorporate, and would encourage more candidates to seek out second and third ballot support, the then-backbench MP said.
“The advantage is that it removes polarization,” Trudeau explained.
“Will this help us? Me, I’m a fairly polarizing figure. It might actually harm me in my own riding. But I think it’s a good thing for Canada that we move towards,” he said.
Maryam Monsef holds up a print out of the Gallagher Index while speaking to journalists on electoral reform in December 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Perhaps the Liberals were outmanoeuvred by the opposition parties on the election file, several sources acknowledged.
The government’s initial attempt to stack the electoral committee with a majority of Liberal MPs created a large public backlash. Just days before the government publicly agreed to an NDP motion of handing over the majority of the seats on the committee to opposition parties, Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions at the time, began talking about the need for “broad support” from Canadians before moving forward with any reform.
Despite favouring a preferential system, the Liberals didn’t campaign for it. Trudeau wasted no political capital making the case for it. Instead, the government took a very hands-off approach with the committee’s work. One source suggested the Liberals were “really sensitive” to opposition fears that they would force a preferential ballot through despite their objections.
By the fall, however, it was clear the experts were advocating proportional representation. Citizens who were engaged were demanding PR and a large part of the citizenry was indifferent. So Trudeau — and his cabinet — decided that keeping the Liberals’ promise was less important than possibly forcing fundamental change they didn't want, especially for a change the prime minister believed might be detrimental to the country.
In the Commons on Friday, the NDP accused the Liberals of reaching for any excuse to justify their broken promise.
“In their desperate attempt to justify their betrayal on electoral reform, Liberals are reaching for any excuse, however ridiculous or absurd. Liberals say that proportional representation will herald the rise of the alt-right forces in Canada,” said Nathan Cullen, the party’s democratic institutions critic. “Well, Donald Trump was elected on first-past-the-post with no problem, and yet, a fair voting system is the actual antidote to such campaigns like his or maybe Kevin O'Leary’s.”
Proportional representation helps elect more women, creates more diverse parliaments, and forces parties to work together to help bring a country like Canada together, Cullen added.
“Will the Liberals finally admit they broke their promise to fix the voting system not because it was a threat to Canadian unity, but because it was a threat to the Liberal Party?” he said.
Liberals made a 'hasty decision': prof
Queen’s University associate political studies professor Jonathan Rose believes the government is overreaching and made a “hasty decision.”
“I knew the prime minister was in favour preferential ballots, but I didn’t know he was completely antithetical to PR,” Rose told HuffPost Friday. “People who have a knee-jerk reaction to any kind of systems often don’t know the intricacies of it.
“PR systems can be created so they are stable and they can be created so that it doesn’t affect representation of parties really,” he added.
If voters in a referendum approved PR, Rose noted, the government would still be the one designing the system, controlling how seats are allocated, and could ensure that a minimum threshold is needed so that “bad parties are kept out.”
“They are absolutely exaggerating the effects of PR by saying that,” Rose added.