06/16/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 06/15/2016 05:59 EDT

Justin Trudeau: First-Past-The-Post System Needs To Go To 'Improve' Government

OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau is casting himself as the leader who will bring "real change" to what he calls a "partisan swamp" created by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's secretive, controlling and ultra-partisan style of governing.

The Liberal leader vowed Tuesday that if elected, he would enact a sweeping 32-point democratic reform plan aimed at making government more transparent, more responsive, more reflective of the voting choices of Canadians and less driven by raw partisanship.

The plan would change everything from the way people vote to how they access government services, starting with a promise to make this fall's federal election the last one conducted under the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Among other things, Trudeau promised a Liberal government would:

— Reform question period in the House of Commons so that one day each week would be devoted solely to grilling the prime minister.

— Impose spending limits on political parties between elections, not just during election campaigns.

— Appoint an equal number of men and women to cabinet and adopt a government-wide appointment policy to ensure gender parity and greater representation of aboriginal people and other minorities.

"The Harper Conservatives have been in power for a decade and, year after year, they have grown more closed-off from Canadians, more intolerant of debate and dissent, more self-serving, more secretive," Trudeau asserted.

"Harper has turned Ottawa into a partisan swamp. He has used the tools of state to attack anyone who isn't on his side."

The most ambitious element of the plan is doing away with the current electoral system. First-past-the-post has long been viewed as the primary culprit behind declining voter turnout, contributing to Canadians' belief that their votes don't count.

Under the current system, the candidate with the most votes in each riding wins, whether or not he or she captures an absolute majority of votes. That allows a party to win the majority of seats in the House of Commons with less than 40 per cent of the vote nationally, and can deliver wildly different seat counts to parties, even though they win similar shares of the national vote.

Trudeau said a Liberal government would create a special all-party committee to explore electoral reform options, including ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting. Based on the committee's recommendations, the Liberals would introduce legislation within 18 months of forming government.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair suggested Trudeau is arriving late to the party, noting that New Democrats have advocated proportional representation for years.

"After a couple of years he hasn't stood for anything, now he stands for everything, including things he voted against just a couple of months ago," Mulcair said in Toronto.

The Liberals voted against an NDP motion, which called for replacing with proportional representation. While he's willing to consider that, Trudeau said Canadians deserve a "robust consultation" before such a monumental change is made.

Trudeau is on record as personally favouring preferential balloting, under which voters rank their first, second, third and subsequent choices. If no candidate receives an absolute majority on the first ballot, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her supporters' second-choice votes are counted. That continues until one candidate receives over 50 per cent.

There are a variety of possible models for proportional representation. Essentially, they involve electing multiple representatives for each constituency, with the seats divvied up in proportion to the share of votes won by each party in each riding.

Some experts maintain proportional representation would splinter Commons seats among so many parties that it would make it hard for any single party to form a majority government. Hence, coalition governments would become more likely.

For all its flaws, first-past-the-post produces stable majority governments more often than not. Given the chance, voters in B.C. and Ontario opted to stick with the status quo rather than adopt proposals for proportional representation, which were too complicated for many to understand.

The Liberals have been flirting with the notion of mandatory voting, as is done in Australia, since last year, when one of Trudeau’s senior policy advisers, University of Ottawa academic Robert Asselin, advocated it as a way to re-engage Canadians in the political process.

Turnout in federal elections has plunged from a high of almost 80 per cent of eligible voters in 1958 to a record low of 58.8 per cent in 2008, according to Elections Canada. It rebounded slightly in 2011 to 61.1 per cent.

Under Asselin's proposal, eligible voters would be legally required to vote but would have the option of voting for "none of the above." Those who didn't vote would face a small fine.