02/02/2017 12:38 EST | Updated 02/02/2017 12:38 EST

I'm Deeply Sorry My Party Broke Its Promise On Electoral Reform

In the last election, we promised to reform our voting system and make every vote count.

That promise is now broken.

In the Minister of Democratic Institutions' new mandate letter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau writes: "Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate."

I am disappointed that we have broken our promise, and I strongly disagree with our government's decision to abandon electoral reform.

justin trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ran on an election promise of changing the electoral system. (Photo: Chris Bolin/Reuters)

Our new minister has called electoral reform "foundational," and she is right. We live in a representative democracy, and our democracy should be more representative of where we live.

In my conversations with constituents on this topic, I ask a simple question: should a party with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote control 100 per cent of the power in our democracy?

There is an overwhelming consensus that the answer is "no." Democracy's legitimacy lies in its authority from the people, and the majority of Canadians are left unrepresented in governments under our current voting system.

There was a significant consensus among parties on the process to change our voting system.

Now, there are different answers to this gap between voter intention and electoral outcomes. As one example, a 2004 Law Commission of Canada report recommended mixed-member proportional representation. It's a system that maximizes choice by allowing citizens to vote separately for a local candidate and a party, and that maximizes fairness by ensuring that a party's percentage of seats in the House of Commons matches its percentage of the popular vote.

There are other systems worth considering. And our prime minister is right that there is no consensus on a specific alternative. But that does not justify breaking our promise.

After all, there was a significant consensus among experts at the special committee that our system should be more proportional. There was a significant consensus among Canadians that we need a more co-operative government that works across party lines. And most importantly, there was a significant consensus among parties on the process to change our voting system.

The special committee tasked with studying electoral reform recommended putting the question of electoral reform to Canadians in a referendum. Specifically, it recommended pitting our current voting system against a more proportional alternative.

A referendum could be divisive. It might be overrun by misinformation. It would cost $300 million if it took place before 2019. And it may well be biased towards the status quo and fail to deliver reform. But it removes the question from politicians with a self-interested stake in any change, and it is better than abandoning reform altogether.

The Liberals on the committee cautioned against a referendum. They pointed to the testimony of Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand: a referendum would take six months to organize, and a new voting system would require an additional two years to implement. With legislation first required to enable a referendum, the timeline to change our voting system in advance of 2019 was rushed.

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Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Given these concerns, I understood the reality that 2015 wouldn't be the last election under first-past-the-post. But walking away from the promise entirely is different.

Instead, a referendum at the same time as the 2019 election would be a fair compromise for all parties. It would save the sizeable cost of holding a referendum separately, and ensure participation in the process by Canadians who do not care as strongly about the issue. It would meet any and all concerns about the public legitimacy of the process for changing something so fundamental. It would give reformers an opportunity for change. And if our promise meant anything, at a minimum, it meant a real opportunity for change.

In 1992, New Zealand held a referendum on electoral reform. They asked two questions. First, do you want to change the voting system? Second, which system do you prefer out of a list of four options? The reformers won.

A year later, at the same time as a general election, New Zealand put it to another referendum, pitting first-past-the-post (their status quo) against mixed-member proportional. The reformers won again.

To all Canadians who support the promise of reform... I am deeply sorry.

New Zealand went on to change its voting system to mixed-member proportional. Years later, in 2011, the new voting system was put to a final referendum, and the old reformers successfully defended the proportional status quo.

We know from New Zealand's experience that reform is possible, that a referendum process can work, and that it requires a long-term commitment to continuing the conversation. It's a conversation Canadians have now begun, and it's a conversation that Canadians should now continue.

I first campaigned on the idea of electoral reform in my nomination campaign, well before my Liberal Party included the promise in our election platform. As a member of Fair Vote Canada, I met with my predecessor MP to advocate for electoral reform alongside other constituents. Since the election, I have spoken publicly in support of electoral reform and greater proportionality, in the House and in interviews.

To all Canadians who support the promise of reform, and especially to those who supported me and believed in my promise of change throughout both the nomination and general election in Beaches-East York, I am deeply sorry. True to my word, I will continue to be an advocate for electoral reform for as long as I am in Ottawa.

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