Did Justin Trudeau rule out one potential plan for electoral reform?

The PM suggested he’s hesitant about some styles of reform to replace first past the post, hinting at a version called mixed-member proportional representation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with reporters during an interview with The Canadian Press in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 16, 2015. (Patrick Doyle/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with reporters during an interview with The Canadian Press in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 16, 2015. (Patrick Doyle/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to study electoral reform, but comments on the topic this week raised questions about whether he has already ruled out one version of it.

Trudeau told the Canadian Press on Wednesday that he doesn’t like the idea of “disconnecting any MPs from specific groups of citizens or geographic location.”

“The fact that every single politician needs to earn the trust of a specific group of constituents who cover the broad range of Canadian public opinion strengthens our democracy,” Trudeau said in a long interview with CP’s Ottawa bureau.

Related: Do the Liberals have a mandate for electoral reform?

Some voters dislike Canada’s first-past-the-post system because they feel it distorts the result. The Liberals, for example, won 54.4 per cent of seats in the House with 39.5 per cent of the vote, just as, in 2011, the Conservatives won 53.9 per cent of seats with 39.6 per cent of the vote.

Trudeau promised the 2015 federal election would be the last one run under first-past-the-post, and pledged to consult broadly about how to change it.

But his comments to CP sparked a debate over whether he was ruling out proportional representation, or a specific version of it called mixed-member proportional representation. Under that method of electoral reform, voters cast ballots for local candidates using the first-past-the-post system Canadians are used to, with a second ballot that lets them choose their preferred party. Some seats in Parliament are then allocated based on that second ballot vote. But critics of that option argue it can leave voters with less power if it’s the party that slots its preferred candidates into those seats.

Related: The true test of Trudeau’s new politics? Electoral reform

Trudeau has in the past said he’s a fan of a preferential ballot, where voters rank the candidates and, if there’s no single candidate with a clear majority, the least popular candidate is dropped from the ballot. Voters who chose the losing candidate as their first option then have their votes redistributed for their second, third and subsequent choices until there’s a winner. That option is thought to favour the Liberals as a centrist party. The NDP prefer mixed-member proportional representation. The Conservatives have been urging the Liberals to promise to hold a referendum to decide on electoral reform.

Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, says Trudeau’s comments don’t rule out any particular style of proportional representation and that there are many systems that would make election day more fair. Canada could opt for mixed-member proportional, for example, with an open list so voters know for whom they’re casting ballots.

Related: Trudeau’s pointman in the House on electoral reform

“If you have an open list, you can directly elect your representatives the same way you do now,” she said.

A modified Canadian system could also geographically limit the second ballot so people are still voting for candidates from their area. “For instance, in Scotland and Wales, you have MPs that are also tied to ridings or local regions with an open list,” Carmichael said.

Trudeau’s comments to CP went a little further than he did in a separate event that day. In a town hall hosted by Maclean’s, Trudeau mentioned the idea of politicians representing specific groups of people but framed it as one of many questions to ponder.

Related: Read the transcript of the Maclean’s town hall with Justin Trudeau

“Do we want a government that engages with broad numbers of voices? Do we want a government that tries to pull people together and be acceptable to the largest number of Canadians? Do we want to keep that bond between a specific MP and a specific group of Canadians? These are all important questions that lead us in different directions depending on our answers,” Trudeau said.

A spokeswoman for Trudeau said he hasn’t ruled out any particular style of electoral reform.

“We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” Andrée-Lyne Hallé wrote in response to an emailed question.

“We will convene an all-party parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament.”

Carmichael said Trudeau’s comments don’t worry her. “We are actually really encouraged by what he said, that he seems to be really open to listening to Canadians and really putting their concerns to the test in all of this,” she said.

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Did Justin Trudeau rule out one potential plan for electoral reform?

  1. The CBC said this 3 weeks ago. The fix is in. Trudeau would not have had a majority under any form of PR. However, be would have won an estimated majority of 224 seats had the preferential ballots been used. Was anyone ever gullible enough to think he would accept a system that wasn’t to his advantage? His mind was made up long ago. The “all party committee” is just window dressing. Preferential balloting creates even more lopsided majorities, invariably in favour of centrist parties who tend to be the second choice of both left and right. We all know where this is going.

    • I call BS on that 224 seat number. To come up with that, what likely happened is that people were asked how they intended to vote, and *maybe* then what their 2nd and 3rd and etc choices were. This would have resulted in the 224 seat number.

      However, undoubtedly a number of people who voted LPC were in fact NDP and Green supporters who only voted LPC in order to dislodge the CPC. If a preferential ballot system had been in place those NDP and Green supporters would have undoubtedly ranked the NDP first (NDP supporters) or 2nd (Green supporters), resulting in more NDP MPs being elected at the expense of LPC MPs.

      It was the Broadbent Institute that came up with the 224 seat number, and the NDP is a well known strong supporter of proportional representation. If the Broadbent Institute wishes to share its methodology on this work, it would be welcome, but I don’t believe it has done so.

        • Yes. A (the?) main point of the preferential ballot is that it obviates the need for strategic voting (vote splitting does not happen with the PB). Without the need for strategic voting, those NDP (and Green) supporters who strategically voted LPC in order to get rid of the CPC would have been able to vote for their real 1st and 2nd (and so on) choices. The result would have almost certainly been more NDP MPs and less LPC MPs. It sure wouldn’t have been more LPC MPs.

          Recall when all 3 parties were just about tied in the campaign? The general feeling seemed to be that the anti-CPC crowd was waiting to see which of the LPC and NDP would prove the best bet to take on the CPC, and once that was decided the vote would go to that party. That did indeed seem to happen, and it supports the notion that there was a significant amount of strategic voting on election day.

          • I agree. I also remember that early in the campaign the NDP were the second choice of most voters, so if the campaign had been shorter the NDP could well have ended up with the vast majority of seats under a ranked ballot system.

          • There is no need to extrapolate results for AV (ranked ballots in single-mbr ridings) from recent election. Australia has had AV in its lower house for over 100 years and is the only relevant country that does so for parliamentary elections.

            Strategic voting becomes a moot point if smaller parties are eliminates and we get a 2-party system as has happened in OZ. Smaller parties may get more votes, but no more seats.

            AV is a winner-take-all system which mirrors the results of FPTP 90% of the time. Votes still get locked in silos (ridings) and elect no-one. It is not a significant change from FPTP except that it tends to generate more majority governments, which could be dangerous in Canada. AV is not real electoral reform.

            OZ also has an elected, proportional Senate which often blocks legislation from the AV-majority in the House of Reps.


            Ranked/ preference ballots are only 1 element of a voting system. They may be used in either non-proportional (AV) or proportional voting systems. STV is a proportional system. h$ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-4_yuK-K-k

            This is another: h$ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOyHLwYq6Nk

            UK study on AV: h$ttps://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/TheAlternativeVoteBriefingPaper.pdf

  2. I do not feel that there was a great deal of substance in the Prime Minister’s answers in today’s town hall style public meeting which, of course, came as no surprise. But we must remember, and acknowledge, his entitlement to a so-called honeymoon period.

    It is my guess that those who seem to be disagreeing with the new government’s policies are those who voted against the government and, probably, those who voted for this government for strategic reasons only. Well, those who voted against must, now, wait quietly for four years — those who voted strategically, well, you got what you voted for … be happy.

    • I do not believe that I am alone when I say that no party declared a platform to which I could happily agree to 100%. Therefore, that being the case, we can assume that 99% of voters accepted a compromise. That’s democracy, I suppose.

  3. It should be noted that no proportional voting system allows parties to exert control over MPs like our current winner-take-all voting FPTP system. In general, proportional voting systems create more competition between parties and between candidates. This allows MPs more autonomy to represent their constituents.

    Proportional representation (PR) is an objective, not a specific voting system, but is also used to describe the family of voting systems that achieve PR. MMP is one option. STV is another. Some proportional systems include ranked ballots in multiple-seat ridings. Short videos of some different options may be found here: http://campaign2015.fairvote.ca/suggested-videos/ However, we can also have a made-in-Canada solution.

    It was author Joan Bryden who inferred that MMP would not be Trudeau’s choice because it included party lists, not Trudeau himself. If Ms. Bryden had read the 2004 Law Commission Report on Electoral Reform, or any of the other 9 Cdn studies/commissions on electoral reform, she would know that open list proportional voting systems allow voters to directly cast ballots for all candidates, whether local or regional. The Law Commission recommended some version of open-list MMP-PR as the voting system best suited to Canada. http://wilfday.blogspot.ca/2014/01/ten-canadian-commissions-assemblies-and.html

    Consider this:

    “Let’s take any riding which has 4 candidates standing for election as MP. Under FPTP, whoever gets the most votes becomes the MP. If Candidate A gets 40% of the vote and the remaining 3 candidates get the other 60% between them, 60% of the voters do not get anyone to represent their views.

    Assume that this riding is a safe riding. There are many such ridings in Canada – perhaps even the majority of ridings in Canada – where everyone knows who will be elected even before the polls open.

    In this case, it is Candidate A who is the incumbent and has been the MP in that riding for years.

    Assume that most of those who voted for other candidates do so every election. They will soon come to believe that their votes do not count and it does not really matter if they vote. They are probably right.

    Candidate A does not really need these voters and as long as he appeases his core supporters, he is assured of being re-elected. Many of his supporters vote for the party and not him personally. So A also needs to appease his party.

    Now assume that three ridings are joined together to form one large riding. The voters will elect 3 MPs for this new riding using a form of PR call STV. There are 12 candidates for MP in this riding – 3 from each party. So now candidates are running against members of their own party as well as other parties.
    Voters select three candidates and rank them according to preference. They do not have to be from the same party.

    Voters start to look much more closely at each individual. A had better stand out from the rest and his party label does not assure him a seat. Some of his previous support will go to other members of his own party.

    Who controls how A behaves in Parliament now?”

  4. As soon as Trudeau made the astonishing promise that “EVERY VOTE WILL COUNT” he ruled out any electoral system that does not satisfy the MINIMUM requirement of proportional representation. There is no way that every vote can count (and by implication count at least roughly the same) without PR. If anyone wasn’t sure what PR was, that’s it. All other electoral systems are a form of Disproportional Misrepresentation, where every vote does not count (or they don’t count for even roughly the same).

    Unfortunately, Trudeau is not on the side of Canadian voters if he prefers AV AKA “disproportional ranked ballots” which would ensure the same 2 party undemocratic system in which most of our votes do not count. Shame. The Liberals earned 38% of our votes, so they should have 38% of the seats, anything else means is a fraud, be it legal or illegal, traditional or not. Under AV, the Liberals would have got an even larger un-earned fake-majority of seats in our parliament. The problem is that the system is not proportional so it necessarily misrepresents voters. The only way to fix our voting system is to achive PR, it really is that simple.

  5. “Some voters dislike Canada’s first-past-the-post system because they feel it distorts the result.”
    Why, Larua Payton, do you mince your words? You can simply state the fact:
    “Voters dislike Canada’s first-past-the-post system because it distorts the result.”
    FPTP absolutely distorts the result, as does AV, which is exactly WHY neither is a form of Proportional Representation (PR). That disproportional voting systems misrepresent Canadian voters by distorting how we vote isn’t an opinion or “feeling”, its simple math.

  6. As long as MPs are beholden to the party leader for their candidacies, rather than the party leader being beholden to his/her caucus for the leadership, it won’t allow MPs, no matter how elected, to represent local interests (or national interests, for that matter). Allowing the local constituency party organization a free hand in nominating candidates and making the party leadership dependent on caucus support must be implemented if we want any electoral reform to allow better representation of the will of the people.

  7. I am willing to practically guarantee that Trudeau will back-peddle the furthest on this campaign promise. It will not get done.

  8. I would like to remind the reader that technically there is no specific voting system referred to as the “preferential” or “ranked” ballot, what the author was referring to is more commonly known as the Alternative Vote or Instant Runoff Voting.

    Ranked ballots and proportional representation need not be contradictory. For example, the ranked ballot is an integral component of several proportional voting systems (the Single Transferable Vote, P3 and the Jenkin’s Model. The former two do not rely on party lists, but do provide results that are roughly proportional).

    Also, as Ms. Carmichael mentioned there is a variant of Mixed Member Proportional, known as the Additional Member System, in which party lists are tied to specific regions (every MP is tied to a geographic location, be they riding MP or party list MP). We have anything but a narrow set of options or a dichotomous choice between AV and MMP.

  9. More Liberal bs, Why anyone would think for a minute the election promises without meat were anything but. The electorate spoke and we are all going to pay and pay and pay.

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