Trudeau’s pointman in the House on electoral reform

After promising legislation in 18 months to reform first past the post, Dominic LeBlanc says change ‘should be done by consensus’

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc at a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday December 3, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc at a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday December 3, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The new government’s commitment to change the way Canadians elect MPs has erupted as one of the first serious debates of the Justin Trudeau era. The Liberals ran on a promise to set up a parliamentary committee to look at alternatives to the traditional system, often called “first past the post,” in which the candidate with the most votes in a riding gets to be MP, and the rest get zilch.

The alternatives include variations on proportional representation, in which a party’s number of MPs more closely reflects its share of the vote, and ranked balloting, in which voters rate candidates from most to least preferred. Trudeau vowed to introduce legislation within 18 months to make sure the 2015 election was the last fought under the familiar first past the post system.

In an interview, I asked Dominic LeBlanc, the veteran New Brunswick MP who is now a key Trudeau parliamentary lieutenant as Government House Leader, about the controversial push to change the way Canadians vote. Below is our exchange, in which LeBlanc strongly suggests the Liberals would prefer not to press ahead on this promise without substantial support from the opposition parties.

Q: On electoral reform, there was a poll out recently, commissioned by the Broadbent Institute, done by Abacus Data, that suggested quite an entrenched attachment to the status quo. If they are offered options, quite a few Canadians like first past the post—

A: Well, that could be because they’re so excited about the government they elected just a few months ago—

Q: You say that jokingly but—

A: I actually think if you look at the support that Mr. Trudeau and his government and his caucus have, people seem happy. I’m seeing all over the place that they are shocked that they could change a government.

Q: A lot of people like the system we have. We’ve had three provincial plebiscites on it; the UK went through a referendum. The traditional system won in all cases. So why would you go into this process assuming there must be change? Shouldn’t the possibility that most Canadians are content with the status quo be on the table?

A: Look, ultimately, we think Canadians are prepared to consider and look at different ways to organize an electoral system, or different ways to elect a Parliament. I am struck by the high level of misunderstanding and confusion, because these tend to be, in many cases, rather complicated discussions around pure proportional representation vs. mixed proportional representation vs. preferential balloting. I get asked about it at the campus of Mount Allison University in my riding, but I don’t get asked about it at the Tim Hortons in Cap-Pelé or Bouctouche.

Q: You’re making a case for not doing it. If people aren’t talking about it, maybe they don’t want it.

A: Well, the commitment was to consult.

Q: No, the commitment was to get rid of first past the post within 18 months, if you don’t mind me saying so, minister.

A: The commitment was that the last election was to be the last one under [first past the post].

Q: With legislation for a new system within 18 months, which I believe is what’s in your platform.

A: Legislation to be presented; I don’t know if it’s to be adopted [in that time]. Look, if we’re honest, if there is an overwhelming, massive conclusion that Canadians are so profoundly attached to the current system and believe it bears no adjustment, the government might be in a position to consider that. That was not our impression two months ago and it wasn’t our impression two years ago. That’s why we want to have a consultative process.

But changing the electoral system in a perfect world should be done by consensus, or with broad support in Parliament. I never thought that one party with a majority rewrites the rules that apply to everybody else. That was something we were profoundly unhappy with in Mr. Harper’s completely phony Fair Elections Act.

That was an example where a majority was changing the rules that affected everybody over the vociferous and, I think, compelling arguments of those that opposed it. I hope and believe that that’s not where we end up.


Trudeau’s pointman in the House on electoral reform

  1. “Q: You’re making a case for not doing it. If people aren’t talking about it, maybe they don’t want it.
    A: Well, the commitment was to consult.

    Q: No, the commitment was to get rid of first past the post within 18 months, if you don’t mind me saying so, minister.
    A: The commitment was that the last election was to be the last one under [first past the post].”

    My $DIETY, WTF is wrong with LeBlanc that he felt the need to initially respond with the totally incorrect statement “Well, the commitment was to consult”. It’s not like he’s some neophyte that doesn’t know his own party’s platform.

  2. “We’ve had three provincial plebiscites on it; the UK went through a referendum. The traditional system won in all cases.” That Says IT ALL..

    • Here’s what a UK journalist, Alex Massie, of the Spectator wrote about the 2010 UK referendum:

      “The only thing that has been proved by this referendum on changing the electoral system used for Westminster elections is that referendums are a hopeless way of deciding these matters. Neither the politicians nor the press have distinguished themselves during an affair that’s been distinguished by the mendacity of almost all the protagonists, the hysteria of partisans on both sides and the sheer quantity of lumpen stupidity on display. It has not been an edifying or comforting process.”

      The conditions surrounding the provincial referendums were less than conducive to success. Nonetheless, 58% of voters supported STV in the 2005 BC referendum. But the BC majority gov’t, elected by far less than 50% of voters, assessed that was not high enough.

      If you really are interested in evidence, you might read one of the ten Canadian studies and commissions which have all recommended an element of proportionality in our voting system.


      • Yes! Enough already, let the commissions’ reports stand!
        No more referendums or consultations needed. A government was elected on a platform of no more FPP and our own experts have reported on the best alternative. PR . Let’s do it!

  3. Geddes seems to be confused. According to the mandate letters issues, Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, is tasked with electoral reform. h$ttp://pm.gc.ca/eng/minister-democratic-institutions-mandate-letter.

    Mr. Geddes, do you have problem speaking with the person most knowledgeable on this file?

    The Liberals have always said that they would seek consensus. Why else would they propose to have an all-party committee and widely consult? I know that CONSENSUS is a big word for some people. I guess in a world that has been bitterly divided into winner and losers, it will take some time for people to get the hang of it …even journalists.

    • There was no mention of consensus or consulting in the party platform:

      “We will make every vote count.

      We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

      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. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.”

      See: h$ttps://www.liberal.ca/realchange/electoral-reform/

      • Well, I know that in the past 10 years, committees have been a bit of a sham and consulting and consensus were highly frowned upon, but that is, in fact, what is supposed to happen there.

        This is Policy Resolution # 31 passed by the Liberals in 2014 which offers a little more depth:

        “…immediately after the next election, an all-Party process be instituted, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms including, without limitation, a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent Canadians more fairly and serve Canada better….”


        • Fair enough. But it does beg the question, why was the part about “involving expert assistance and citizen participation” not included in the election platform statement? It’s not like the platform statement was overly wordy to begin with, and including those 6 words would have done wonders for clarifying intent.

          • Lol, I can’t answer for why whoever framed the policy platform did what they did. I would have liked the Res # 31 wording myself.

            But it only makes sense that no single party is going to move unilaterally on electoral reform. It is a big move. How we elect our politicians provides many incentives for how they behave. But since electoral reform can be done solely through legislation, a subsequent government can put in another new system. This can become very abusive if done on a partisan basis. The only responsible thing to do is ensure that there is broad consensus when any change is made.. . not only amongst parties but also amongst citizens.

            This is not a new issue. Electoral reform has been studied to death in Canada. The consensus of at least 10 studies and commissions is that we need an element of proportional representation in our voting system. What has been lacking in the political will to do so.

            But our last government showed us that we have a crisis in civic rights. Electoral reform will certainly not fix everything. But it is the means by which we can start to do so. Majorities in Canada are dangerous because we do not have effective checks and balances to stop them from becoming one-party rule. Proportional representation generally results in governance by stable coalition.

            The biggest danger to Canadians is not that the Liberals implement electoral reform , but that they either do not do so at all, or do so in a manner that is not effective or is outright partisan. We must hold them to account to seeking consensus, broad consultation, and objective evidence. So far, they have not done anything to suggest they are doing otherwise. But we must be vigilant, educate ourselves about electoral reform and make sure that our MPs know where we stand.

  4. Electoral changes should have the majority support of each individual party in the HoC

    I will except nothing lower than this high standard because what it must not do is block a party, and its current supporters from being represented.

    • Well, the CPC would almost certainly not support PR or ranked ballots – no more vote splitting. The NDP would likely not support anything that does not have significant PR content – PR gives the 3rd place party the possibility of being a coalition partner. And, the LPC likely really, really wants ranked ballots and does not want PR – ranked ballots likely benefit the LPC (at least initially), and PR means an eternity of being a senior coalition partner at best.

      I’d be absolutely amazed if anything resembling an all-party consensus could be reached.
      [another argument for a referendum if this is correct]

  5. There are some interesting questions arising from all this about what sort of reform could form the object of consensus. What we know is that the three smaller opposition parties all favour proportional representation (PR), as do small parties who have so far been unable to break the electoral barrier (the Libertarian party, for example).

    The Liberals are divided, but among the Liberals, very few of them have expressed opposition to PR (only three according to responses received to Fair Vote Canada’s questionnaire on the issue during the election period). Many more responded positively (58), and many more took no position or did not respond to the questionnaire, so we don’t know how they stand.

    It basically comes down to this: if the Liberals and the smaller opposition parties can come to a consensus to bring in some form of PR, we will have the necessary consensus, a referendum would not be needed, and the Liberals will be able to keep their promises of “making every vote count” and making the 2015 election the last one under first-past-the-post.

    The Conservatives are currently opposed to PR, for obvious partisan reasons, but as recent simulations have shown they would have done better in 2015 with PR and much, much worse under a preferential ballots system with single-winner ridings – what is called the Alternative Vote system in Australia. So if they had to choose on partisan grounds, they would probably opt for PR. Or, they might decide to revert to the public interest arguments for PR that conservative leaders were making in the early 2000s, including Stephen Harper and Jason Kenny.

    However, if the Liberals try to push an AV system through, they will be opposed by all of the other parties, including the Conservatives, for whom AV would be the worst of all worlds in the short term. Everyone would insist on a referendum, arguing that a government elected with only 39.5% of the vote cannot legitimately change the system in its own favour. Dominic Leblanc recognizes this himself in the above interview. In this case, I predict that the referendum would fail, as it did in the UK, because there would be widespread opposition, including predictably from Fair Vote Canada and other advocates of “real” electoral reform. The Liberals would thus be unable to fulfill their promise to bring in electoral reform.

    So the logic is this: if the Liberals are serious about their promise, they must bring in some form of proportionality. Anything else would just be a backdoor way of reneging on their promise. The sooner we have clarity on this, the sooner we will be able to start some serious discussions about what version of PR this country needs, rather than sterile arguments in the abstract about referendums or whether the AV option would be a sufficient, or even desirable, reform.

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