Trudeau's zeal for electoral reform fell with his own electoral success -

Trudeau’s zeal for electoral reform fell with his own electoral success

Liberals figured when they won, public satisfaction with the voting system was restored

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a town hall with high school students in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, November 3, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s about-face today on electoral reform is such a blatant breaking of an unambiguous campaign commitment that it’s tempting to speculate he never meant to keep this promise all along. What’s more likely to have happened, though, isn’t that Trudeau knowingly lied from the start, but that he conveniently lost enthusiasm for reform with changing political circumstances.

Trudeau first promised to get rid of the old familiar first-past-the-post voting system back in the spring of 2015. That was, as political obsessives will recall, a testing season for him. The federal NDP had bounced back dramatically in the polls, challenging Trudeau’s status as the main alternative to Stephen Harper, thanks largely to the election of their provincial social-democrat cousins in Alberta. Chances of Trudeau’s Liberals scoring a clean win in the coming fall election seemed to be receding.

That was the backdrop when Trudeau announced an ambitious package of democratic reform proposals, including the signature pledge to get rid of first-past-the-post, if he was elected. I ask him about it in an interview. He was clear, in my opinion, that foremost in his mind was the discouraging possibility of the Conservatives again winning a majority, as they had in 2011, with a minority of the popular vote, thanks to vote-splitting between the Liberals and NDP.

“I think as we look at declining voter turnout,” Trudeau said, “as we look at the fact that people are increasingly aware that a majority government was given to a party that 60 per cent of Canadians, not only didn’t vote for, but actively tend to dislike, there’s a real question about how we are valuing our votes.”

MORE: Trudeau abandons promise for electoral reform

As it turned out, of course, the NDP botched their fall campaign, and the Tories were stuck with their base, while Trudeau’s Liberals soared to victory in a brilliant campaign. Shortly after the new Prime Minister was sworn in with his first cabinet, I interviewed then-house leader Dominic LeBlanc (now fisheries and oceans minister) about the electoral reform file, which Trudeau had assigned him to help spearhead.

To my surprise, LeBlanc candidly mused about how voters suddenly seemed to him much less discontented with the old-fashioned way of electing MPs—now that the system had allowed them to install the Liberals back in power. “I actually think if you look at the support that Mr. Trudeau and his government and his caucus have, people seem happy,” he said. “I’m seeing all over the place that they are shocked that they could change a government.”

The pressure to overhaul the way we hold elections, it seemed, was off. In any case, if there was to be electoral reform, LeBlanc said the Liberals couldn’t reasonably just use their majority to push it through over the objections of the other parties. “I never thought that one party with a majority rewrites the rules that apply to everybody else,” he said.

The saga of how the Liberals dragged their feet on getting the electoral-reform process rolling has been extensively covered. Still, Trudeau kept insisting that he was serious about making good on his promise—that is, until he was questioned last fall by Le Devoir on the issue. In that interview, his old key point from the spring of 2015—the notion that discontent with the electoral system was largely a side effect of the success of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives—popped up again.

“Under Mr. Harper, there were so many people dissatisfied with the government and its approach that they were saying, ‘We need an electoral reform so that we can no longer have a government we don’t like,'” he said. “However, under the current system, they now have a government they are more satisfied with, and the motivation to want to change the electoral system is less urgent.”

The likelihood that a partisan’s zeal for electoral reform will rise and fall according to success or failure in elections is hardly a fresh thought. A paper called “Getting From Here to There: A Process for Electoral Reform in Canada,” published by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy in 2001, put it this way: “There is, not surprisingly, a close correlation between parties’ positions on the need for change and their expected benefit from any new system.”

As it happens, one of the three authors of that usefully skeptical IRPP paper happened to be Matthew Mendelsohn, who was later an architect of the 2015 federal Liberal platform, and still later appointed by Trudeau as a top federal bureaucrat, with special responsibility in making sure the platform’s promises are kept. Not all of them, though, as we were reminded again today.


Trudeau’s zeal for electoral reform fell with his own electoral success

  1. Put the liar on trial!!!!!!!

  2. What surprises me the most about this is, the NDP voters on twitter, though i think a lot are cons too, are all saying they voted for Trudeau because of electoral reform, and in the mean time Mulcair was shouting out to the top of his lungs the same message, the same playbook. My question is, if the NDP voters were aware Mulcair wanted to do the same thing with electoral reform, why did the NDP voters, vote for Trudeau, when their own guy was pushing the same policy, why Trudeau and not Mulcair, was it because the rank and file NDP and Unions didn’t trust Mulcair? The NDP had a chance to vote for the same thing with Mulcair, again, why did the NDP vote for Trudeau, sounds like a lot of noise and whining to me.

    • Miss May should stop berating women and making them look like they are weak and incapable, by accusing them of taking a hit for Trudeau, criticize is fine, but demoralize, no.

    • I mostly vote Liberal. Last election, I was having a really hard time choosing between the Libs and the NDP – I hated Trudeau’s position on C-51 and was having a real hard time getting my head around backing his party as a result. I really liked a number of the NDP platform positions – especially electoral reform – but was having a hard time reconciling their promise of change with their promise of balancing the books.

      So two things ultimately swung me back to vote Liberal: 1) it was clear the NDP were also-rans in my riding, and 2) Trudeau was now also on board with electoral reform. So I held my nose on C-51 and voted Liberal. (“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” didn’t hurt, either.)

      So yes, electoral reform was a big factor in making my choice. Without it as a counterbalance to C-51, I likely would have voted NDP anyway. Now it’s gone, and still no sign of the (inadequate) promised changes to C-51. If Trudeau doesn’t start delivering big on other fronts, he may find the wave that swept him in this time will sweep him out the next.

      • I guess you didn’t trust Tom to deliver is what your really saying, i would not have trusted Mulcair either, and finally, how is C-51 directly affecting you personally, are CISIS in your computer reading and watching your everyday movements, because if they are, give CBC a call so we can all hear about it, Canadians would love to hear your story. C-51 doesn’t bother me at all, i’m not doing anything wrong or crazy in my life, just ranting most of the time. Your excuses sound like a cop out. I can’t imagine an activist government running our country, especially after the NDP slandered a sovereign nation in the HOCs(US), and now going all ape man over a electoral bill. Tom Mulcair and Jenny Kwan, were an embarrassment to their country the other night, Tom was drooling at the mouth to have his say, and Jenny was almost tearing her hair out. The NDP are just like the cons sometimes, too angry, and i do like some of the NDPers, i think they have a few good candidates, but Mulcair is the anchor around their necks.

        • I knew Mulcair would either have to abandon his balanced budget promise or other aspects of his platform. But I did think he would deliver on electoral reform, had he won.

          The Liberals would not have gotten my vote last election if we had proportional representation. I think they know there were / are a lot of voters like me, and – now that FPTP has given them a majority that they wouldn’t get under other systems – they backed off. Well, they may find they get a lot less voting for them next time, as a result.

          As for your thinking C-51 is benign because you aren’t likely to be personally impacted – that’s a rather selfish, navel-gazing attitude. Kind of like not caring about what happened in Quebec this week because you’re not Muslim. You may want to do some research as to the kinds of problems C-51 could lead to…

    • “…why did the NDP voters, vote for Trudeau, when their own guy was pushing the same policy,…”

      The answer is very simple: “strategic voting” !

      • OK, so electoral reform was not an issue for you, it was all about getting rid of Harper. Well if the NDP want to work with the conservative government in 2019, you will have your chance. Look what happened the last time NDP helped the conservatives get elected, Harper used Jack Layton and the NDP as CHUMPs. The NDP are left party, they would never betray their ideals to the left(green party would siphon votes), that’s why they will never form government, they can never find the center, and Canada will not put up with a left wing party as a federal government. Look at Notely, she ran as an NDP, but in order for her to stay in power, she has to govern like a liberal, the center, you have to reach out to more than your base, and that’s where the NDP fails. Finally, i am right and had have been all along, the NDP didn’t trust Mulcair, so they blame electoral reform on Trudeau

        • By 2019, NAFTA gone, CETA gone, EU gone and the whole concept of superstate or central decisions will become obsolete.
          The next federal election in Canada will be about who give more power to provinces.

  3. Still on Liberal website this morning. Point #8 – Electoral Reform

    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.

  4. Probably the often repeated promise to reform our electoral system of first past the post did more to gain the liar support than any other promise. When he discovered that his preferred system to fix elections in liberal favour was not going to fly lo and behold its now cancelled. This is a complete betrayal of Canadians by Trudeau. I bet we will also buy F35s. Its sickening. I will never vote far any libberal again.

    • ” his preferred system to fix elections” – what would that be? So far the most we’ve heard is some indefinite politically motivated musings, some bad math and nothing definite from a parliamentary committee. We have yet to hear anything definite from any party. It’s no surprise that Canadians don’t support replacing a known system with vapor.

  5. I’m glad he cancelled it. It was a dumb idea, with no real impetus behind it that can be defended with any kind of intellectual rigor. However, I don’t get that anyone is surprised. Justin Trudeau is a Trudeau. The Trudeau’s are liars. What part of that have any of you managed to miss? There is no promise from a Trudeau that has any semblance of commitment until such time as the Trudeau making said promise has ascertained that it will be of long lasting benefit to either himself or the Liberal party of Canada. You have to have been living on another planet or under a rock to not know that.

    • IMO, it is not that Trudeaus are liars, per se, but rather that history has shown the LPC to be “fluid” (euphemistically put) with election promises:
      – gas tax
      – wage and price controls
      – FTA
      – GST

      We can now add electoral reform to the list.

      • I think “liars” is heavy handed. But I’m ok with it as long as it’s used in an equitable way across all parties/policies.

        “Fluid” seems a little too generous. A provincial example would be the the Ontario Liberals — who are far beyond “fluid”.

  6. I’m hoping that they’ll change their minds. The way money is flowing to different ‘ideas’ we’ll one day have a majority government with 10% of votes.

    Great reminder article.

    Did the Libertarians spend as much money in ON as they did here in AB? They spent a lot of money here. It wasn’t the last election but maybe the one before? Can’t remember. lol

  7. Andrew Coyne has a great article on this entitled “It’s not the Liberals’ fault for lying about electoral reform, it’s yours for believing them”. The article outlines how cynical the Liberals have been on this file from start to finish.
    See: ht$$p://

  8. To err is human. And one can usually learn from one’s mistakes. But only if one possesses humility, a character trait not known to exist in abundant quantity in the Trudeau gene pool.

    • “Cute”. :) :)

  9. Zap your frozen. Like father, like son.

    The biggest perpetrator of “fake news” in Canada in the Liberal Party of Canada.

  10. It’s disappointing that when faced with a difficult and complex problem they caved rather than dig in. To some extent they failed when they assigned preliminary study to a parliamentary committee that produced a report which was little better than crayon drawings, espoused some bad science and ignored constitutional issues completely while advancing any little in the way of definite ideas. It should be no surprise that the public, and it’s not even clear who they asked, expressed a distaste for moving from a known system to nothing in particular; one might even say that reticence for jumping into the unknown is prudent.
    But let’s start with the oft mumbled system of proportional voting.
    1) within a riding, the allocation of a seat is in fact proportional; the only issue is that there is only one seat to apportion based on the current distribution scheme.
    2) an important consideration is the issue of what is considered equal representation; obviously not what we see in some countries where a party chooses its proportion of members from a single city – many Ontarians would be disappointed with a system that only allows them to elect the Torontonians of their choice and PEI would be unhappy about almost never having a representative; the Canadian constitution embeds certain practical notions such as equality defined on a regional basis, equality between urban and resource based regions and some special rules for certain special rules for some provinces; the constitutional requirements are not arbitrary and to some extent serve as contractual terms for various provinces as they joined confederation – it’s clear that despite the constitutional bargains, various constituencies from time to time feel disadvantaged. Sadly, the parliamentary committee chose to focus on what might be good for party politics, not what might better serve the public.
    3) one common theme is strategic voting which individuals seem to regard as a fix for the existing system; for whatever reason, amendments such as rank voting and/or multi-seat ridings were given short shrift even though they might provide voters with a more exact means of expressing their preference and/or supporting candidates on their merits rather than their party affiliation.
    4) The strictly proportional notion falls apart when one considers that not all ridings have the same number of candidates and/or that some parties can be regional in nature or specific to particular demographics or issues while completely dismissing the validity of independent candidates. Such a system would really be just a tool for major political parties to snuff out lesser ones. Under such a system we would never have medicare nor an old age pension.

  11. Under normal circumstances, I would speak respectfully about Justin Trudeau. But, he has shown complete disdain for the Canadian voting public with this about-face. So, I can’t help but share with you what comes to my mind when I look at the picture which is at the beginning of this article :” Oh, Gee, Someone took my Smarties. Uhmmmm — I wonder what I should do about that? Dad always told me not to fight…..but those were MY Smarties…. I wonder if Mom is home….I could ask her….Boy, it’s tough out here in the real world,,,,”