Before overhauling the way Canadians elect their MPs, the new Liberal government hopes to somehow win over the opposition parties to the changes. House leader Dominic LeBlanc, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s point man when it comes to fostering a working relationship with Conservatives and New Democrats, says electoral reform is one file on which the Liberals don’t want to use their majority to roll over their rivals. “Changing the electoral system, in a perfect world, should be done by consensus, or with broad support in Parliament,” LeBlanc said in an interview.
Trudeau promises to set up a parliamentary committee to study the options and pass a reform law within 18 months. He vows to get rid of the so-called first-past-the-post system, in which the local candidate with the most votes gets to be MP and the rest get nothing. The alternatives include proportional representation, in which a party’s share of the popular vote would be better reflected in its number of MPs, and preferential balloting, in which voters rank the candidates from most to least preferred. LeBlanc admitted there is “a high level of confusion and misunderstanding about options.”
Faced with those doubts, Canadians have repeatedly voted to keep the status quo. Between 2005 and 2009, in three separate referendums—in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia—electoral-reform proposals went down to defeat. Trudeau isn’t offering to hold a referendum, but LeBlanc allowed that a forceful enough expression of public opposition might make the Liberals rethink the issue. “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.”
Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative leader, says that whatever reform proposal the Liberals finally put on the table, Tories will demand a referendum. “I pass no judgment on the type of electoral reform because I don’t know what they are proposing yet,” Ambrose said. “But I do think when you are talking about the most fundamental way we govern ourselves, it’s not up to the House, it’s up to the people.”
So far, the people are deeply divided. A recent poll, conducted online by Abacus Data for the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, found that only nine per cent of Canadians thought the voting system needs a total overhaul, while 33 per cent favoured major changes. Most people were far less enthusiastic about reform, with 41 per cent saying only minor changes are needed, and 17 per cent satisfied with the traditional system.
Those numbers may not add up to the massive opposition LeBlanc says might halt the Liberal reform push, but neither do they suggest the broad consensus he says is needed to forge ahead.
Last spring, when Trudeau first vowed to end first-past-the-post elections, he seemed acutely aware of that ambivalence. “We’ve committed to strong, open consultations,” he told Maclean’s in June. “But it hasn’t gone unnoticed by people that electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites.”