Why we broke our electoral reform promise. Signed, a Liberal MP. - Macleans.ca

Why we broke our electoral reform promise. Signed, a Liberal MP.

An earnest open letter unintentionally exposes the government’s weak position

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

(Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

When I saw that Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson had published an open letter to his constituents about his party breaking its promise to bring about landmark electoral reform, I was eager to read it.

For any government backbencher to invite scrutiny by staking out a personal position on this glaring failure to follow through on a clear election pledge would be interesting. Coming from this star 2015 recruit—the rookie from Vancouver North is a former Rhodes Scholar, constitutional negotiator and clean-tech business executive—I expected something with heft.

I was wrong. The letter doesn’t pack any punch. I’m taking a look at it here anyway, not to pick on Wilkinson, but because the points he tries to make are being put out there, with variations, by all sorts of Liberals, including in some respects the Prime Minister.

Wilkinson sets out by declaring that while he was all for ditching the old first-past-the-post election system, he was also “very clear” during the 2015 campaign and after that he didn’t think the Liberals should try to impose any alternative without the support of other parties.

Sensible. Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau didn’t make his promise conditional on securing agreement across party lines. So I’m not sure how a lone MP declaring his own more prudent view is all that relevant now, unless it’s to hint that the original platform pledge should have come with caveats attached.

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

Wilkinson goes on to observe that, during discussion since the election about changing how Canadians vote, including at a town hall in his own riding, he detected no public consensus emerging on what sort of new system would be best.

No doubt that’s true. How could it be otherwise? The Liberal government never risked proposing any model around which that consensus might have gathered. Having conspicuously shirked the essential work of trying to pitch a policy, Trudeau can hardly complain now about the failure of one to spontaneously materialize.

On a closely related point, Wilkinson puts special emphasis on the fact that “only a very, very small fraction” of Canadians took part in consultations held on electoral reform. This shows, he suggests, that the country doesn’t care all that much about this issue, compared with more urgent concerns like jobs and climate change.

I wonder if he’s looked at what fraction of Canadians ever participate in, say, pre-budget consultations on jobs, or what slice of the population was directly engaged by Environment Canada’s outreach on climate change? If he did, maybe Wilkinson would be forced to conclude that most Canadians aren’t bothered much about anything.

And finally, in what he appears to imagine is his clincher, Wilkinson argues that for the Liberal government to try to pursue electoral reform on its own terms would plunge Canada into a needless national squabble. “Is debating the Canadian electoral system and fighting over this issue really what Canadians want to be focused on and want their political leaders to be focused on over the next 12-18 months?” he asks.

Well, no, I wouldn’t think so. Why did Trudeau ever promise to take on this daunting task then? Why did he commit to fulfilling it within a mere 18 months of being elected? It was obvious from the outset that overhauling the way Canadians mark a ballot, jettisoning the only way of picking their MPs that they have ever known, would never happen without a prolonged and political capital-intensive battle.

RELATED: Will the Liberals suffer after electoral reform backtrack?

At no point did anyone who reflected seriously on electoral reform imagine it could be accomplished easily, or that popular opinion would readily fasten upon this goal as a top priority. Yet Wilkinson writes: “Governments should be accountable for the platforms on which they campaign. It is however essential that as circumstances change, as views are clarified and as new issues and realities emerge, governments must also be flexible.”

That’s a plausible sketch of the difference between drafting a platform and running a government. And flexibility sounds like a governing virtue, or at least a useful trait. But how does his plea for pliability apply in this particular case? After all, no directly relevant circumstances changed, no new realities emerged, to provide plausible cover for such a notable display of limberness on the government’s part.

Or, rather, there’s been one big change that looks germane. The Liberals went from making this promise when they were an opposition party that regarded the electoral system as favouring the Conservatives, to abandoning it as a governing party that has come to see the status quo as just fine.

I wouldn’t expect a backbench Liberal MP to frankly address that calculation. Wilkinson probably should have held his fire, though, rather than issuing such a weak salvo in defence of breaking this promise—and in the process highlighting, unintentionally, of course, what a rash pledge it was to make in the first place.


Why we broke our electoral reform promise. Signed, a Liberal MP.

  1. Most Canadians don’t want ‘electoral reform’…..or PR.

    The system is fine the way it is.

    What we need is one less party.

  2. I wish the MSM would do an autopsy of how the whole election of 2015 really unfolded, and was it really what the media are saying, that electoral reform was what got Trudeau elected, and tell Canadians the truth about electoral reform, not the story they want to tell Canadians, but the truth. Their are so many other ways the Liberals won the election besides electoral reform, they reduced the retirement age to 65, that was more important to me than electoral reform, you can fit ‘Retirement Age 65, not 67’, on a bumper sticker, and Canadians understand it. If you put ‘Electoral Reform’ on a bumper sticker for Canadians, thats all it would mean is, whats electoral reform all about? The NDP and Greens were trying to game the system of electoral reform by having 80% of their own witnesses to stack the committee hearing witness list in favor of themselves. Nathan Cullen got too political by trying to hoodwink and take control of the committee hearings. Just to add, saw an article on CBC website yesterday, saying Tom Mulcair dropped 20 points in 48 hours after taking a stand on the Niqab debate, he went with Harper and the Cons on banning the Niqab, so stop telling Canadians that electoral reform was the main reason the NDP voted for the liberals and the election, it’s a ‘Big Fat Lie’, and it borders on ‘Fake News’. Give it up MSM, especially CBC, running ‘Fake News'(betrayal of voters) about something that is a lie.

    • Why didn’t these people who wanted electoral reform vote for NDP and Mulcair or for that fact, Green, instead of Trudeau. It is time for Elizabeth May to take a bow and retire, her days are well past her, and not because she is a women, its because she does nothing but make a seat warm in the HOCs. Another fringe and activist party like the NDP. You need to be a leader if you want to run a party, not a whiner or activist. This exactly what Trudeau was talking about fringe parties, thats all they like to do is disrupt and slow down a governments opportunity to move ahead with legislation.

    • I don’t remember reading any stories that say the electoral reform promise got them elected.

      All I hear is that the Liberals made it a cornerstone of their campaign — I’m sure to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives — so it’s a discussion about how much damage the party has inflicted by breaking such a loud promise.

  3. Just-In he can’t be trusted!

    I have supported the Liberals with signs and votes in past elections. I did have reservations as to whether Justin Trudeau was up to the job as PM. However, his earnest promise to implement much needed electoral reform in order to upstage the NDP on the issue was appealing, so despite a healthy cynicism about politicians and the small chance that the movers and shakers in the Liberal and Conservative parties would allow such reform, I had hopes Justin would prove truthful. What has now been revealed is a feckless PM with feet of clay who appears to be little more than a puppet to the power brokers in the party. Party first, electors be damned. The Liberals having captured the strategic vote on this issue have abandoned us, so I am abandoning them. I may be cynical, but Justin’s actions on this have been cynical to the nth degree. So much for the charade of sunny ways, just more of the same old, same old. People rationalizing or defending his behavior reveal much about their own disregard for the truth.

    • Ah yes, you pinned your whole life on one policy that nobody else cared about according to the polls.

      And now what? You’re going to cast yourself off a cliff in sorrow?

      Be serious.

      • Emilyone you don’t appear to understand the issue let alone the answers. Justin has proven his word is no good and he can’t be trusted. All the red herrings, ad hominems, obfuscation, and smoke and mirrors won’t obscure that fact.

        • Yeah hon I understand just fine.

          Here we have a bunch of Cons still whining about Steve……and they use an old gimmick. Pick something no one cares about and try to make it sound like a crucifixion offence.

          Oh….and tossing in red herrings is your shtick not mine.

          Donnt you think we’ve seen these mulberry bushes before? LOL

      • Why is it I’m not surprised that Justin’s apologists do not understand how important that “one issue”, Justin’s word being worth nothing and his lack of credibility now is? Oblivious to the obvious I guess, or maybe blinded by sunny ways perhaps?.

        • Everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen ….we’d already said ‘no’ in BC and Ont.

          Getting rid of Harp was the only election issue.

          • “Getting rid of Harp was the only election issue.”

            Yup, that was pretty much it.

            Enough so that the split vote on the left managed to self-organise around getting a “not ready, part-time drama teacher with nice hair” elected instead Harper. Anyone but Harper.

            But, as it’s turned out, the guy is doing a lot better than I expected. And, yeah, I don’t care a whit about electoral reform. We’ve managed to muddle along with what we’ve got for long enough. We even survived Harper.

  4. Fool me once, shame on you Justin, fool me twice, shame on me. Then you didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to do a mea culpa yourself, but got a lady to do it for you. A cowardly act, but you seem to have no idea of the bridges you’ve burned and goodwill you’ve destroyed on this one unless you make it right. Your problem isn’t that we don’t understand Justin, it’s we do!

    • Oh puleeze.

      Could you do your rendition of ‘Apocalypse Now’ somewhere else….

      • Emilyone, I find your tone very insulting. If you do not agree, say so. But please do not resort to childish verbiage in order to make your point.

    • What’s the relevance of him asking the cabinet minister in charge to announce something related to her portfolio? How does her gender play into this? Unlike the previous PM who had to control everything and everyone, Trudeau assigns the portfolios and lets his ministers do their jobs.

  5. Isn’t it amazing how quickly the Aga Khan has disappeared as a topic of conversation?

    And now you’re on to ‘electoral reform’…..one of the most boring topics on earth. LOL

  6. Yes, it’s disappointing. The parliamentary committee spent a lot of taxpayer money and produced a crayon sketch then Ms Monsef got taken to task for complaining about the amateur nature of the work. Since elections are the basis of democracy and since fair representation in a country with complex demographics and complex geography including local representation is a seriously complex and delicate issue, improving the system requires a good deal of very hard work. The article seems to suggest that the opinion of the general public of whom only a fraction vote, still less vote studiously and still less have read the Canadian constitution is of much use. To be sure, many Canadians are disaffected by a system where party politics trumps diligent representation and where influence peddling trumps individual concerns. Many rail against strategic voting which individuals may see as their own embellishment of the existing system but this only smells of wanting to dictate how individuals vote when voting is supposed to be strictly a personal choice.
    Politicians failing to deliver is not news: Harper said he’d improve the economy then demolished the value add portion of industry and carried on a war against intellectual property. He also promised that the Canadian financial system was immune to the US financial melt-down and we all know what happened there. Then there was the strange case of building gazebos in an avowed effort to improve national security – looking for connections between political statements and political acts is pointless.

  7. Prime Minister Trudeau repeated his promise of electoral reform – in English and French – over a thousand times on the election campaign trail and then in Parliament.
    He promised electoral reform in the Throne Speech.
    Problem is – a large majority of experts, citizen participants, and the all-party Parliamentary report – all called for proportional representation: not what he wanted!
    Sadly, this false promise on electoral reform is one of many including his broken promises:

    – to the First Nations who he promised respect and real consultation – and then immediately approved the Site C dam, and an LNG plant at the mouth of the Skeena river that will destroy crucial eel beds for salmon fingerlings;

    – to those who were amazed that he accepted Harper’s climate targets;

    – to those who thought he meant it when he said he would make major increases in health care programs such as home care;

    – to those who believed him when he said there would be major revision to the NEB evaluation process of Kinder-Morgan project before considering its future – and then approved it with no revised process;

    – to those he promised a $10 billion deficit which has ballooned to at least $30 billion because he won’t fairly tax his corporate and the super-rich friends – including those who hide multi billions in foreign tax havens!
    Mr. Trudeau may believe that Canadians will forget his broken promises and seek selfies and empty rhetoric in taxpayer funded campaign tours in which he, as Minister of Youth, informed a First Nations chief concerned with youth suicides that what aboriginal youth needed was ”places to store their canoes and paddles”!
    Canadians expect serious responses to serious issues facing them: celebrity and hollow rhetoric are no substitute for mature leadership.

    • “Thank You” , Ron Faris. In my community, there was an active committee discussing electoral reform — small meetings, a Town Hall meeting, Letters to the Editor, etc.. It was spear-headed by a member of the Liberal party ( a former candidate), but people from all parties were invited to join. Only Cathy McLeod, our local MP (Conservative) chose not to participate. The purpose of this citizen’s committee was to make a recommendation to the Parliamentary Committee . It did so, in written form. Trudeau’s website was just a smokescreen, a useless and expensive bit of political skull-duggery. It would be my hope that Canadians will make this the one and only time that Little Lord Fauntleroy has the opportunity to prove his worth and his mettle — because he has shown himself to be as false as the worst of them. (You would think that he would have been grateful to people like John McCallum and Stephan Dion for sticking with the Liberal Party through thick and thin, and for having wisdom guide him. But, no — out they go….)

  8. Glad to see that the voting system will remain as is. Real accountability is lost with any of the proposed systems. The money was well spent if it means that we do not lose the ability to hold the governing party accountable. Otherwise we wind up with the hodge podge of our federal government operating like a non party, municipal council, when policy differences matter so much more at the federal level.

  9. John Geddes has written a well-argued article (which is rare). Is it not tantamount to saying that politicians are in no position to govern the rules by which they are elected? The BC Citizens Assembly provided the kind of referee that was required. It was the most significantly independent body perhaps ever to investigate election method. Of course, some have tried to discredit its credentials. (I have defended them in the first of my free e-books: Peace-making Power-sharing.)
    Richard Lung. “Democracy Science” with links to 3 free e-books on election method and science.