Why the electoral reform sham will breed cynicism - Macleans.ca

Why the electoral reform sham will breed cynicism

The Liberals drew in Millennial voters with a promise to change the way Canadians vote. They’ve now kicked those voters to the curb.

Photographed at event with Canadian Girl Guides with Maryam Monsef Minister for Status of Women. (Photograph by Peter Bregg)

Photographed at event with Canadian Girl Guides with Maryam Monsef Minister for Status of Women. (Photograph by Peter Bregg)

By killing electoral reform, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has damaged more than just Canada’s prospects for releasing itself from the clutches of moribund first-past-the-post elections. He has cut down the democratic aspirations of hundreds of thousands of young Canadians, tacitly teaching them to expect less from government and dream smaller political dreams.

Let’s give the Liberals the benefit of the doubt, shall we? Let’s assume that the now-infamous promise to make 2015 the last first-past-the-post election was made sincerely, and not in a hastily calculated bid to peel off progressive voters from Tom Mulcair’s NDP. Let’s assume that rookie MPs and ministers were selected to lead on the file not to control the process from the Prime Minister’s Office, but rather to usher in genuine generational change. Though it might strain credulity, let’s even assume that the Prime Minister’s chief advisor did not intend to spike the file, but merely fumbled it—despite having been on hand for a similar binning of electoral reform while he was working for the Ontario Liberals at Queen’s Park.

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

Let’s assume all of this. And still, this government will have led so many people on, and eroded so much good will, that no doctrine of honest mistake or recklessness will exonerate it; last week’s mandate letter to new Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, which stated that, “Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate,” has left an indelible scar on our country’s political future.

The taxonomy of squandered energies runs long.

The 731 witnesses and 571 written briefs submitted to the electoral reform committee represent a massive outpouring of civil society energy, often representing the culmination of years of organizing. The 383,074 Canadians who, with good will, filled out the survey at mydemocracy.ca have now been told that “the broad support for a change of this magnitude does not exist”—despite never having been asked on that survey what voting system they actually favour.

As for the dozens of MPs who either worked on the all-party committee or convened town halls on reform in their constituencies, the implicit lesson is to keep their heads down and stay away from questions of structural renewal.

But national progress relies on people and organizations taking initiative to try new things. Our capacity for innovation is not fixed but rather expands and contracts as researchers, activists and ordinary Canadians either phone it in or go the extra mile.

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

So when a Liberal promise stirs thousands of citizens to do something transformative, then shrugs off the promise in a moment of political expediency, it does more than just leave a bitter taste in our mouths; it undermines our motivation to pour our hearts into emergent issues of national significance.

Citizens do not start out disengaged but rather become so through their repeated efforts to work within a stubbornly unresponsive system. As Samara Canada put it in 2011 research, “Disengaged people become outsiders through their daily experience and interactions with the political system,” and younger Canadians come “to understand very early on that the political system disregards their concerns.”

To watch ministers Monsef and Gould stand up in the House of Commons and say that the electoral reform committee “did not complete the hard work we had expected them to” or that “no consensus emerged” from consultations is to feel our own hopes for the future shrivel. Selecting historically young messengers, who look and talk like us, was an even more crushing way to tell our generation that better is not, actually, always possible.

RELATED: Electoral reform: The Fredo Corleone of campaign promises

But perhaps the most revealing and dangerous aspect of the reform boondoggle was the timing of this announcement, shoehorned into the week of President Donald Trump’s executive orders and travel ban, when so many eyes were transfixed on the American political horror show. Shortly after Gould’s announcement, Trudeau dodged a scrum in the foyer of the House with a drive-by soundbite: “Canadians expect us to do the right thing for the country and focus on the things that matter.”

But the irony of the Prime Minister’s comment is that in the age of Trump, we should be learning that it is democratic integrity and public spirit that matter above just about anything else; that doing the right thing for the country means, at the bare minimum, not blaming citizens themselves when one’s promises can’t be kept.

Conservative commentator David Frum’s startling piece in The Atlantic claims that the primary cause of Donald Trump’s rise has been the “inculcation of cynicism.” He asks how one builds an autocracy and answers: “demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters. […] Believers can be disillusioned; people who expect to hear only lies can hardly complain when a lie is exposed.”

We are not yet teetering on the precipice of a maple tea party or Northern Trump. Still, the creeping doubt and disengagement that the electoral reform saga is spawning even now should give the Liberal government reason to pause, get its bearings and rediscover true north on its moral and democratic compass.


Scott Baker is co-founder of a Toronto-based communications firm working with non-profit and public agencies. Mark Dance is a law student at McGill and a former non-partisan parliamentary intern.


Why the electoral reform sham will breed cynicism

  1. 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

  2. I think everyone has made their point very clear about this electoral reform, you would swear someone died, get over it. This electoral reform would have been a jackpot, for crackpot parties. Right now, the fact that the NDP, Green and Bloq can do everything in their power to try and stop a government from moving ahead with it agenda, is an example of fringe crackpot parties trying to block the government from moving ahead. If the NDP, Greens, Bloq, and few other crackpot fringe parties, throw in a few super right wing racist parties, and i promise, nothing will ever get done in government, because too many crackpot parties and egos will have too many different agendas. These fringe parties want to try and tear down our constitution and institutions in order to feed their own agendas. Just imagine, if the Green party had, had, PR in place in the last election, they would of had won 12 seats, no wonder Miss May, is having a bad day, she needs to move on, can you imagine if she had 12 members in her party, the country would be on welfare.

    • Don’t get me started on the conservatives, but they are more legit than the NDP, Green and bloq.

    • So you’re saying that, unless you support the CPC or the Liberals, you don’t deserve a say in how the country is run?

      You know, the country to the south of us has a two-party system. How well is that working out?

      The greater the range of voices, the greater the number of ideas, the stronger we are. It’s the oppression of ideas that leads to stagnation.

      • There is only one way, know and understand what the candidate stands for and is he or she qualified and does the electorate have the power to recall if the member does not perform as promised..

      • Yes we should be, just a 2 party system, center right, and center left, eliminate all that grey area shit. Their will never, ever, and i mean ever, did i say ever, a right wing or left wing party run this country, you will never get elected with pandering to 30% of the population, you have to open your tent a little, that’s why Canada was founded on a 2 party system. You want your voice heard, join the center left, or center right. As far as the 2 party system down south goes, it works fine, just, if you want to beat the other party, you have to get out and vote, because if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t be complaining of the person got elected, you didn’t want them to be elected. How ever way you cut it, the DNC voters who didn’t vote, dropped the ball, they relied on people who do vote, to vote for the people they wanted in power, instead of voting themselves. They got what they deserved, called complacency.

      • Just to add Bro, i don’t think the NDP or Green voters realize, the liberals are a center left party, not a left party, and Tom Mulcair turned into a Orange Tory, Austerity, and the banning of niqabs, so i am not really sure the NDP or Green, are sure, where they sit when it comes to becoming a big tent size party, they don’t care what the other 2 parties want, only what they want..

        • Mulcair lost in part because he *wasn’t* for the banning of niqabs and he stood up for women who were being discriminated against by Harper. Which happened to also be Trudeau’s stance, but Mulcair was the one the media gave all the heat to. And Mulcair was pro refugee, same as Trudeau, which again.. the media gave all the credit to Trudeau and none to Mulcair.

        • As much as many NDP’s like Tom in general, the mood in the party is that we want more of a return to the party’s roots, and the grassroots of the party is pushing it to be more progressive environmentally. It’s a diverse party with a range of priorities, but we all agree on equality and justice including the issue of democracy.

          NDP and Greens are fully aware that the Liberals are not a left wing party.

          We don’t care about what parties want. We care about what the people want and need, and what the planet needs. We care that everyone has their basic right to be represented in parliament respected. Whether they vote for the NDP or the Green Party or another party. Democracy isn’t a one-way street!

          • Maybe they could get what they want if they joined a center left party, instead of whining all the time. Thats all these fringe left wing groups do is divide the center left and give the conservatives a better opportunity to serve in government, and what do the left get from the Cons, ZITCH, just ask Jack Layton in 2006 when he and his party voted against the liberals to let Harper run the country, and we had 10 years of bickering and dickering. Do you think the NDP or Green would get help for the drug issues happening in the country today if the cons were in power , good luck with that, legal pot, never happen, age 65 to to retire, cons said no. All parties have shortcomings, its just some people should understand that. liberals are a policy party, not a pandering party, pandering is for the weak minded politicians, and no NDP or Greens didn’t vote for Trudeau because of electoral reform, it was because Tom went all squirrely on the NDP, but lets not let the fact get in the way of a good protest..

    • Carp. You’re treating this like a joke? Of course it’s serious. It was #8 on the Liberal platform (that’s right it cracked the top 10). In fact, it’s still advertising on the Liberal website. You can go and download the full policy right now.


      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.

    • the green party will not put the country on welfare. you should read the platform, the lieberals did and stole some…

      • What platform, they don’t have one that fits the country, only their own needs. they don’t have a thing that interests me. they don’t believe we should sell our oil, and they think money grows on trees, the Peter Pan Party, i call them, all fantasy.

        • Are the wind and sun, fantasy? Pretty sure that the country needs to survive. We’re not going to if we keep poisoning everything. What we have right now is going to be a distant fantasy if we don’t make some real changes fast.

  3. I can not agree more with this article. I myself am very disillusioned with this recent decision. The following is an excerpt from the letter I wrote to Justin recently:

    I trusted you. I believed you to be someone who would always take the high road. For me the most painful part of you breaking your promise is that I thought you were different than the scores of other politicians who make promises but do not follow through. What message is this sending to our young people and disenfranchised voters– your broken promise only adds to their growing cynicism. For many of us you were a breath of fresh air and your government signaled the dawn of new era of transparency and good will. And indeed you have done much that you can be proud of and for that I thank you– but now with this breach of trust everything seems tainted.

    I feel disillusioned. In fact so disillusioned, I could not even listen to your voice as you spoke to the mourners at the funeral for Quebec mosque shooting victims. Normally my heart would have swelled with pride upon hearing you speak and bringing a nation together in the face of tragedy. Now I simply feel demoralized by your recent decision. I do believe you have a good heart, but by abandoning your promise of electoral reform, you are missing out on an opportunity to make Canada’s democracy more fair, inclusive and collaborative. Why would anybody not want that for our country? I realize it is not an easy task to overhaul the system and it may take much work and negotiation, but I think it is worth the struggle.

    • Wow thank you for sending such a heartfelt and rational letter. I also can’t listen to him go on about equality and inclusiveness now. It all seems so fake. Just that he chose to use the week of the Trump ban, the cabinet hearings, and the day right after the mosque shooting, to quietly announce the betrayal of democracy to shovel it under the rug – is pretty gross.

  4. On electoral reform, the Trudeau Liberals were either dishonest or incompetent. Take your pick, but don’t waste your “First Past the Post” ballot on them again.

    • If your in favor of PR electoral reform, your like everyone else i say this to, if the liberals were to bring in PR, you would never vote for the liberals again, you and other whiners had intentions of voting for other parties in the future. why would the liberals or any party for that fact want to have PR, if the people who want it, are not going to vote for them, or ever vote for them again, that would be like committing political suicide, for any party. Thats what bugs me about these electoral reformers, they just want to vote for other parties, but they want to do it on the backs of the liberal party.

      • On the backs of the Liberal Party? They’re the ones who have been getting a free ride here, along with the Conservative Party. It’s like you’re arguing that people fighting for democracy in the first place, are doing it on the backs of an absolute monarchy who would lose power if people had the right to vote.

        Real democracy doesn’t give you disproportionate power over everyone else. It benefits the people and society in general. Is it the job of the Liberals to govern for themselves, or for the country as a whole?

  5. I’ve very very disappointed with the failure of the Liberal Party and the Prime Minister to implement their promised electoral reform. I can’t say I’m disillusioned, since I never did think a political party could quash its selfish motives for the benefit of the country. The blatancy of the deceit though takes my breath away. These are very arrogant people to calculate that they can jerk the Canadian voter around like this. To hear the Prime Minister, with his palm over his heart spouting drivel about a lack of consensus made me want to puke. I can’t stand hearing him anymore; I just turn him off or tune him out mid-sentence. So, it’s back to strategic voting, the real national sport, since hockey went south.

    • I’ll be strategically voting too – for whichever party that has been fighting for decades for real democracy has the best chance in my riding. Since I don’t live in Saanich-Gulf Islands (Elizabeth May’s riding) that means for the NDP.

  6. Did everybody just find this out? How many promises did he keep and how many did he not?
    Nothing new.

    • That doesn’t mean it’s okay. Often when people are complaining about something, we knew about it and were trying to do something beforehand. But for the people who are just finding out, welcome to the struggle.

      We can’t really quantify promises kept/broken based on numbers. Since electoral reform affects absolutely everything else, it’s objectively the most important promise by far (as much as LPC are trying to minimize it) whether people realize it or not.

  7. I agree with the authors, although, we would have to give the Liberals more than the benefit of the doubt, we would have to be really, really naive. Electoral reform was dead, the minute they won under FPTP. Trudeau lied, Monsef lied and Gould’s mandate is to lie.
    I would add that millennials were not the only ones who voted for electoral reform. I am in my 60’s so I can’t claim a lack of extensive experience with politics. My vote and active support for the Liberals was stupid. I’m embarrassed, but it won’t happen again.

    • Please help us in the NDP next time. We’ve been fighting for real democracy, electoral reform for decades. We even tried to push it through in 2014 but the Liberal and Conservative parties moved against it. I can tell you from congress and meetings we’re extremely committed to it. The Green Party too.

    • It really upsets me to see people swindled. I didn’t believe them, it was frustrating at the time when so many people did. But it’s not your fault, the fault lies with the perpetrators who gave people false hope and exploited their desire for a fair democracy, to return to power.

  8. First past the post is best – the desire for other systems come from those who can’t count enough voters to have a look-in. Justine is a flash in the pan looking for photo-ops anyway.
    Millennials, look for something solid!

    • I disagree. FPTP creates an echo chamber, where only a select few ideas on how to run the country bubble up. A more heterogeneous mix of parties would mean more ideas discussed; more ideas discussed gives us a better chance of finding the best direction to take.

      This is a practice followed by most top corporations; no reason why it shouldn’t work for government. In fact, it ought to be more beneficial there.

  9. Very well written article – I agree completely.
    I feel so disillusioned by this action. I had so much hope when Trudeau was elected and now I barely feel like voting next time.

    Trudeau explicitly said he would “make every vote count”. Now he doesn’t care that huge numbers of Canadians end up with wasted votes that elect no one. FPTP is outdated and unfair and Trudeau is a liar.

  10. The debate to replace FPTP rarely has discussed the method to replace it. Above article is typical in that respect. The only really pushed replacement, by parties and pressure groups, is MMP, which “replaces” FPTP by keeping it and all its malfunctions, and adding a second x-vote, for a party. And they really mean it, that x-vote is for parties, and not for voters, who effectively relinquish a choice of representatives, to be made by those who draw-up the party lists. The party lists are an oligarchic ranked choice, that denies a country universal suffrage of a preference vote.
    It’s not rocket science, the proportional count of a preference vote: John Stuart Mill, the greatest scientific philosopher of the 19th century, told us that Proportional Representation is Personal Representation.
    Richard Lung. “Democracy Science” with links to 3 free e-books on election method and science.

  11. A very well-written article. We do not now have a true democracy, when 35% of those who vote can elect a majority government that clearly does not represent the remaining 65% of voters. We elect MPs to represent us, but this is not occurring under the present flawed system. Proportional voting will allow us true democracy. Those who don’t want democracy will continue to argue for the status quo…and just look at what that is giving us.

  12. From the shockingly propaganda push-poll nature of the survey, to announcing the betrayal quietly the DAY after the tragic shooting of the mosque in Québec, in the middle of Trump’s ban and cabinet hearings, it’s all so shamefully dishonest and slimy. The neoLiberals’ increasingly Orwellian actions themselves are evidence for why we need PR. The lie that there isn’t public consensus to move past non-democracy (FPTP) is irrelevant. Even if there wasn’t consensus, that doesn’t matter, this is a human rights issue. To discriminate against an entire group of people (primarily progressive and environmentally minded folks, not the “alt-right” as Trudeau tried to blame/imply) who never have their votes count because they don’t fall into the ever narrowing category of people who are allowed to be represented in parliament (neoliberal-neoconservative) – is morally unjustifiable discrimination. Especially for a country, and a party, which pretends to be about diversity and equality. Pshhh.

    I agree with much of this article, except that we *are* teetering on the precipice of a Trump-like situation, and many other things which PR would help us deal with. The Liberal Party is not only sabotaging our democratic rights as Canadian citizens, they are sabotaging our survival.

    Take a good look at the US and at Trump’s administration. This is where an authoritarian system has led – to authoritarian government and two ultra right wing party establishments who basically disagree on abortion and whether they should let people into the country or not after bombing them. The vast majority of the American people are entirely unrepresented in their government. Canada is almost there. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

  13. When I heard Trudeau’s promise of “last time for first past the post” it confirmed for me that his policies were very poorly thought out. That system favors the two largest parties one of which he is the leader of!! And, no I didn’t think it was a noble gesture just one of several dumb policies. So, he finally understood the damage he could do to his own party and took a very dishonest route to nuke it. If he would nuke his other policies that will move Canada to the same bankrupt state we now have in Ontario, I’d be delighted.