Did Justin Trudeau rule out one potential plan for electoral reform?

The PM suggested he's hesitant about some styles of reform to replace first past the post, hinting at a version called mixed-member proportional representation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with reporters during an interview with The Canadian Press in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 16, 2015. (Patrick Doyle/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with reporters during an interview with The Canadian Press in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 16, 2015. (Patrick Doyle/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to study electoral reform, but comments on the topic this week raised questions about whether he has already ruled out one version of it.

Trudeau told the Canadian Press on Wednesday that he doesn’t like the idea of “disconnecting any MPs from specific groups of citizens or geographic location.”

“The fact that every single politician needs to earn the trust of a specific group of constituents who cover the broad range of Canadian public opinion strengthens our democracy,” Trudeau said in a long interview with CP’s Ottawa bureau.

Related: Do the Liberals have a mandate for electoral reform?

Some voters dislike Canada’s first-past-the-post system because they feel it distorts the result. The Liberals, for example, won 54.4 per cent of seats in the House with 39.5 per cent of the vote, just as, in 2011, the Conservatives won 53.9 per cent of seats with 39.6 per cent of the vote.

Trudeau promised the 2015 federal election would be the last one run under first-past-the-post, and pledged to consult broadly about how to change it.

But his comments to CP sparked a debate over whether he was ruling out proportional representation, or a specific version of it called mixed-member proportional representation. Under that method of electoral reform, voters cast ballots for local candidates using the first-past-the-post system Canadians are used to, with a second ballot that lets them choose their preferred party. Some seats in Parliament are then allocated based on that second ballot vote. But critics of that option argue it can leave voters with less power if it’s the party that slots its preferred candidates into those seats.

Related: The true test of Trudeau’s new politics? Electoral reform

Trudeau has in the past said he’s a fan of a preferential ballot, where voters rank the candidates and, if there’s no single candidate with a clear majority, the least popular candidate is dropped from the ballot. Voters who chose the losing candidate as their first option then have their votes redistributed for their second, third and subsequent choices until there’s a winner. That option is thought to favour the Liberals as a centrist party. The NDP prefer mixed-member proportional representation. The Conservatives have been urging the Liberals to promise to hold a referendum to decide on electoral reform.

Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, says Trudeau’s comments don’t rule out any particular style of proportional representation and that there are many systems that would make election day more fair. Canada could opt for mixed-member proportional, for example, with an open list so voters know for whom they’re casting ballots.

Related: Trudeau’s pointman in the House on electoral reform

“If you have an open list, you can directly elect your representatives the same way you do now,” she said.

A modified Canadian system could also geographically limit the second ballot so people are still voting for candidates from their area. “For instance, in Scotland and Wales, you have MPs that are also tied to ridings or local regions with an open list,” Carmichael said.

Trudeau’s comments to CP went a little further than he did in a separate event that day. In a town hall hosted by Maclean’s, Trudeau mentioned the idea of politicians representing specific groups of people but framed it as one of many questions to ponder.

Related: Read the transcript of the Maclean’s town hall with Justin Trudeau

“Do we want a government that engages with broad numbers of voices? Do we want a government that tries to pull people together and be acceptable to the largest number of Canadians? Do we want to keep that bond between a specific MP and a specific group of Canadians? These are all important questions that lead us in different directions depending on our answers,” Trudeau said.

A spokeswoman for Trudeau said he hasn’t ruled out any particular style of electoral reform.

“We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” Andrée-Lyne Hallé wrote in response to an emailed question.

“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.”

Carmichael said Trudeau’s comments don’t worry her. “We are actually really encouraged by what he said, that he seems to be really open to listening to Canadians and really putting their concerns to the test in all of this,” she said.

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