Trudeau abandons promise to change the way we vote
By Sam Mathers, News Editor
A mandate letter given to Karina Gould, the newly appointed Minister of Democratic Institutions, revealed publicly on Wednesday that Justin Trudeau would be abandoning his key campaign promise of electoral reform. The letter stated: “There has been tremendous work by the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform, outreach by Members of Parliament by all parties, and engagement of 360,000 individuals in Canada through mydemocracy.ca. A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged. Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada’s interest. Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”
Throughout his campaign and time in office, Trudeau repeatedly stated that the 2015 election would be the last in which Canadians voted in a first-past-the-post system. But in a question period Wednesday, the Prime Minister changed his tune, saying he would not “do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform.” The abandoning of this promise has caused a significant amount of controversy and discontent, with some criticizing the government of not attempting to reach a consensus at all.
We are currently voting under a first-past-the-post system, which many argue does not accurately represent the intent of the population. Under this system, the country is divided into 338 electoral districts or ridings, each electing a Member of Parliament that becomes the voice of all the voters in that riding. An MP wins a seat by receiving the most votes. When more than two MPs run in a single riding, an MP can win with less than 50% of the vote, leaving all the other voters unrepresented. The party that wins the most seats forms the government, the party leader becoming Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, the proportion of seats each party receives does not always match the proportion of votes cast in their favour. In the last two elections, the governing party won a majority of seats with less than 40% of the vote.
Prime Minister Trudeau said he was open to a variety of voting options. In an interview on CBC’s Power and Politics, Gould said the government wanted to hear what Canadians had to say and felt it would not be appropriate to “favour one system over another.” The government began extensive outreach through ministerial tours, town hall meetings, and a mydemocracy.ca survey that received responses from 360,000 Canadians. A Special Committee on Electoral Reform was appointed to examine feasible alternative voting systems.
Trudeau initially advocated for ranked ballots, a mechanism within a voting system that allows voters to rank candidates instead of simply voting for one. Ranked ballots ensure a party receives support from the most voters more often, because they take into account voters’ second and third choices. The NDP and Green Parties advocated for Proportional Representation, which not a voting system, but a principle that says n% of the vote should earn a party n% of the seats. This principle would result in a legislature that is a true representation of how the population voted. The Conservative Party advocated to keep the current system, and called for a referendum on any proposed reform.
Rather than proposing a specific voting system, the Special Committee recommended in December that a new proportional voting system should be designed by the Trudeau government. They suggested a national referendum be held, setting the new system against the current one, to determine whether Canadians would support it. This came as a disappointment, with many beginning to doubt whether the electoral system could be reformed in time for the next election. Just two months later, it has been abandoned altogether.
Rosemary Barton, who interviewed Gould on Power and Politics was critical of the idea that a lack of consensus was the reason for abandoning the plan for electoral reform, suggesting the problem had more to do with Trudeau’s approach to it. She stated: “If you don’t have anything specific on the table, it would seem to be difficult to reach consensus of any kind,” referring to the notion that the Liberal government wanted to keep an open mind and not favour one particular reform system.
While electoral reform was not at the centre of Trudeau’s platform, it was an important piece of his campaign – and he often spoke about it when talking with young people. The 2015 election saw an increase in voters aged 18-24 from 38.8% in 2011 to 57.1% in 2015. This is the biggest jump in voter turnout for this age group since Elections Canada began reporting demographic data in 2004. Some even suggest that many young people strategically voted Liberal, specifically so they would see electoral reform that might allow for smaller or lesser-known parties to be more accurately represented.
For LU student Alicia Green, electoral reform played an important role in deciding how she would vote. Green states, “As a young person who had only been able to vote a few times, I see the system in a different way. I don’t understand politics the same as someone who is, let’s say in their mid-forties. The reform promised a change in the first-past-the-post, which is a dated system in my opinion. I think a lot of young people voted for Trudeau in hopes he would have good faith and follow through.”
Green is not alone. The abandonment of this promise has sparked major outrage, with many calling Trudeau a liar. Leader of the Green Party and member of the Special Committee, Elizabeth May expressed her discontent, stating: “I feel more deeply shocked and betrayed by my government today than on any day of my adult life.”
In her interview with CBC, Gould refers to a collective sense of pride in the current democracy. She says, “We spent the past year listening to Canadians, hearing them out and you know, what we heard was from a lot of people who are satisfied with the system.” Satisfied or not, it appears Canadians will not be seeing a change in the way they cast their ballots anytime soon.