When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argues — as he did this week — that he has been invested by Canadians with a mission to introduce a different voting system in time for the 2019 election he is both overstating the strength of his mandate (39.5 per cent) and misrepresenting its scope. The last federal campaign was anything but a debate over electoral reform. The result did not hinge on the parties’ various positions on the issue.
At it happens, the public’s fascination with electoral reform is inversely proportional to that of the chattering class. As central as the shape of Canada’s voting system is to those whose careers are on the line in every election, polls consistently show that it is peripheral to the priorities of most Canadians.
That is not to say that voters would be content to let a ruling party toy with the system to suit its partisan interest but rather to point out that few would list the introduction of a new voting regimen as a top-of-mind matter.
Here are a few more observations based on the unpromising start of the electoral reform debate in the House of Commons this week.
There are sound reasons to consider other voting systems than first-past-the-post (FPTP) but increasing voter participation is not one of the main ones. When Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef talks about constituencies that have a chronically low turnout, as if they were just waiting to bang on the door of a government-controlled special committee, she is blowing smoke.
When Elections Canada sounded out Canadians on FPTP after the 2000 election, it found that voters and non-voters alike were overwhelmingly satisfied with the system … even as they were also open to a more proportional approach. But the premise that anything would be better than the status quo is not as mainstream as reform advocates would like to believe.
As surely as night follows day, the precedents set by the Liberals in the handling of this fundamental reform to the exercise of the democratic rights of Canadians will become stepping-stones for future governments looking to act unilaterally on the sheer basis of their majority.
As they defend their right to control the discussion and eventually dictate its outcome, the Liberals are banking on lingering anti-Harper sentiment to convince progressive voters that the end result of a system that could make it harder for the Conservatives to form majority governments justifies the use of undemocratic means to arrive at it.
Before giving Trudeau a pass on process, nonconservative voters should ask themselves how they would feel if it was Stephen Harper who was stacking this deck.
The Liberals are latecomers to the cause of electoral reform and their humbling third-place finish in the 2011 election drove them there. Now that they are back on top, more than a few of them feel a system that has just delivered them a majority should not be abandoned for one that could diminish their party’s advantage.
But electoral politics is a fluid business. A year ago the division of the nonconservative vote was a striking feature of the federal landscape … until it no longer was.
If the ways of the electorate were predicated on past election behaviour or even on pre-election polls, the NDP would not be in power in Alberta and Trudeau would not be prime minister.
Whatever system is in place in 2019, voters in the end will remain in command. Just ask the Conservatives whose own rule changes — starting with the opportunity to spend more via a longer campaign — ended up benefiting the Liberals.
To hold a referendum on electoral reform is easier said than done. Forget that the current federal plebiscite law is not up to current political financing standards.
All it takes to fix that is political will.
A more thorny issue pertains to the level of regional consent required for a yes to mean yes in Canada’s diverse federation.
Should there be majority support in every region for a reform to be implemented? Or would it be OK to change the system in spite of the opposition of a majority in one or more provinces? And can the country’s politicians even agree on an answer?
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer sydicated by Torstar.