Sunday, February 05, 2017

Trudeau and electoral reform

This week Justin Trudeau killed the prospect of significant electoral reform in this Parliament. His argument that there isn't a consensus may be true. However, he is rightly getting flack from left and right because his original promise in June 2015 was unequivocal - he pledged that 2015 would be last election to be run under the first-past-the-post system.

It is playing out as one might expect. My guess is that the Liberal calculus is correct: electoral reform is not really a top of mind, critical voting consideration for most of the electorate. However, whenever you promise something in language that strong and then don't keep it, there will inevitably be damage to your trustworthiness. Remember Trudeau senior's problems with "Zap you're frozen!". He lost the next election.

The real winners here are the Conservatives who get to keep the system we now have, which they feel they can exploit by splitting the votes of other parties. They successfully seduced the NDP into supporting a referendum within the House of Commons' electoral reform committee, not a smart move on the NDP's part. The record of referendum results in Canada suggests default support in such votes is for the status quo. One expert testifying before the Electoral Reform Committee said: "The majority of people who came to the polls who knew nothing about it essentially voted against it. I think the Evidence, certainly from Ontario, suggests that the large majority who come to these referendums really know nothing about the substantive details of the issue." (See report, footnote 100 on page 32)

The referendum is not a good way in seeking change. In the current circumstances, the NDP has been strongly asserting that there is a consensus and strong popular support for the idea of proportional representation. I am skeptical of that claim; I suspect most of the electorate has no clear set of feelings on the subject. Had there been a referendum the majority may well have opted to keep first-past-the-post.

If the NDP had offered to support Trudeau's initial inclination for preferential voting the Liberals might still have cancelled electoral reform, but it would have been politically more difficult. From the perspective of those advocating greater changes such as proportional representation, any change in the electoral system, in my view, would have broken the ice in public consciousness on the issue and created the potential for further change.

There are still two future possibilities for electoral reform. The issue has been bubbling away at the provincial as well as the federal level. The BC NDP has promised to hold a referendum on proportional representation in time to implement the change before the subsequent provincial election, if they are elected in the upcoming provincial election on May 9 of this year. If they are successful, reform at the provincial order of government could have a powerful demonstration effect (remember how medicare got its start). BC has already conducted two referendums on electoral reform, one did have a majority in favour but nothing happened because the government set sixty percent as the benchmark for moving forward, and the other had a majority against.

The other possibility of future action is pressure from the NDP after the next election on a future minority Liberal government. At the moment such a prospect is simply in the realm of speculation. For all the talk of democratic reform and the appointment of a new minister, it is clear little will happen between now and the next election. However, compared to 10 years ago there has been considerable growth in support for electoral reform and proportional representation. The activist base supporting it is now much larger. It would be unwise to think its moment has passed forever.