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Trudeau provides weak justification for breaking electoral reform promise

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Image: Flickr/Justin Trudeau

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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And so that's what strategic voting gets you.

During the last federal election campaign, groups such as Leadnow vigorously encouraged Canadians to vote for the candidates in their ridings with the best chance of defeating the Harper Conservatives. 

It was unfair and undemocratic, Leadnow (and others) argued, that in 2011 Harper won 100 per cent of the power with only 39 per cent of the vote.

Harper got his majority, they said, because voters on the progressive side of the fence split their allegiances among NDP, Liberal and Green candidates. If the same thing happened in 2015, they warned, we could get another Conservative government.

The Leadnow argument seemed to resonate. Hundreds of thousands of erstwhile NDP voters jumped on the Liberal bandwagon.

There were unintended consequences however.

In the rush to kick out Harper, voters did not pay too close attention to the state of play in their individual ridings, and defeated many hardworking, sitting NDP MPs. Among those were: Craig Scott, Megan Leslie, Jack Harris and Paul Dewar.

And so, in 2015, it was Justin Trudeau's turn to win 100 per cent of the power with a mere 39 per cent of the vote.

The election did not, as many had expected -- and some, including this writer, had hoped --produce a result that forced politicians from different parties to work together, sharing power. It gave one party and one leader an entirely free hand.

One of the less attractive features of our majoritarian, Westminster-style parliamentary system is that it can produce a virtual one-party regime, at least until the next election. When one party wins a clear majority, the system turns government MPs into trained seals, obliged to slavishly follow their leader, and reduces opposition MPs to the role of spectators with good seats. 

Trudeau can break his promise because he has a majority

If Trudeau were leader of a minority government today, do you think he would so cavalierly walk away from one of his signature election promises?

That promise is one the Prime Minister repeated more than a 1,000 times. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair cited the number in the House on Wednesday and the Prime Minister did not disagree.

What we are discussing here, in case you have been asleep for a year and a half, is Trudeau's pledge that "the 2015 election will be the last one conducted under first-past-the-post."

The Liberal leader now dismisses that commitment as a mere "box on an electoral program."

This reporter was there, in the spring of 2015, at the rally-cum-news-conference in Ottawa's Chateau Laurier, where Trudeau forcefully and energetically highlighted the electoral reform commitment -- to rapturous applause from his supporters. It did not seem to anyone present that the Liberal leader considered it  to be an insignificant trifle, just a tiny, little item in the election manifesto.

The promise was, in fact, the centrepiece of Justin Trudeau's democratic reform program. And democratic reform is the horse Trudeau rode to get back in contention when his party was lagging at third place in the opinion polls.

How power changes one's perspective on matters of policy!

Now, it seems, there is "no consensus among Canadians" as to how we should reform the voting system. The 90 per cent of witnesses who appeared before a special House committee, who recommended a new system with a significant degree of proportionality, do not constitute sufficient consensus, apparently.

Even the government's own deeply flawed and biased survey reveals a profound desire among Canadians for a more cooperative form of government. Skeptics suspected that the government wanted to use that survey to bury electoral reform, not to praise it.

Well, if that was the government's intention, the thousands of Canadians who responded did not play ball. The federal government's web site tells us that 383,074 people participated. That's about the population of a medium-sized Canadian city, say London, Ontario. 

Canadians want deliberative rather than decisive government

When the democratic institutions minister (quietly) released the survey's results, they showed that "in general, Canadians express a clear preference for a cooperative Parliament where parties work together to develop policy and share accountability for policy outcomes...62 per cent of Canadians either somewhat or strongly agree that governments should have to negotiate policy decisions with other parties in Parliament, even if the result is that there is less clarity as to which party or parties are responsible for the resulting policy."

Elsewhere, the survey reveals that "Canadians...express a consistent preference for parties that compromise with one another rather than those that act unilaterally...70 per cent of Canadians prefer a government where several parties have to collectively agree before a decision is made rather than a government where one party governs and can make decisions on its own. This finding remains robust regardless of the trade-offs presented." 

When you consider that the survey did not directly address the issue of electoral reform, these responses represent a strong consensus among Canadians about the result they would like from an electoral system. Canadians want the type of government that any electoral system with a significant degree of proportionality would usually deliver. Canadians prefer cooperative government, in which no party has an absolute majority. 

This writer can remember a time when a great many Canadians thought majority government was the best. A majority meant strong and stable government.

That time, if we are to believe this government's own survey, is past.

Perhaps the fact that, in 2011, Stephen Harper boasted that he had achieved a "strong, stable majority" left a bitter taste in many citizens' mouths.

Notwithstanding what our prime minister and his new democratic institutions minister say, there is indeed a strong consensus in favour of changing the voting system.

Canadians would prefer a more deliberative rather than decisive from of government -- the survey's own words.

And the majority of Canadians are, it seems, sick and tired of winner-take-all, of 39 per cent of the vote giving 100 per cent of the power.

They know too well that a prime minister with a majority can insouciantly dismiss his own solemn, oft-repeated commitments as nothing more than disposable words in an electoral program.

Those, such as Leadnow, who advocated the foolish plan of strategic voting last time, and those who fell for it, should pat themselves on the back. They got what they worked for.

Today, mind you, Leadnow is bitterly disappointed and feels betrayed by Trudeau's double cross on electoral reform. They should have considered that possibility when they urged voters to, in effect, give Trudeau and his Liberals carte blanche to do whatever they want. 

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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Image: Flickr/Justin Trudeau

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