Elizabeth May

So long, electoral reform! Welcome back, first-past-the-post!

Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, said yesterday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that his clear promise of electoral reform back in the 2015 federal election campaign was going over the side left her feeling “more deeply shocked and betrayed by my government today than on any day of my adult life.”

Those of us who are old New Democrats, or old Tories for that matter, may not feel quite so much shock.

It is Groundhog Day, after all, and we’ve seen this movie before — over and over and over. Every time we’re persuaded to vote Liberal for one reason or another, as a matter of fact.

This would explain why, in the face of May’s anguish, New Democrats in Parliament reacted with anger and Conservatives with grim satisfaction.

The NDP Democratic Reform Critic Nathan Cullen flat out called the PM a liar. “This is one of the most cynical displays of self-serving politics this government has yet to engage in,” he said.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called the switcheroo announced by newly appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould a “massive political deception.”

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose suggested that “Canadians should think twice about believing what Justin Trudeau says.”

The difference between the two opposition parties’ approaches, which both seem fair enough under the circumstances, can be explained by the fact the NDPers supported the idea, while the Conservatives, to whom it presented truly an existential threat, most certainly did not.

Seriously, though, did anyone really expect Trudeau to keep this particular promise? After all, this is what Liberals do. They get elected and break promises.

Well, that’s not quite fair. All parties, New Democrats included, break promises after they get elected and discover that circumstances have changed. This is part of the tough business of governing.

And legislative third parties — which the Trudeau’s Liberals were before the Oct. 19, 2015, federal election — find it easier than most to make far-reaching promises.

Nevertheless, the Liberal Party of Canada has a bad history of breaking promises more often than other parties, and for what seem like more cynical reasons. No one can claim that in this case circumstances have changed in any significant way since the fall of 2015.

As an aside, in the right circumstances even Liberals sometimes keep their promises. Leastways, the governing Liberals in B.C. did back in 2005 when they allowed a vote on the recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform they’d set up while they still remembered losing the 1996 election to the NDP despite winning the popular vote.

Alas for Canadian political history and theory, the vote in favour of the single transferable vote system proposed by the assembly didn’t quite reach the demanding formula set by the government of premier Gordon Campbell.

The B.C. Liberals, who are really conservatives, tried another referendum in in 2009, and the first-past-the-post system won resoundingly, putting that idea to rest.

By 2015 after a decade of Stephen Harper, electoral reform was back on the national agenda, and arguably it was a big part of Trudeau’s appeal to voters when he promised Canadians would never use the first-past-the-post system again to elect a government. He really did sound like he meant it, too, and lots of Canadians took the bait.

I imagine that the Liberal Party strategic brain trust almost had a conniption fit the moment Trudeau flapped his lips about voting reform. Ever since, or at least once they saw the size of their majority and did the arithmetic about what the impact of the various possible forms of electoral form could be, they’ve certainly been looking for a way to wiggle off the hook. Now the deed has been done by a new minister who hasn’t been heard from much before.

So while one shares May’s pain, and feels some sympathy with her concern that new voters may be disillusioned by this cynical turnabout, it’s hard to feel her shock.

This is not exactly a case of the Liberals campaigning to the left and governing to the right, either, as some have suggested. As my colleague Dave Cournoyer, the author of the Daveberta.ca blog, reminded me this afternoon, smaller right-wing parties would have benefitted from electoral reform as much as smaller parties on the left, or those with causes that span traditional definitions of left and right, like May’s Greens.

No, it’s a keeping-your-promises issue. As Ms. Ambrose suggested, it’s about whether you can trust the Liberals. And it really shouldn’t shock anyone that they don’t keep their promises with much alacrity, especially on issues like this that have the potential to bleed off their vote to New Democrats and Greens in circumstances that could very well come to pass.

So, no, this is hardly a shocking development. As for that chilling sense of betrayal mentioned by May, well … Zap! You’re frozen!

What we should feel is resigned. I doubt we’ll see electoral reform in Canada in the lifetime of anyone reading this post.

The Liberals certainly won’t raise this topic again until the next time — heaven forefend! — there are Tories governing in Ottawa.

This isn’t happy news, but in the great scheme of things, it could be far worse. Consider the state of democracy in the great nation to the south of us compared to that up here in Canada with first-past-the-post, warts and all.

Still, if you believe urgently electoral reform is necessary or the health of democracy in Canada, you should probably vote for the New Democrats. No one can guarantee that they wouldn’t break a promise to reform our electoral system too once they’d done the arithmetic. But they’re far more likely to keep this particular kind of promise than Liberals ever are.

In the mean time, it’s déjà vu all over again.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...