The Train Wreck of Liberal Electoral Reform

Nathan Cullen

Lesson #1—Words matter.

“We are committed to ensuring that 2015 is the last federal election conducted under first-past-the-post.”
Justin Trudeau (2015)

“It was my decision to make and I chose to make it.”
Justin Trudeau (2017)

These two quotes, from two different versions of the same man, tell you much of what you need to know about the Liberal Party’s saga on electoral reform.

In the beginning there was much promise. A hope so clearly stated there could be no mistaking it for some cynical strategy employed by a politician seeking the highest office in the land.

In the end there were just weak excuses. A betrayal so brazen was almost eclipsed by the sheer arrogance of the strategy.

There is much to learn from this. We can fully appreciate how changing the way we vote might eventually come to Canada.

But it takes a certain determination to wade through the confusion, incompetence and cynicism.

So let’s begin at the beginning.

Lesson #2—The victory goes to the bold.

Sitting in third place in the polls a year out from the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau chose to be bold. And not just boldness for its own sake, but strategically, reaching into traditionally progressive territory. Electoral reform and open and accountable government were all signs that under Trudeau things would be different, not just in style, but in substance.

After their unlikely win and a strong majority in Parliament, the Liberals did…well, nothing. For eight months they mouthed the words but were unable to stir enough energy to even strike the necessary committee to begin the work of changing Canada’s voting system.

The government found motivation  to take action on electoral reform after they were embarrassed eight months into their mandate. A transport bill (C-10) was almost voted off the list of work for Parliament when the opposition brought in enough members to outvote the unprepared Liberals. In response the government brought in the “nuclear option” of rule changes that would have effectively stripped the opposition of all power in parliament. I knew this was particularly drastic when in a casual conversation with former Prime Minister Harper I asked if even in his darkest hours he considered such a move. “No, but it’s devious,” he replied.

After much criticism from MPs, media and Canadians who pay attention to these kinds of things, the Liberals needed to water down their desperate control efforts and also needed to signal to the larger public that they weren’t into power for its own sake. And perhaps most importantly Liberals were, in fact, different from the previous Conservative government.

Lesson #3—Timing is everything and luck comes to those prepared for it.

And so, eight months in, we began to negotiate in earnest the setting up the committee that eventually became known as the Electoral Reform Committee (ERRE). Following the suggestion of rookie MP Daniel Blaikie, New Democrats suggested making the membership of the committee reflect how Canadians had actually voted in the last election.

When the Liberals launched their version of the committee they chose to ignore our suggestion and stuck to form, giving themselves a large majority on the committee and exposing themselves to obvious criticism of trying to control the outcome to their favour.

Weakened by the criticisms of their abuses of Parliament, the Liberals ultimately agreed to our suggestion and we were finally ready to work. Time was always of the essence as we knew a proposal had to be before Parliament well before the next election. Much time had been wasted, yet enough remained to get the job done well.

Lesson #4—Talk is cheap.

So began the season of consultations. The committee held 57 meetings, hearing from 196 expert witnesses from around the country and the world, from 567 citizens at the open mics and from 22,247 Canadians online.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef went on her own “listening tour”, and while avoiding the obvious questions (such as, “What kind of voting system would you like to see?”), heard the enthusiasm and intelligence from hundreds of Canadians who chose hope over experience when they voted for her party and her leader in 2015.

The ERRE committee wrapped up our work on time and submitted a majority report, based on the evidence we had heard. We recommended a referendum on changing the voting system and to offer up a highly proportional model. Conservatives, Bloc, Green and New Democrats had found the political will and good faith any voting reform inherently requires. The Liberals dissented and essentially said we shouldn’t rush things.

It’s worth noting that Canada’s Parliament first debated electoral reform almost a century before. We make glaciers look like they’re in a hurry sometimes.

There are times in nature when the absence of noise is actually its way of warning us something bad is coming. Week after week went by, meeting after meeting, and the evidence mounted for a change to a proportional voting system. The silence coming from the Liberal side of the ERRE committee, from the minister’s office, and ultimately the Prime Minister himself, grew worrisome.

They were in fact preparing the proverbial ‘off-ramp’ when a government readies itself to break a promise that’s going to hurt. The Liberals launched their ill-fated online consultation after mailing every Canadian a postcard. At a cost of almost $4 million, this survey also conveniently forgot to ask those tricky questions such as, “What kind of voting system do you think is best for Canada?”

Reeling from failed tactic to failed tactic, the minister then decided to attack the ERRE committee itself. Essentially calling us failures (for not having answered a question that the government itself had insisted not be asked), she derided the work and by extension the opinions of tens of thousands of motivated Canadians who had invested much in the exercise. She apologized the next day, was shuffled out of her position and replaced by yet another inexperienced minister whose first act was to kill the whole exercise with the “sent from high” mandate letter.

Justin Trudeau was left to defend this broken promise and with his “sunny ways” glow fading chose to suggest that only he, and he alone was empowered to make such a decision. He was wrong. Parliament was eventually forced to vote on the committee’s work last spring. I toured the country one last time, as a last push to encourage the Liberals to keep their promise. In the end, only two Liberal colleagues chose to take up that offer.

Lesson #5—Change will come.

Through all of this, the promises, the betrayal, the doomed consultations and ill-conceived strategy, we’ve learned some things about Canadians and their passion for electoral reform. Not a week goes by where I’m not stopped by a voter unknown to me who thanks me for the committee’s work and expresses how disappointed they are in the way this all broke down.

At the provincial and municipal levels, a desire to bring in real change is growing. Voters want their votes to count. Canadians want promises to be kept. And one’s integrity is hard to gain back once lost. Parties and political leaders that forget these truths are destined to walk the same road of others who forgot to remember who brung them to the dance.

Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, is the NDPs democratic
reform critic.