Editorial: Electoral reform promise broken

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was kidding when he promised to reform Canada’s electoral system, what else was he kidding about? It isn’t only electoral reform that’s at stake here, it’s also the credibility of the federal Liberals.

Trudeau didn’t just hint at electoral reform in the 2015 election campaign. He didn’t merely speculate that perhaps we should take a look at how we elect members of Parliament. This will be the last time Canadians will vote in the first-past-the-post system, he said repeatedly.

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Trudeau took a reasonable first step with the formation of an all-party special committee on electoral reform. That committee put in a lot of work, listened to a lot of Canadians, including some in Victoria, then released a report recommending a new proportional-voting system, along with a national referendum to gauge public support.

Maryam Monsef, then democratic institutions minister, ridiculed the report and criticized committee members for not making a specific recommendation on what might replace the current system, although the committee hadn’t been asked to do that. Monsef apologized for her acerbic remarks, but it was obvious the Liberals’ passion for electoral reform had cooled considerably.

The committee apparently didn’t come up with the answers the Trudeau government wanted, so the Liberals concocted an idea: Let’s consult Canadians in an online survey.

It was a dreadful effort, an unscientific and unprofessional sham. The questions were clearly designed to elicit certain answers, forestall others. No mention was made of first-past-the-post, national referendum or electoral reform. It was reminiscent of amalgamation questions put to voters in some Greater Victoria municipalities in the 2014 municipal elections.

So it should come as no surprise that the Liberals’ survey suggests a majority of Canadians are not eager to change the electoral status quo, nor are they united around a specific alternative. The Liberals are not saying what the results mean, but that’s irrelevant — the results are meaningless, given how they were gathered.

So how are Canadians to interpret all this?

One conclusion is that Trudeau and his fellow Liberals wrongly assumed that most people were fed up with seeing majority governments elected with less than a majority of the popular vote.

A more odious interpretation came from Trudeau when he implied in an interview last October that Canadians had changed their minds. The reform was “less urgent” now that Canadians have a government they like — the Liberals — even though he came to power with slightly less than the popular vote that gave Stephen Harper and the Conservatives their majority.

Another conclusion is that Trudeau is just another cynical politician promising anything to get elected and wiggling out of the promise after the election. If so, all of his promises should be regarded in that light.

We don’t suggest Trudeau should now make good on his promise for immediate electoral reform. Given how he and the Liberals have behaved in this controversy, they are not to be trusted to make such a fundamental change.

“If nothing else, the community consultation made it clear that if Canadians want electoral reform, they cannot rely on the Liberals to do it on their own accord,” Laurel Collins, a University of Victoria political sociology instructor, wrote in a Times Colonist commentary last November. “And, if they want proportional representation, Canadians will have to fight tooth and nail against a Liberal government that is enjoying a false majority.”

That does not mean the idea of electoral reform should be allowed to die. Let’s examine how we elect our leaders to see if there’s a better way, but let’s take the time to do it right.

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