More terrible reasons for burying electoral reform

In remarks to the media after the House of Commons rose for the summer, Justin Trudeau argued that the opposition parties are to blame for the end of the government’s effort to replace Canada’s single member plurality (or “first past the post”) electoral system. The Liberals had campaigned on a clear promise to make 2015 the last election under FPTP, without specifying an alternative. After the election, various alternatives were explored by a parliamentary committee and a series of public consultations led by the democratic reform minister, Maryam Monsef. In the end, Trudeau says, the Liberals decided that a ranked ballot system with single member districts would be a good way forward. However, the NDP maintained its commitment to proportional representation, and the Conservatives continued to oppose any change from the status quo. In Trudeau’s view, the other parties were unwilling to compromise, and he was unwilling to proceed without all parties’ support. He therefore chose to abandon the reform project altogether.

There are a number of problems with Trudeau’s latest attempt at a justification for his broken promise on electoral reform. One problem is that it is not at all clear how a single member ranked ballot system represents a compromise between FPTP and proportional representation. In any event, Trudeau’s preference for this system predates the election, and this changes the picture entirely. Instead of two stonewalling opposition parties on one side and a consensus-seeking governing party on the other, we get a picture of three parties with clearly distinct, non-negotiable positions on an important political issue. And that’s fine — we have different parties for a reason! — except it means Trudeau can’t get away with blaming the other parties for the failure of the reform project. Moreover, this kind of rhetoric is bizarrely anti-political; it tries to delegitimize the opposition’s responsibility to offer alternatives to the government, and it delegitimizes the governing party’s responsibility to decide on policy and be held accountable for it.

Even if Trudeau’s position during the reform debate could be characterized by a willingness to compromise, the position he reached by the end of the debate cannot. According to Trudeau’s account, the NDP refused anything but proportional representation, and the Conservatives refused anything but the status quo, so in the end, the Liberals decided to maintain the status quo. In other words, rather than enacting a reform that they ostensibly regarded as a compromise between the Conservative and NDP positions, the Liberals just adopted the Conservative position. But they could just as easily have adopted the NDP’s position and enacted proportional representation. Ordinarily, of course, the process of policymaking legitimately privileges the status quo — if you can’t decide on a new policy, you don’t just put all policies in a hat and draw one at random. But given the context here (a clear promise to enact a new electoral system, which the Liberals were and are fully capable of fulfilling), failure to reach consensus on how to proceed does not provide a sufficient reason to adopt the Conservative position rather than the NDP’s (or the Liberals’ supposed “compromise”).

Trudeau does hint at a justification for privileging the status quo, but I don’t think it’s compelling. He says he was unwilling to use his majority “just to tick off a box on an election platform,” and that’s fair enough; if an election promise turns out to be misguided, then a prime minister should be prepared to break it. But did the promise to adopt a new electoral system really turn out to be misguided? Perhaps Trudeau’s thought is that the promise to enact electoral reform would only have been a promise worth keeping if an all-party consensus could be reached. But this would amount to making an election promise on behalf of the Liberals’ electoral competitors, which is absurd.


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