Of prom­ises and pol­i­tics

The po­ten­tial fall­out from aban­don­ing elec­toral re­form


The New Democrats called him a liar. He can’t be trusted, echoed the Con­ser­va­tives. And the leader of the Green party said he left the coun­try’s young peo­ple dis­il­lu­sioned and weep­ing.

To be sure, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau pro­voked an im­pas­sioned re­sponse from his po­lit­i­cal ri­vals when he of­fi­cially aban­doned his un­equiv­o­cal prom­ise to change the way Cana­di­ans vote in time for the next fed­eral elec­tion.

But what of the ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans? Do they care? Does it mat­ter?

The prime min­is­ter and the team around him knew there was no get­ting around the fact a prom­ise had been bro­ken.

Still, Trudeau’s ra­tio­nale for do­ing it _ in essence, Cana­di­ans weren’t clam­our­ing to change the way they choose their fed­eral govern­ment _ could very well end up be­ing the same one that al­lows him to emerge from the controversy rel­a­tively un­scathed.

There is a com­mon as­ser­tion that elec­toral re­form is an is­sue cham­pi­oned by youth and, there­fore, must be one of the prin­ci­pal rea­sons why so many young vot­ers turned out to cast their bal­lots for the Lib­er­als in the 2015 elec­tion.

That the Lib­er­als won over more youth vot­ers than other par­ties in 2015 is not in dis­pute, but there is lit­tle ev­i­dence it had much to do with the prom­ise of elec­toral re­form _ or that break­ing said prom­ise will drive them away in droves.

“I see no ev­i­dence that youth care more about this is­sue than other Cana­di­ans,’’ said David Co­letto, the CEO of Aba­cus Data.

His April 2016 re­port, com­mis­sioned by the Cana­dian Al­liance of Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tions, sug­gested that elec­toral re­form was low on the list of pri­or­i­ties for youth.

Only 13 per cent of re­spon­dents be­tween the ages of 18 and 25 listed it among their top 5 is­sues. Of those who did, only three per cent said they would se­lect it as their sin­gle most im­por­tant pri­or­ity.

The re­sults are from an on­line sur­vey of 1,000 Cana­di­ans aged 18 to 25 con­ducted Feb. 8 to 15 last year. The polling in­dus­try’s pro­fes­sional body, the Mar­ket­ing Re­search and In­tel­li­gence As­so­ci­a­tion, says on­line sur­veys can­not be as­signed a mar­gin of er­ror as they are not a ran­dom sam­ple and there­fore are not nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the whole pop­u­la­tion.

Of course, a lack of in­ter­est in elec­toral re­form does nec­es­sar­ily mean a com­plete lack of in­ter­est in the broader nar­ra­tive of a prime min­is­ter break­ing a prom­ise.

Scott Reid, the Con­ser­va­tive demo­cratic re­form critic, likens Trudeau’s prom­ise to that of for­mer U.S. pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush: “Read my lips: no new taxes.’’

Bush made the prom­ise in ac­cept­ing the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in 1988, but then ended up break­ing it once elected.

“It be­comes a metaphor for the per­son’s reli­a­bil­ity on other prom­ises,’’ Reid said.

That’s a point Nathan Cullen, the NDP critic for demo­cratic re­form, plans to ham­mer home.

Like any is­sue, there is a highly ded­i­cated group of Cana­di­ans that has been ac­tive on elec­toral re­form for a long time, as well as a slightly larger group who might not know as much about the ins and outs of vot­ing sys­tems but are en­gaged in pol­i­tics.

Then there is a much larger group that knows lit­tle and cares less about elec­toral re­form.

“They’re the ones whose ears would perk up when they hear the prime min­is­ter just lied about some­thing,’’ Cullen said.

Iron­i­cally, Cullen had planned to de­vote the next few months do­ing out­reach with this last group, hop­ing to build enough mo­men­tum to con­vince Trudeau of the po­lit­i­cal up­side to stick to his prom­ise to change the vot­ing sys­tem.

Now the NDP plans to fo­cus on the po­lit­i­cal down­side of the de­ci­sion not to do so.

That crit­i­cism is also com­ing from the inside.

Lib­eral MP Nathaniel Ersk­ine-Smith, who be­gan cham­pi­oning elec­toral re­form even be­fore his party put it in its cam­paign plat­form, has ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment.

“To all Cana­di­ans who sup­port the prom­ise of re­form ... I am deeply sorry,’’ he wrote in a piece pub­lished Thurs­day by the Huff­in­g­ton Post.


Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­swers a ques­tion dur­ing Ques­tion Pe­riod in the House of Com­mons in Ot­tawa, Wed­nes­day.

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