Nathan Cullen

Policy - - In This Issue - Nathan Cullen

The Train Wreck of Lib­eral Elec­toral Re­form

Les­son #1—Words mat­ter.

“We are com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that 2015 is the last fed­eral elec­tion con­ducted un­der first-past-the­p­ost.”

– 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 wit-

nesses 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 com- ing. 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 MyDemoc­racy.ca 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

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.

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 who brung them to the dance.

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.

Matt Jig­gins Flickr photo

NDP demo­cratic re­form critic Nathan Cullen is quite un­spar­ing in his crit­i­cism of Justin Trudeau and the Lib­er­als for their bro­ken prom­ises on elec­toral re­form.

The com­po­si­tion of the special House com­mit­tee on elec­toral re­form (ERRE), was along the lines of the 2015 elec­tion—five Lib­er­als, three Con­ser­va­tives, two NDPers, one Bloc and one Green.

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