Justin Trudeau on electoral reform: deception, cynicism, and misrepresentations
Photo by Andrej Ivanov
The year 2015 will be the last federal election under the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system. This was the promise Justin Trudeau made during the 2015 campaign, and which helped to rationalize his appeal to strategic voters looking to end forever the need to adopt an Anything But Conservative electoral gambit. It was a groundbreaking promise from the Liberal Party, which had until 2011 been perhaps the key historical beneficiary of FPTP. Sitting in third place, the Liberals took a page from the NDP and the Greens to make electoral reform (ER) a campaign issue.
But Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have abandoned this campaign plank, based on a cynical series of lies and misrepresentations of their own promise, along with what the actual effect of ER is.
One of the rationales for the broken promise was that there was a lack of consensus on ER. But this excuse is in discordance with the Liberal promise, which vowed a change regardless of consensus. And with majority control of the House of Commons, the party had nothing stopping them in parliamentary terms.
Beyond this, however, was that the consultation of Canadian citizens and experts on the question of ER offered a position that — within the context of modern politics — is as close to consensus as is possible. Leaving aside the deeply flawed MyDemocracy.ca survey, committee hearings and cross-country town halls demonstrated strong support for ER in general, and in a proportional system in particular.
‘Do you want Kellie Leitch to have her own party?’
Likely because the claim around consensus was so spurious, Trudeau’s next tactic was to claim that ER — especially of a proportional variety — could lead to the empowerment of the “Alt-Right.” Trudeau said that this caused him to reconsider the merits of reform, because he worried that — should Canada have a proportional system — a fringe party led by someone like Kellie Leitch would gain a foothold in parliament to spread their hateful ideology. In Trudeau’s own words: “Do you think that Kellie Leitch should have her own party? Because if you have a party that represents the fringe voices … or the periphery of our perspectives and they hold 10, 15, 20 seats in the House, they end up holding the balance of power.”
Whatever Trudeau’s claims, this argument is misguided at best, and deceitful at worst. First, Trudeau’s characterization of proportional systems as breeding grounds for the far-right could be avoided with minimum vote thresholds, which keep the absolute fringes out of Parliament. And beyond this, a fear of those parties holding the balance of power is overblown, because the largest parties could still work around a potential alt-right party holding a few dozen seats.
The biggest issue of all, however, is how Trudeau’s worries of a right-wing insurgency under proportional representation is far more likely to occur under the status quo. Again, in a proportional system, a party that gets 10 percent of the vote will end with roughly 10 percent of the seats, which will give them a voice, but rarely the votes needed to sway an issue on their own. We may well end up with parties espousing abhorrent views, but they can be easily outvoted.
But for all Trudeau’s hypothetical warnings of a “Kellie Leitch party” under PR, it could very well materialize over the coming months via FPTP. Indeed, many of the leading candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership hold the very same views that Trudeau feels are only possible under a new system. Kellie Leitch has often been a supporter of Trump’s policies that target Muslims, Kevin O’Leary wants to take away fundamental Charter rights from working Canadians and Maxime Bernier wants to attack public healthcare by “breaking the taboo around private sector involvement.” Beyond this, many members of the Conservative caucus are refusing to support a non-binding motion to condemn Islamophobia even as six Muslim men were killed in their Quebec City house of worship. Basically, the radical right isn’t just a bogeyman possible under PR.
And while the Conservatives could still win an election under PR, they would almost certainly be well short of the sort of majority government it takes to implement their most radical policies. But — and this is ironic given Trudeau’s remarks — the FPTP system is tailor-made to give a party like the CPC 100% of the power with less than 40% of the vote, just like it did for Trudeau.
Again: Kellie Leitch’s party already exists in this country, and our system is the only one that can give her absolute power with far less than a majority, or give Donald Trump the presidency even when losing by more than three million votes. When push comes to shove, there will be another day when the CPC — perhaps under the leadership of Leitch or O’Leary in 2019 — will win 38% of the vote, 55% of the seats and 100% of the power. And when that day comes, Canadians of a broad progressive mindset can blame Justin Trudeau’s Liberals for failing to implement a system that would forever end false majorities and minority rule by unrepresentative Conservative politicians.
It’s looking like FPTP will be in place in 2019, and you can bet Trudeau will again aim a strategic voting tactic at the broad NDP-LPC-Green constituency. Hopefully Canadians will remember this betrayal, call Mr. Trudeau’s bluff, and give power to a party that commits to make every vote count.
Christo Aivalis, a member of the CD web committee, is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and has been accepted for publication with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet and Rankandfile.ca. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.