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An international view on Trudeau's electoral reform mess


I had to watch Prime Minister Trudeau’s epic electoral reform meltdown from a distance over the past couple of weeks given my attendance at an international meeting of progressive policy leaders in South Africa. 

Being surrounded by politically attuned people from countries that have long used a proportional representation (PR) voting system provided some useful perspective on what Canada is currently going through.

To begin with, many of my international colleagues were startled to know that Canada doesn’t use a proportional representation system already.  Not a surprising reaction when you consider that more than half of countries in the world do so. In fact, the vast majority of full democracies use a form of PR, including countries to which we like to compare ourselves such as Germany, Sweden, and Australia.

Second, they were appalled to hear of Mr. Trudeau’s comments blaming the use of PR for increased political instability. I read his now infamous quotes linking PR to the rise of “fringe voices”, and his invocation of the possibility of “Kellie Leitch having her own political party” and holding the balance of power, to a few of my fellow conference-goers.

One person almost did a spit-take.  “Right-wing extremism is on the rise around the world, including in the United States. It has nothing to do with PR,” they said, pointing out that it was the flawed First Past the Post system (FPTP) in the United States that allowed Donald Trump to win without a majority of voter support: something that would not have happened under a PR system.

A recent study by Edelman makes the case that those economic conditions that lead to disenfranchisement and the consequent increase in mistrust and intolerance exist in Canada.  We’re deluding ourselves if we think a Trump-like, far right leader couldn’t rise to power in our country.

The fact that the electoral reform debate has been raging for over a year, and Mr. Trudeau has never advanced the “PR leads to extremism” argument before now, leads me to conclude that the Prime Minister is actually fully aware it lacks veracity.

So why is he playing this card now?  Why has he – after leading the country on a wild electoral reform goose chase for over a year – pulled the rug out so brutally from even his own Minister of Democratic Institutions?  The answer for his change of heart is, I think, clearly related to Kellie Leitch, but not in the way he admits.

The federal Liberals have calculated that the rise of the far-right is to be welcomed, rather than feared.

I’m not saying, of course, that Mr. Trudeau and his advisers agree with Kellie Leitch.  They’ve just decided that a post-Trump world, with the threatened rise of Mini-Me Trumps north of the border, is to their electoral advantage under the current FPTP system.

Having Conservatives who are as scary to progressive voters as possible has been a magical recipe for Liberal success for decades. For most Canadian progressives the hoary old Liberal “strategic voting” argument — “Vote for us to stop the Tories” – is actually a flaw in the electoral system that dictates people should vote Liberal because of what they fear as opposed to what they really want. For the Liberals, it’s been a winning argument both provincially and federally.  Think of how well it worked against Tim Hudak and John Tory as Ontario Progressive Conservative leaders with their ill-timed commitments to fire 100,000 civil servants and fund private religious schools with public dollars.

The FPTP system allows Justin Trudeau to run this play and win a strong majority government with considerably less than 50% of the vote.  A new PR system – with its emphasis on making every vote count and ensuring a party’s seat count in the House of Commons is proportionate to its popular vote across the country — would take away his ability to do so.

Mr. Trudeau’s electoral reform climb-down means Canadian voters should expect to see an orgy of “strategic voting” arguments from the Liberals in the next federal election such as we’ve never seen before.

Importantly, though, he’s having a difficult time selling his argument.  His moral authority on this issue has been eroded by a year of prevarication, and it was he and his Ministers who eloquently outlined the manifest downsides of the current system.  Once the door is opened, and people get a glimpse of a better way of doing things, it is difficult to close again.  The subject of electoral reform may not be the sexiest thing in the world but people recognize the expression of political self-interest when they see it.

My Liberal friends are fond of repeating that entitlement is, to the federal Liberal Party, what kryptonite is to Superman.  It must be avoided at all costs lest it maim or kill. That throbbing noise you hear is the green crystal’s negative electoral reform energy chewing away at the Big Red Machine’s body.

Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.